Don’t listen to the words—11-13
They’re only little shapes for what you’re saying,
They’re only cups if you’re thirsty, you aren’t thirsty.
Words held in the small shape of themselves, expressing what is said without language, shaped within a skin formed of silence. Words that with each sound harken us back to the primordial silence from which we came, a sound remembered, but never heard. Words, no more than cups, objects that contain what and who we are, can satisfy or not, can help when you need and when you don’t. Thus writes the poet Jean Valentine in the poem “As with rosy steps the morn” from her collection Break the Glass (Copper Canyon Press, 2010.) Art allows us to find our primacy as human beings. Poetry exposes what is primordial within each of us, the unexpressed, deepest self. As humans, we always try to make sense of language, no matter where in the world we stand, no matter which music-box language comes in; even Babel is a place to listen because in each word in any language is the expressed silence, the part of words that speaks to our deepest, unknown selves. It doesn’t matter what language a poet writes in, his “real medium… is silence….To inflect the inner silence, to give it body….We use the voice to make silence more present.” (The Sun Online)
And so we who read poems are truly pilgrims of silence. As Valentine states in her essay “What Remains Unseen,” poems “seem to come out of silence, to exist in the midst of silence, and go toward silence-” (72) Poems reveal what is silent in each of us.
Poets talk about silence both within and outside of their own work where they wield silence both implicitly and explicitly. “The silence that strips bare” (Rich, “Cartographies” 46) But what is this silence? In her book of essays, On Lies, Secrets and Silence, the silence Adrienne Rich refers to is the silence of keeping quiet; of not speaking out for justice and political change when such speaking out is warranted: “In a world where language and naming are power, silence is oppression, is violence.” (Rich, Lies 204) Is silence a sanctuary or an absence of language? Is it the em-dash, the rest in music, the caesura, the pause? Where do we find silence, in the line breaks or the white space on the page? Is silence found in the liminality a poet brings to a poem, the light filtering through stained glass windows, the reverence or does silence enter only when words fail? “Poetry shapes the silence like a cathedral shapes empty space, making us aware of it and making it perceptible to us; poetry shapes language around great arches of silence so we can hear it and stand in awe.” (Evans 1) Silence appears in the temporal—the silence in eternity, (MacKendrick 10) beyond the poem’s language and beyond even the human condition. “God’s only language is silence.” (Ali “Silence and Breath”)
Is silence in the fragments or is silence in the whole? Is it the dog’s whistle, a sound human ears can’t register or, in actuality, that sound that no one has ever heard? Does the silence breathe in the spaces in poems where our own disconnect becomes most evident, in our relationships, our confusions, in the dichotomy of certain metaphors; in what reveals human complexity in all of its nuances: silence to express our deepest questions? Silence in the certainty of death?
It is in all of these. “Silence comes before speech and it comes after it; words are sensible only because a silence surrounds each one, separating it from the others.” (Evans 1) Despite these wide and unwieldy definitions, the question remains how a poet invites silence, how it is used within the poem and why, when silence is present, the poem resonates.
Though some poems are “noisier” than others, silence can be located in most poems. The didactic voice never works in poetry. There are certain poets, however, who write specifically from silence and in whose work silence is an expressed aspect of their voice. The purpose of this paper is not only to recognize and define the allure of silence found in poems, but to examine silence within the poetry of three poets, poets who are not adverse to the metaphysical, the transcendental, the complicated, nuanced or even to the mystical, who allow their poems to contain cracks where the silence can swim through and float to the surface. Two of these poets are contemporary: Ocean Vuong, who is fairly new to the poetry world and whose first collection was published to great critical acclaim, and Jean Valentine, who, with over a dozen published collections of poems and many awards herself, is a poet well known because of the special silent quality of her poems. But we begin with a poet who many contemporary poets credit with influence over their work, Emily Dickinson (1830-1885), recluse and prolific poet, one of the greatest voices in American poetry, and master of silence.
Language is the poet’s tool in trade and therefore it is language that is used to uncover silence. Silence then becomes the medium, in which art is formed within its own negative space. The poet seeks that inner space through the medium of silence. It is the constant reach into the interior to find depth and expansiveness.
Yet language always has its limits, as what has been defined in words forever exists within the static state of its definition. And no music survives in the poetry fashioned from the didactic or even the over-said; poetry rarely is good when formed in absolutes. In her essay “Disruption, Hesitation and Silence” poet Louise Glück criticizes the long poems and long lines, the conclusiveness in the poems of her contemporaries. Perhaps this is a reaction to the confessional “tell all” poems, which constituted so much poetry of the time, but Glück asks why can’t poems be liminal? Though she acknowledges that poems can’t be formed completely out of the echoing silence, Glück recognizes that the implied, the suggestive, and “the unsaid exert great power” (Glück 378) She regrets the necessity of words and their vanity and wants a language capable of existing in the cracks, in the ellipsis. “All earthly experience is partial. Not simply because it is subjective, but because that which we do not know of the universe, of mortality, is so much more vast that that which we do know.” (Glück 379)
And the fact still remains that no matter how coherent and thorough we try to be in our saying, something is always missing. “That within even the most articulate speaking there murmurs the loss of meaning, the coming of the absence which is silence.” (MacKendrick 4)
But I prefer to take my thoughts on silence just a bit further, beyond what is on the page. I believe it is silence that allows sound to happen. Like the white space on a canvas, like the field where a house will be built, silence encompasses each sound, forms around it like a shell, a perfectly-sized vessel holding the sound in its moment of resonance. And so resonance is found not in the sounds themselves, but in the spaces between sound and meaning where the silences hit up against each other. It is within that resonance that we interpret silence. In each space and crack in the language, silence from within can rise to the surface and enter us, the reader.
