“Certain things fall silent in us when we think that certain things are no longer possible.” – Frank Bidart, Poet, and Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities & English, Wellesley College, at the Poets & Writers Live Conference, New York, June 2014
I attended the June Poets & Writers Live Conference at Scandinavia House in New York, at the end of which, before wine and appetizers in the garden terrace, Frank Bidart read a few of his poems and then participated in a short Q&A. Throughout the day I had been writing down “certain things” that individual writers said that resonated with me in an immediate, if not entirely processable and understandable way.
Bidart’s “Certain things fall silent in us when we think that certain things are no longer possible” was one of those “certain things.”
Bidart has lived a long life, and he spoke personally in the Q&A – about growing up in Bakersfield, CA, about his relationship with his mother, about the continuing importance of a feminist movement, about recognizing his sexual orientation at an early age, about becoming a poet – and I thought, listening to him, how vastly different the experience is between reading the poems, stories, essays or novels of our favorite writers, and having an opportunity to hear them read or speak in person, something I have always been drawn to, more than likely because I grew up surrounded by artists, whom I got to know as individual human beings, not merely as fine artists.
Each writer listening to Bidart’s words will naturally interpret them through their own prism. To me, Bidart was talking about how easily we can be affected by the outside world, how easy it is to be hurt, how easily our dreams and hopes and aspirations can slip through the cracks into a space in which we cannot see how it is possible to breathe life into them. His words struck me as being powerful, wise, sad, and cautionary all at once.
Although I would try to listen to the messages contained within the tangible works of art of the artists around whom I grew up, I also had the benefit of hearing the sounds of their voices, voices I can still hear when I look at the paintings they gave to my mother, some of which, thankfully, became mine when she died.
Paintings are not just oils, gouache, or watercolors on canvas or paper. Poems are not just words on blank space. A symphony is not just musical notes played on different instruments by different musicians.
Poetry, fiction, non-fiction, art, sculpture, photography…music…these are all different kinds of voices, which, perhaps, have the capacity to keep things from falling silent within us when we think they are no longer possible, or which, perhaps, can even keep the possibility of those certain things alive.
In the months that have passed since listening to Bidart read, during which time I have been recuperating from a serious injury, the phrase “Certain things fall silent in us when we think that certain things are no longer possible,” has taken on an entirely new meaning for me, as has how I have always defined music, art and writing…and what it means to have ‘a voice.”
The public words I put on paper have to some degree taken second (or third or fourth) chair to the loud voices within my body, many of them I would call almost musical – certain chings that are like strings, certain blares that I imagine to be like horns or a trombone, certain throbs that feel like drums and are almost tympanic in nature, certain quieter and more gentle feelings, like a single plucked note on a harp or a single whisper-like touching of two cymbals.
Although I have my own interpretation of what it means that “certain things fall silent in us when we think that certain things are no longer possible,” I am not sure that anything ever really does fall silent within us. Perhaps something is unexpressed in written or spoken form. Perhaps no notes can readily be put to it. Perhaps no words come to mind to describe something on its way to the Now Silent bin.
But even in that bin there are noises and voices calling to us…if we allow ourselves to hear them. This morning I woke up thinking about a telephone conversation I had with one of my mother’s artist friends when she was quite elderly. When I asked her how she was, she suddenly said that she still longed for the company of a man. Her husband had died long before I had met her, and she had spent the rest of her life single…painting profusely during all that time…yet single still.
Although I was not surprised at all by her confession, she seemed to think I would have been because she asked, “Surprised?” and then explained that old age only crystallizes one’s desires, it doesn’t obliterate them.
And the sounds within my own body? Shall I take up the piano? Learn to paint? Are they an assurance that I will walk again? Or perhaps a reminder to be still for a while longer?
I don’t know. But one thing is clear. They are not silent within me.
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