She teaches us that poetry is not only is not equal to, but must speak out of extremity. And that in all extremity: AIDS, disaster, human disaster such as we’re seeing around us constantly — that silence, if it’s not death, it is defeat.
Hearing this, I burst inexplicably into tears. Silence, if it is not death, is defeat. What do I do? I work with words. I use them all the time. I make a little money at it writing stories with biblical themes. Books for children that receive reviews like, “sure to become a classic.” I do love those stories. But most of my real writing is poetry -- the rawest of it read only at gatherings of other poets who’ve seen some trench warfare of their own. Or it’s emails, sparked off by some egroup discussion that got me going. Or it goes into my journal.
“I’ll be the first to buy your journal when you publish it,” another author teased me when he signed his umpteenth novel for me at a conference several years ago. I’d told him I got up and journaled every morning. He doesn’t journal. He cuts to the chase and begins working on his novels immediately after his teeth are brushed. And the man is a marketing machine: novels, magazine work, reprints. I’d asked him how he did it and that was his answer. Write.
And write I do. But. I was listening to Jane Yolen at a conference one time (probably the same conference). She said, “You have to fall through the words and into the story,” and I immediately got what I’ve since identified as the “writers’ conference stomachache.” It was that longing to dive deeply enough into a piece of work that I can get lost there and forget everything: my kids, my friends, my responsibilities – and live just in that story for awhile. Yes, yes, I do this with the children’s stories. I struggle through them at two a.m. and meet the deadline (sort of). The check that comes in the mail afterwards pays for some groceries. The work arrives with illustrations and I say, “Yup, I’m still a writer.” But.
What would satisfy me? I’m not silent. I’m not. If anything I tell too much and then creep away to hide. Writing is about more than self-expression. It is a conversation, a link with the lonely world. Writing brings solace just as reading brings solace. Words leap from the mind to the page and then from the page to the mind of the reader and there is a bond. We hold each other in that moment.
My life is so full. It is loaded with children, teenagers, friends, my husband, my mother, dad, students, colleagues. I can never give them enough. The phone rings all day long. It is not ringing now because it is quarter to one and I’m here with a glass of pear cider unable to sleep. I love these people. I love them so much and I want to give them my time, my attention, my words. And I can’t always. Some days, some weeks, I hibernate. I don’t answer the phone at all. I don’t check my messages or my email. I hide in my house or in a coffee shop with my laptop. What am I thinking writing more words and inviting more people into my life who I cannot take care of?
And what am I being silent about? What will I NOT write about, except in my journal? Is my silence defeat? If I write the last year into poems or essays, would it make the frightening things stay? Words have that power, I’m afraid. That is, I’m afraid that they do. If someone asked me about this I would tell them, “Write! Write all of it!” But I’ve learned these last twelve months that you reach a saturation point in which you simply can’t think about the thing anymore. I used to probe people to get to their deeper pain, thinking that I was a kind of surgeon conducting the necessary lancing of a wound. Perhaps I helped them, but now I understand: some pain requires silence, at least for awhile.
The telling of the story can become a kind of act. You are a trained bear, balancing the ball on your head. The story is full of pathos, of intrigue, of confusion. It elicits comforting words from the listener. You become disconnected from it. Which is what you really want anyway. I’ve developed a story about the last year, and it goes like this: when you experience the things you’ve feared for so long, you discover that the fear was the real pain – the sleepless nights, the pit-of-the-stomach dread. The actual happening is almost a relief. And that’s true. And I’m awake tonight with my pear cider revisiting the unknown future. It is better than the fear, it really is. The pain is almost sweet. You know that you are real if you can lie awake and feel that ache.
Perhaps this is like birthing. I never knew, until I went through labor, how physically strong I was – what I could endure. Now I know. There is hope in all of it.