The German philosopher and a seminal thinker Martin Heidegger theorist on philosophical hermeneutics, who did work on poetics, wrote that “the drawing of desire is across the space of absence of words across the space of silence.” (Lang 9) Heidegger’s belief was that silence allows sound to happen, silence encourages sound and when sound occurs, the ineffable is realized. Heidegger continues, “the earth appears as itself only when it is perceived and preserved as that by which is, by its nature undiscloseable, that which shrinks from every disclosure and constantly keeps itself closed up.” (Smith 17) The ineffable in our world: the misunderstood and the variable within humanity. “There is no Silence in the Earth—so silent/ As that endured” (Dickinson, J 1004)
Silence, still, is slippery. It shares a double elusiveness with language, for in order for one to exist the other must be destroyed. After all, silence is broken as soon as the word is stated. The French intellectual and literary figure of the twentieth century, Georges Albert Maurice Victor Bataille wrote, “the abolition of sound which the word is; among all words it is the most perverse, or the most poetic: is the token of its own death.” (Bataille 16) The most difficult task of poetry is to create a language that not only makes room for, but recognizes its own absences. In his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo, St. Augustine, an early North African Christian, theologian and philosopher, who lived in the 4th century BCE, wrote, “language can redeem as well as destroy. It redeems when the word itself speaks in the silence of our words.” (MacKendrick 3) The question then becomes, how does one find the “silence inside the words?” Which words call to the silence? And if silence is beyond the containment of words, do they cancel each other? Or is sound, words themselves with their music and meaning, each held in its white space of silence? “Every birth breaks an original silence.” (MacKendrick 7) Silence then contains two distinct and contradictory functions in poetry: it can be the conditions and even the goal of poetic language or it can be its limiting border, and it is often both. (Evans 2)
The poet Emily Dickinson used silence as large part of her medium. Many modern poets point to her poems as examples of silence, and from her we learn much the nature of poetic silence. Many have written about her life of silence as a recluse, about the silence found in her grammatical use of em dashes in her poems, those long pauses that allow the previous word or image to resonate much in the way a symphony fills a concert hall with silence in the moment the last note fades and just before the applause begins, that pregnant moment of resonant silence. However, the poet Li Young Lee goes deeper and recognizes that beyond the em dash, Dickinson gave us “the silence that surrounds a really resonate image.” (Alierio) He goes on to say that the resonating, profound image offered to the reader “creates a kind of spaciousness in the reader’s heart and mind.” (Alierio) An image so resonant it cuts off the chatter inside your mind, like the rung bell, the quiet after the bell has finished vibrating is quieter than the quiet before the bell. The language that pulls the mind further toward the interior and further toward the quiet inside the mind. “Look at the birds.” Writes Lee,
Even flyingLee 41
out of nothing. The first sky
is inside you, open
at either end of day.
The work of wings
Was always freedom, fastening
one heart to every falling thing.
In his poem, “One Heart” Lee has offered us such an image, not just birds flying, but flight within the juxtaposition of the resonating image: the silence of birds flying out of nothing, but a nothing comes right after “born” and right before “first.” The short lines open into longer lines, as the new chance offered in the bird’s wings opens into “freedom,” where falling leads to the unified heart. “This embrace of silence…has three distinct dimensions: the inspirational, the linguistic, and the metaphysical.” (Agee 86)
Dickinson historically has taken on the attributes of an almost mythical character: a breathing ghost, a woman who had “never left her room,” had only worn white, and yet who had written about every subject under the sun; whose poems were available testaments, still alive for us, poems about passion, travel, subjects a housebound woman would never have known about. Such genius is so rare as to seem almost unreal. Dickinson’s poems today, 180 years after her birth, still remain as stimulating and mysterious as they were after they were discovered in her room upon her death. It is this mystery that drives hundreds of literature scholars and historians as well as laymen to study her life wherein she wrote approximately 1,800 distinct poems within 2,357 poem drafts and at least 1,150 letters and prose fragments, a total of 3,507 pieces before her death at the age of fifty-five. (Bervin 2) The biographical fascination with Dickinson’s work is based on her unusual lifestyle, but her reputation as one of the greatest American poets is due in large part to the silences found throughout her life and her work. As Sharon Cameron explains in her introduction to Choosing/Not Choosing, “to look at the history of Dickinson criticism is to see that what is memorialized are her ellipses, her canceled connections.” (Cameron 3)
Looking through the huge collection of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson we can see that throughout Dickinson’s life her writing style rarely varied. It didn’t “mature” into other styles, as is the usual progression during a poet’s life. The structure of her poems usually followed a four line stanza structure with a hymn-like meter: 4 beats, 3 beats, 4 beats, 3 beats with a single rhyme sound linking lines 2 and 4. (Vendler 5) There were, of course occasional variations (such as a 3-3-4-3 pattern,) but what stands out within the unified hymn-meter is that Dickinson’s ingenious and meaningful variations of rhythm and syntax are even more noticeable. Dickinson’s dashes took her outside normal grammatical correctness and allowed her to leave the common phrasing, leaving room for the unspoken and the undecided. The metrical structure then becomes a greater cohesive force in her poems as her condensed and varied syntax permits multiple meanings. Many of her poems resist an easy reading and the absence of titles only adds to the sense that her poems sidestep language even as they revel in it. Dickinson’s poems are best known for what is not said, not explicitly stated; she was a poet of silence.
The dichotomy of saying and silence is evident in Dickinson’s poetry. Adrienne Rich dubbed her as “Vesuvius at home:” a domesticated volcano, a woman of incredible imagination, but who experienced the society of her time, the “nineteenth century corseting of women’s bodies, choices, and sexuality—could spell insanity to a woman of genius.” (Rich, Lies 163) Dickinson redirected her “unorthodox, subversive, sometimes ‘volcanic’ propensities into a dialect called metaphor” (Rich, Lies 161) But still the poet asks herself if writing poems is worth it, to step out of the “norm,”
To dwell — delicious — on —J 505
And wonder how the fingers feel
Whose rare — celestial — stir —
Evokes so sweet a torment —
Such sumptuous — Despair —
This stanza, holds so much silence, even as the words are filled with velocity: “delicious,” “fingers feel,” “torment” and sonic pleasure: the s’s, the f’s throughout and the eyes rhymes. Yes, the em dashes slow the stanza, creating almost asides, not exactly fragments, but it is the dichotomy, the juxtaposition of such opposites as “sumptuous—Despair” the three s’s in the last line, the capitalized “Despair.” When taken together, these cause the stanza to vibrate with silence.
What amazes us over and over as we read Dickinson’s poems is how alive they are on the page, how unembarrassed, how concise, how animated. She exhorts us, “Tell the Truth—but tell it Slant” (J 1229) —not the thing, but pieces of the thing, a reflection of the real found in the place of pressure inside us, the pressure of the secret, the pressure of concealment. (Rich, Lies 162) “Her authority as a poet depends on the assumption that language, in her hands, can be revelatory, but she authorizes her experiences as particularly intense by claiming that they transcend human language.” (Evans 67)
There is a pain—so utter—J 599
It swallows substance up—
Then covers the Abyss with Trance—
So Memory can step
As one within a Swoon—
Goes safely—where an open eye—
Would drop him—Bone by Bone.
Dickinson lived a provincial life in the nineteenth century, knowing nothing of black holes or an expanding universe. At the writing of this poem, dated by Johnson as c. 1862, (Johnson 295) Sigmund Freud was a small boy somewhere in the Czech Republic. Before neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and biochemists studied how the brain responds to trauma and deep distress, Dickinson understood the dissociation caused by trauma. In a rare enjambment, “So Memory can step/ Around—across—upon it— ” she reveals the fugue state of traumatic shock and its aftermath. “Bone by Bone” this poem is offered in fragments. What the poet is saying almost can’t be said, can’t be revealed—but must.
And it is within those fragments of thought, offered again in a panoply of music (those s’s and a’s) that the pieces of the poem float while our minds try to fit them together, that the silence of our unknown selves, the silence beyond rational thought, can swim up to the surface. How intense the experience of the poet’s pain then becomes for us, the readers, how complicated with our own pain, both physical and emotional.
Dickinson wrote a number of poems using the image of the volcano: a silent mountain quiet from the outside, like a woman in nineteenth century society, while within boils the roiling heat that can consume, burn, and destroy.
A still—Volcano—Life—J 601
That flickered in the night—
When it was dark enough to do
Without erasing sight—
A quiet—Earthquake Style—
Too subtle to suspect
By natures this side Naples—
The North cannot detect
The lips that never lie—
Whose hissing Corals part—and shut—
And Cities—ooze away—
This image contains the perfect metaphoric and symbolic image of the brilliant woman stuck in a house, in a society where she could never be herself, but is still on fire inside. The dialectical relationship between concealment/ostentation, inner/outer self, intensity/reticence which structure the poem are clearly presented in the chain of oxymora that begin each stanza of this poem. This poem is more fragmented than others we have looked at here. The pieces of language are broken in many places into one to two words before the next em dash creating an un-whole where wholeness is only implied. The dichotomous language, “still—Volcano,” “quiet—Earthquake,” “Solemn—Torrid—Symbol—,” the lack of connective language between the words and the parataxis of thoughts and experience call our minds to that nuance of opposites where silence resides. All intervening syntax is lost and the silence rises to the surface to fill the gaps, so instead of dead air or nothingness, we get a resonant, transcendental experience.
In the third stanza we have reference to the poet herself:
The lips that never lie—
Whose hissing Corals part—and shut—
These lips reveal the verbal power of the poet. They might be the lips of a voiced eruption–a speech that deals with the human experience—the possible blistering potential of a woman’s truth articulated only on the page because uncensored feminine expression is dangerous to the self and to society.
Throughout her poetry, Dickinson explores how to create meaning through the breakdown of linear thought, (Duncan 46) a destabilization that elides all syntactic connection and relies instead on pure nomination. As a woman writing from “a confined space in which the genius of the nineteenth century female mind in America moved, inventing a language more varied, more compressed, more dense with implications, more complex of syntax, than any American poetic language to date” (Duncan 46)
Silence is expressed in Dickinson’s poems in the gaps, in the juxtapositions, through details of color, size, temperature, through the lyric, the music of her poems. Silence is found in her duality, not nuance, but actually a marriage of contrasts within the images themselves. Silence is the heart of her poetic impulse where the unspoken and the unsaid are the actual subjects in the poems, because silence is the ultimate reality.
Silence is all we dread.J 1251
There’s Ransom in a Voice—
But Silence is Infinity.
Himself have not a face.
As stated previously, Dickinson’s influence in the American canon is enormous, especially with poets who are writing from their own silent space. This influence relies on her ability to dislocate and displace every aspect of human life. One poet who not only invites silence into his poems, but harnesses many of the various forms of silence we see in the Dickinson’s poetry, is acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong.
Vuong, winner of the 2016 Whiting award, was born in Vietnam in 1988 and immigrated to the United States at the age of two. His family set up home in Hartford CT, where his relatives made a living in a small nail salon. The sole child at home with five adults, Vuong was raised on the songs and stories of his ancestry while he was simultaneously encouraged to become the first literate member of the family. The result is a poet of wonderful depth and complication. Michiko Kakutani in her review in The New York Times of Vuong’s first full length collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), writes that Vuong, “posses the tensile precision reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s work.”
Written from Vuong’s experience as an immigrant and as a gay man, his poems tell the story not only of his family’s Vietnamese history, an immigrant history, but also of a boy’s first sexual awakenings and his relationship with a chaotic, violent, yet almost mythical father. In Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Vuong utilizes multiple forms while carrying language and image recurring from poem to poem, not to be repetitive, but rather to hold up each to a light, turning each 360 degrees to watch how the light changes as it refracts through each image, which is, of course, our human experience. Even within the same poem, the repeated image and language changes as we are carried through the poem. He juxtaposes violence and grace, delicacy even in the face of raw sexuality and hope hand in hand with death. The energy and resonance of these poems exists inside these juxtapositions, as Vuong never gives us any one sense or feeling without offering us, at the same time, its opposite. Meanwhile, poem after poem is suffused with silence.
In the poem “Aubade with Burning City” silence is found even as Saigon burns. During the evacuation of Saigon, the Armed Forces Radio played Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” as a signal to American civilians and Vietnamese refugees to leave. Using motifs of color, music, of snow and of war, of sound and of silence, we enter this historical moment. Vuong harkens so much quiet and grace into a poem about war, we can almost feel it snowing in Saigon. He weaves the poem in and out of Berlin’s lyrics, so we get momentary images, like flashes of a camera on various scenes. “Milkflower petals in the street” is our first hint of white, of grace. It is also where the first hint of snow on the streets of Saigon begins. The grace continues, “like pieces of a girl’s dress” straight into the first line of song, “may your days be merry and bright.”
The brightness is reflected in champagne poured into a teacup (white, bone) and man who tells a woman to “open.” And “she opens” the poem tells us. Who are these two-he a misogynist, she under his spell? We don’t know, but a menacing element has entered the poem. And so it continues, white becomes black (“a black dog/ lies panting in the road”) becomes red (“snow shredded/ with gunfire. Red sky”), each color weaving in and out, a few mentions of military (a soldier, an upholstered gun, a military truck filled with shrieking children, “tanks rolling over city walls.”) Meanwhile the continued crooning of a Christmas tune operates in direct contradiction to what is happening in the poem.
And the silence. Where do we see it? Certainly in the pacing, which is slow and methodical. We see it in the specific images, richly detailed, each increasingly violent, ramping up the terror in the poem just a bit more than the one before. The poem contains a few ellipsis’, mostly at the breaks in the lines from the song and fragments where lines of poetry join to the lines of the song:
The song moving through the city like a widow.
A white…A white…I’m dreaming of a curtain of snow
falling from her shoulders.
But it is the simple weaving of the song into the poem, a song we culturally associate with the simplest and most innocent of times, Christmas morning, a song we have heard often crooned in the rich tenor of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin that is so resonant. It is a song rich in the American culture of its fantasy about itself as safe, wealthy, family oriented and white. This is in direct contrast to the violent images, so well woven, increasing in intensity relentlessly moves forward until we return to the couple drinking champagne. He is the only other voice in the poem beside the Irving Berlin song, his words also italicized, and it is revealed that he is the vicious voice of the conqueror
The hotel rocks
beneath them. The bed’s a field of ice.
Don’t worry, he says, as the first shell flashes
their faces, my brothers have won the war
The lights go out.
The silence sits there, between the ellipsis and the power outage. Vuong pushes hard on the silence into the end of the poem. We return to the song, “I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming…” and then the most violent image in the poem, a black and white and red image of a nun on fire running, “silently toward her god—” The poem ends with a return to the original image from the beginning of the poem, an image of force, of the power of the conqueror, the weakness of the conquered. After all that has come before, and rising out of the silence, this image has gained in impact:
Open, he says.
Vuong is masterful at negotiating the powerful and the powerless in his poems and creating sympathy for those without agency. In a poem that appears later in the collection, “Seventh Circle of the Earth,” there is an epigraph from The Dallas Voice reporting on the story of a gay couple immolated in their home when it is set ablaze. We then have a great open swath of blank page, pierced by numbers, which appear to be footnote markers, floating like dust motes in the dead air of an empty page, like the explanations of the unspeakable. At the bottom of each of the two pages of the poem, in the normal location of footnotes, Vuong writes short lines of poetry, broken by slashes instead of line breaks. Each line is no more than a few words long. Each is full of the physical details of the love and home this couple might have shared, and in each the concrete physical evaporates like smoke into the ineffable.
The footnotes begin, “1. As if my finger,/ tracing your collarbone/ behind closed doors,/ was enough/ to erase myself.” Not a question, but a statement. A life erased. But how much more this fact reverberates when formed within human touch. Here this couple goes from domestic bliss to become the “sparrows who flew from falling Rome,” their wings ablaze, a song in their throats until “smoke rising/ from your nostrils. Speak—/ until your voice is nothing” Over and over, the tangible becomes spark and smoke and nothingness until the couple becomes “laughter ashed;” until the couple become lost in their own lost life, forgotten—relegated to footnotes.
In this poem Vuong most resembles Dickinson, the violent contrasting to the quiet, short lines filled with em dashes, gerunds, numbering, specific language, both naming and yet harkening back to its own silent beginnings, and the eventual death of things. “When they come/ to sift through these cinders—& pluck my tongue, / this fisted rose,/ charcoaled & choked/ from your gone” The word “mouth,” the end of that sentence, appears within the next footnote, not just cut from the previous line by a stanza break, but hidden behind another, separate footnote number. A wide space, stretched like a mouth, open to silence. The language of “fisted rose” so like Dickinson’s dichotomous language of still volcanoes. And the silence, silence evoked again and again.
Another poet whose work is steeped in silence is Jean Valentine. In fact, I think some of her poems, especially the poems in her chapbook, Lucy, which we will examine here, may come closest to Louise Glück’s ideal: a poem created completely of the unsaid. Adrienne Rich wrote of Jean Valentine’s work, “Looking into a Jean Valentine poem is like looking into a lake” something both reflective, yet deep, clear and still full. (Valentine, Break-back cover blurb)
Chicago born, Jean Valentine earned her BA from Radcliffe College. She is the author of over a dozen collections of poetry and has won many awards including The Yale Younger Poet Award, The Guggenheim Award and The Bolligen Prize. Her lyric poems delve into all aspects of human life with glimpses of the personal and political. Throughout her work, the reader is grounded in real, lived-in space with real, alive characters. Her poems are created in “poetic language, that which is said in a poem, is especially valuable or attractive inasmuch as it expresses the pull of the unsaid and points toward silences.” (Ali, Valentine 5)
Valentine’s poems are small on the page, often no more than ten lines long, but they are not small in the way they expand us. “Valentine’s work… the act of refusal that is, in fact, an opening, a deep receptivity. Thus Valentine’s quiet minimalism is a way to prepare for, to make space for, a greater, more maximal, engagement.” (Carr, Valentine 224)
Many of the poems follow a pattern. First she invites us into a poem: time, space and character all well defined; our reader’s feet are firmly planted in the poem. For instance, in the poem “Earth and the Librarian” from Valentine’s thirteenth collection of poems, Break the Glass (Copper Canyon, 2010.)
At the library25
she passed a tray with little
We begin the poem in certainty, in a concrete time and space: a library, a woman, a tray of treats. This beginning brings us into the velocity of everyday life. We have entered a story and expect it to continue at speed. We jump on the vehicle of Valentine’s poem and let it carry us along. Wonder enters in in the third line:
books of baked earth on it—
a tray of “little books of baked earth” and we have left our safe space. The em dash works to open the wonder around us. The poem then moves into speech:
and eat it;
it is sweet,
and it is given for you.
We are still in the poem here. After all, when one passes treats, one would murmur words of encouragement to take, to eat, even “books made of earth,” which is such an expansive image when we stop to contemplate it. And with encouragement to “eat,” that is exactly what we do, we think about it. What is a “book of baked earth”? Are these books of history? Of geology? Of human essence, the atoms from which we come? We have no way of knowing, but the questions themselves come at us hard and fast, despite the quiet, fragmented nature of the poem. Just as we again find our footing within the expanding and expansive image, Valentine pulls us off our feet in a series of fragments
—Who lives in me?
These fragments, surrounded by more dashes, still contain continued speech and we ask ourselves, who is now talking, still the librarian? These quick and sever switches throw us completely out of the vehicle of our thoughts and fly us into silent space. Its as if we were traveling along and came to a series of switchbacks in the road, the brakes are deployed and we are in a silence that rises like dust or fog and surrounds us. The sudden stop and switch and switch are more powerful than just a slow plodding into silence. This is the power of Valentine’s work.
Take note of the similarities to Dickinson. Yes, the em dashes and how they are deployed, to slow, to open sound into space. But also how the poem works itself in its short, fragmented lines. And the question, “—Who lives in me?” How often have we encountered such open and deep rhetorical questions in Dickinson’s work?
The poem hovers, not only beginning in media res, but also ending the same, with no conclusion or resolution. Out of silence and back to silence. In fact, as soon as the end of the poem nears, the switchback of fragments allow us to hover, refusing to let us go. These poems don’t “speak to themselves;” they resist the neat bow that signifies completion. The poem “seems to exist before the poet, without the poet, perhaps even despite the poet, who follows blind the string that is the poem” (Ali, Valentine 8)
Many poems in Break the Glass follow this pattern, nature, humans, the interaction between the two offered in person, place, story and then fragmented switches, one more beautiful than the last. The silence has taken us in unexpected directions, and carries us instead to a late opening, petals pulled back to reveal a heart so unexpected and beautiful, we are stopped in our tracks. The stop calls to the silence, the quiet place where all action ceases, where the air is pregnant and we remain still, barely breathing, infused with stillness. Silence resides there, at the end of every poem, led by the poet to the place where language can’t go. “Wonder rather than statement” (Valentine, God 72) That is until the end of Breaking the Glass, where we encounter an entire chapbook of poems called, Lucy.
If the silence in the poem is that place that hearkens us to our deepest unknown selves, then Lucy is the poem that Glück was looking for: the poem written in complete silence. Fragments of bone open a world to fragments of thought, of longing, and of need that forms the sequence, Lucy.
“Lucy” is the common name of AL 288-1, several hundred pieces of bone fossils representing 40 percent of the skeleton of a female of the hominine species dated to about 3.2 million years ago. Lucy was discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia and is also known as Dinkinesh, which means “you are beautiful” in the Amharic language. (Wikipedia) Valentine was at the McDowell Colony when she read a small article about the discovery of Lucy in Africa. There was a small photo, a rendition of how Lucy might have looked. Valentine then went to sleep and upon waking, she found herself in an ecstatic state, where she wrote for thirty-six hours straight (Valentine, God 76) and the seventeen poems that form Lucy were born.
Lucy reads like one long poem, cut into fragments. In it the voice of the poem speaks with an other-worldly figure, the persona of Lucy. This persona takes on many aspects through the collection: poet, mother, sister, friend, bridge between this world and the next, as well as a God-like figure. (Bland, Valentine 215) The poems in Lucy are formed of few lines on a page, with long, stubbornly enjambed sentences shaped with irregular punctuation and end stops. There is a lot of white space. Meanwhile, there is no table of contents and few titles to the poems. Throughout, the reader is never allowed to feel comfortable in any safe pattern, and must depend on the moments when sense rises to the surface. Phrases are repeated like waves, or like a mother’s voice. The poetry is arranged in the smallest fragments, not collage, nor as a puzzle with simply missing pieces. The fragments of bones have given way to poem fragments that define the word ephemera.
your secret book
that you leaned over and wrote just in dirt—
Not having to have an ending
Not having to last
Lucy—a woman “writing in the dirt;” finding a voice from the deepest past, an ancient woman who might have written on the ground, on trees, on leaves, or bark. Stories lost to the natural devastation of time and the life cycle. A woman not meant to have had a lasting voice, nor an enduring presence. Yet Lucy remained, hidden under rock in a remote desert. In the em dash and the gerunds, Valentine offers us an echo into the beyond.
The poet then goes on to relate Lucy’s lost book (of poems?) to other echoing books: The Book of Psalms, where she quotes psalm 139:16, a line of poetry that refers to God’s Book of Life where all men are recorded. Valentine strangely leaves off the beginning of line 16, which reads, “עיניך ואר גלמי” or “My unformed substance Your eyes did see.” (Metsudah 276-6) This Biblical reference pulls us into the realm of eternity.
Metaphysical development transforms into a magical reality as we have Lucy’s imagined self brought to life. The third poem begins, “Two hands/ were all you owned.” But Lucy has no hands, no corporeal structure. Still, the poem goes on,
Now you own none, Lucy
nor no words
The music of this quiet lament of loss, those soft “o’s” that signal a round world and the life cycle itself, and how it all culminates in the evoked name, “Lucy;” the closeness and intimacy of this naming. “Sound and sense, so sensually close…do push against each other.., but push meaning in the poem back and forth between them…here they dissolve or blur into one another.” (Ali, Breaking 8)
We now enter an inversion in the poem, like the gathering of the stillness between two palms, the lost palms of this ancient woman; a mirror image, the poet’s voice looking at herself in the face of Lucy and Lucy looking out from the abyss, back to the poet. “Nor no words” The poet calls to silence in order to invoke the power of its echo.
Valentine moves us back and forth in time, between the voice and the personality of Lucy and there is only silence all around and in the poem. The page ends in one of Valentine’s non-sequiturs: “Your eyeholes.” Eyeholes where there are none, eyes to bring us back in time three million years and forward, eyes to see all from beyond and in this world: “holes, whole, holy.” (Bland 216)
Many images are repeated throughout the sequence: wildflowers, spiders, hands, eyes, various animals who can “see” Lucy, and many voices: Rilke, Chekhov and William Carlos Williams, “Lucy/ my saxifrage that splits the rocks” (64) This line is a quote from Williams’ poem, “A Sort Of A Song” about a flower that can crack stone. Lucy’s bones were found preserved in rock; a woman of nature, but stronger than nature. This line also hearkens another two of Valentine’s favorite poets: Mandelstam in poem #394 Voronezh. 4 May 1937 “Flowers are deathless” and Celan from his poem, “Corona,” “It is time the stone made an effort to flower.”
Is Lucy a woman or an angel of death? Or perhaps she is the mirror to the world beyond, the other side of the life-divide from where she manages not only the already dead, but also the living, those who can see her. “My head is at your window, Lucy, at your glass.” (76) And, in a timeless way, where tenses no longer matter, it is to this handless personality that the poet offers the cradling of her own lost child:
When my scraped-out child died Lucy65
You hold her all the time
Lucy’s “faceless presence is a repository for Valentine’s grief.” (Bland 215)
I can’t tell cold from heat.70
Not even dust.
Here is Lucy’s porous identity, neither individual nor identifiable, but universal. Woman from the other side of the divide, the connection to the beyond, ready to keep the poet’s nightmares in her handless hands. “Lucy is the earth; we as genomic possibilities, are inside her womb, in the marrow of her bones.” (Bland 215)
But you are my skeleton mother,76
I bring you
coffee in your cemetery bed.
Lucy is about longing: for the mother, for the lost child, the friend, resurrection, the self who came before, the poet silenced for the 10 years she couldn’t write. Lucy is the seed containing universes.
How did you pray, Lucy?75
You were prayer.
When writing came back to me
I prayed with lipstick
on the windshield
as I drove.
And for the poet, Lucy is an avowal that life’s energy exists in everything, everywhere, even those places where, like Lucy, the “skeleton/ standing about, like a wildflower…” remain unseen to the human eye.
I feel the atoms77
in this old oak table,
in the eight-pointed double-star spider,
and in the starry rippling all around us.
Valentine, in the last stanza of this long and exquisite sequence, borrows heavily from Dickinson, and could have been written by Dickinson herself.
Skeleton Woman, Guardian, Death Woman, Lucy,77
Here, a picnic, corn bread, here, an orange
with Martin and me at the lip of the Earth Surface World
The fragments, the capitalized words, the specificity, the images that combust as they butt up against each other and then open and expand to encompass the a wide open expase—it all hearkens to not only the ghost of Lucy and others from the poem, but to Dickinson herself, who we can easily imagine at the picnic.
Lucy, too, is a poem of affirmation, but Valentine describes with diamantine minimalism the losses to that mysterious void at the door and the stress-fractures of her belief before voicing the ultimate “I can.” Which in the language of Lucy, is Lucy” (Bland 218) Not the absence of sound, but the absence of language. The silence in Valentine’s poems creates an active experience, as we are awakened to what is beyond language into a future of possibilities beyond the corporeal. Every word in this sequence of poems carries us back to silence. Not one image, not one word reaches for a conclusion. No completion, no discovery, but the never concluded job of seeking, of vibrating inside the resonant image. “Poem as process, not product.” (Bland 122) The poem captured but not held, a butterfly alighting on a shoulder, water gathered in our hands, the glimpse of light through cracks in a wall like a porous ghost who moves through us and on.
Silence makes Valentine’s poems an active experience since we are awakened to what is beyond language, words that hearken to their own multiple meanings, words that open to a future that recall an impossibly long past, and the possibilities that exist beyond the physical. “Not to strain to see, but merely to wait for our eyes to adjust” (Evans 8) Valentine’s poems don’t end in some flourished finish. Instead the end of the poems is where silence is most acutely felt, in their sharp turns, their surprising directions, so beautiful and unexpected, that we are thrilled in an echo of reverberating silence, motionless inside these fragments, barely breathing and infused in grace.
We read poetry when it’s not enough just to think, not enough just to feel, but when our inner selves call out for attention. In poetry we can connect to that deepest self, the unknown self; we can see ourselves as Valentine saw Lucy, “I rush outdoors into the air you are” (65) as a glimpse through fog, or perhaps as a whiff of inner-self floating by on the breeze. This is what poetry offers the reader and it is offered from within a poem’s silent spaces. We have observed techniques that these poets have used to open the crack in the door of silence to us: the dashes, the ellipsis’, the short and often fragmented lines, but it also clear that the addition of a few dashes and line breaks isn’t enough to welcome silence into one’s work. Silence ultimately is the receptiveness, the questioning, the reverence that a poet brings to the page when she sits down to write. In the words of Adrienne Rich,
If there were poetry where this could happenRich, “Cartographies” 50-56
not as blank spaces or as words
stretched like a skin over meanings
but as silence falls in the end
of a night through which two people
have talked till dawn
Silence exists alone in a room in Amherst, Massachusetts, or exposed in a stretch of desert, in the McDowell Colony visited by a three million year old ghost, or at a kitchen table in Hartford, Connecticut, drowning in the music of ancestors long dead; anywhere you are: listen for silence. Beyond your own solitude are the sounds of the world around you: the rush of traffic, the distant laughter of children. Alone in the desert, the wind rushes by, the birds singing, each in his own voice, the rustle of sand. Listen for silence and experience the sounds of your own body, the plow of your breath, the rhythm of your heart, the churn of your own digestion. Silence is the language of our own mystery.
The responsibility of the poem is a resonance beyond itself and that each line, each word and utterance, even each sound will add to that echo, the ability to conjure human experience within the vibrating vessel of silence, “toward silence….as the substance of writing, not its limit.” (Evans 3) Meaning is made whole through the music of each word, formed and held each in its individual vessel where sense can resonate, amplified within its own vibration: this pressure, this synergy, this energy within the marriage of music and meaning where poetry is found.
Agee, Chris. “Poetic Silence.” Poetry Ireland Review 40. Winter,1993/1994. p. 86-89
Ali, Kazim. Introduction. Jean Valentine This-World Company. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2012. pp.1-9.
Alierio, Carolyn. “An Interview With Li Young Lee.” The Site of Big Shoulders: arts Chicago style. May 10, 2005.
Ali, Kazim. Introduction. Break the Glass. Port Towsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2010.
Ali, Kazim and Akbar, Kaveh. “Silence and Breath: Kaveh Akbar and Kazim Ali” http://aaww.org/silence-and-breath-kaveh-akbar-and-kazim-ali
Bataille, George. Inner Experience. tr. By Leslie Anne Boldt. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1988
Bervin, Jen. “Studies in Scale.” Poetry Magazine. November 1, 2013. https://www.poetryfoundation.ord/poetrymagazine/articles/70065/studies-inscale.
Bland, Celia. “Secret Book Written in the Dirt: Jean Valentine’s Lucy: A Poem.” Jean Valentine This-World Company. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012. pp. 214-222.
Cameron, Sharon. Choosing/Not Choosing. Chicago, Illinois: U of Chicago Press, 1992.
Carr, Julie. “On Saying No: Valentine and Dickinson Break the Glass” Jean Valentine This-World Company. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2012. pp. 223-232.
Celan, Paul. “Corona” Poems of Paul Celan. Tr. Michael Hamburger. New York, New York: Persea Books, 1972.
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown & Co, 1951.
Duncan, Paul. Li Young Lee: A Post Modern Poet Travels Back to Transcendentalism. Masters Thesis. Georgetown University https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/bitstream/handle/10822/558357/Duncan_georgetown_0076M_12072.pdf;sequence=1
Evans, Meghan L. “Sounding Silence: American Women’s Experimental Poetics.” Dissertation, University of Oregon, 2012.
Glück, Louise. “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. Ed. Dana Gioia, David Mason, and Meg Shoerke. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2004. 378-85.
Lang, Berel. Heidegger’s Silence. London, UK: The Athlone Press, 1996.
Lee, Li Young. “One Heart.” Book of My Nights. Rochester, New York: BOA Editions, 2001. p. 41.
MacKendrick, Karmen. Immemorial Silence. Albany, New York: State of New York Press, 2001.
Mandelstam, Osip, “To the empty earth” #394.Voronezh. 4 May 1937. Tr. Jean Valentine and Anne Frydman. http://www.jeanvalentine.com/poems/394.html.
Michiko Kakutani “Review: ‘Night Sky With Exit Wounds,’ Verses From Ocean Vuong” New York Times Online. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/10/books/review-night-sky-with-exit-wounds-verses-from-ocean-vuong.html
Rich, Adrienne. On Lies, Secrets and Silence. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1979.
Rich, Adrienne. “Cartographies of Silence.” The Dream of a Common Language. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1978. 16-20.
Smith, David Nowell. Sounding/ Silence Martin Heidegger at the Limits of Poetics. New York, New York: Fordam University Press, 2013.
Valentine, Jean. “What Remains Unseen.” A God In the House. Ed. Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, 2012. 67-78.
Valentine, Jean. Break the Glass. Port Towsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2010.
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson, Selected Poems and Commentaries. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Vuong, Ocean. Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Port Towsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2016.
The Metsudah Tehillim. Monsey, New York, Eastern Book Press, 2005.
Kaminsky & Towler “The Saint, The Murderer, All of It” The Sun. August 2005. https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/356/the-saint-the-murderer-all-of-it
Wikipedia. “Lucy (Australopithecus.)” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucy_(Australopithecus)
“Then Abraham” (13-14) Break the Glass p. 16.
Li Young Lee quoted here by Meghan Evans, who heard him read at the Western Washington University in 2003.
 “I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary” (Glück 378)