“I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word.” — Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman
The chance to live brief days with others who share not just a common language but Language—for these we travel to retreats, residencies, writers’ conferences, AWP, where the practice is near-devotional. When lucky, the break springs open a portal, removes the ordinary from ordinary life and allows something more, dare I say, transcendent to emerge. At least fresh, unexpected.
The last time I made this pilgrimage the unexpected things happened en route. They left me absorbed by thoughts of wordlessness.
I began on Bart to the San Francisco airport. At the transfer station a thin young woman hurried over, flitting her hand back and forth between escalators at opposite ends of the platform, frantic. I thought of an injured bird flapping a futile wing. Quickly I understood she was not an English speaker and rode with her up to the airport tram, circled my hand around and around to show how the train we just missed would arrive again soon. When we reached the International Terminal her body loosened and she gave me a thumbs up.
After I boarded my own plane a small man—old, old, someone who looked like he might have wandered here (as I later dreamed) from a distant and rural highland—stood in the aisle, unwilling to move. He handed me his boarding pass. I guessed he wanted me to point him to his seat: middle of Row 16. He took the seat, smiled up at me. As I continued down rows of passengers with ears wired up I wondered if he was perhaps unable to read.
The days at the writer’s conference saturated me with words, flushed human speech so steadily through me my head felt scooped out and I thought of him, a man shut out by writing.
The third incident: a disfigured man outside the airport showed me a message on his phone. I can’t speak—nerve damage—surgery. On the right side his face drooped like melted wax. He scribbled a price to drive me to my hotel. The entire way he wiped at saliva running down his jaw
Binging on language, I finished those days at the conference beyond full. Artful revealing and concealing of words. Panels of writers read their work and the work of writers they read. One wept, one sang, one left everyone else weeping. They took apart writing, took themselves apart. Words as deliverance and redemption: lucid pools of water in a desert landscape. By the end it was like splashing through a stream of fluid voices.
Each day as the multitude of writers milled around the convention center, blue-suited security guards stood in obscure corners, women in green pushed brooms. At the food court two middle-aged women levered slices of sagging pizza onto paper plates. Did anyone speak to them, except for assistance? Embedded in our midst was a parallel world, the visible invisible people. We, carried off by voice, were a long way gone from ones who have none.
Deafened by words perhaps. We partied on a cruise ship, oblivious to the tidewater along the shore, people who telegraph with their eyes, signal with shoulders, reach into someone’s nonverbal heart with frantic motions of hands. I began to fidget with this thought.
A fragile hierarchy had resurrected itself. Those whose use of language stuns us sit at the pinnacle. The rest are farther down. It’s a tenuous ordering of skill, success, the capacity to move with words, no one secure as degrees of fame and shame shift. If this hierarchy structures the multitude of conference goers, how then are inarticulate ones valued?
Ranking, that crude tool, that blunt weapon, innate perhaps, leaves us free not to bother with the others. It determines that what we see of them is greatly eclipsed. I began with a quote from a character in Rabih Alammedine’s An Unnecessary Woman. Aaliya, a woman unnecessary to the world, translates literature for herself only. She confesses: “I thought art would make me a better human being, but I also thought it would make me better than you.”
Art, through language, frees us momentarily from our place in the world. Sometimes it also undoes the rude conditioning of the mind and disabuses us about ranking, the fictions we construct. It opens the heart.
The writer’s discipline, the intense focus on words, creates a lens to refract language. A thin edge exists between discipline and narrowing of vision. I think of the eleven-year-old I drove to the skating rink every morning at six, thirty years ago. I was young too, had just moved to California, had no job, and her parents paid well. She was intent, possessed of spectacular discipline, practicing six hours a day—a hypnotic figure on the ice. The foolishness of adolescence held little allure for her. She’d won some championships. She imagined no life outside of competition. Of people who were not competitive and ambitious, she saw nothing.
What does the body know beyond language? If I were a foreign traveller, couldn’t read, if my tongue were damaged, I’d have to decide who to approach. I’d give everyone a close reading
Most of what takes place between people bypasses language. Neurologically, we are mind readers, capable of knowing each other from the inside out. Only a small bit of perception makes it into words. Possibly we even lose some capacity as we rely on words. Without speech, we attune to gesture and subtle movement, the flick of an eyelid, the curve of the mouth, the shape of the shoulders. People who navigate without words seem like the blind boy who learned to ride a bicycle by sending out clicks, hearing how they bounce off surfaces around him. Human sonar. People like that know things I don’t know.
In my deepest feelings I am inarticulate. In greatest extremity I am. There I rely on the way the unspoken is felt and read by another
If I were routinely invisible, how would I survive a world that didn’t talk to me? I would doubt my existence.
Words frustrate. I never exactly achieve what I aspire to. The nagging gap lingers. Inescapable inadequacy in language, even as it breeds new experiences. People who are rendered inarticulate strike fear in me. Words can be lost. Please spare me this fate. Fear is the stuff of injury and bias. Let me feel that I am not like them. Please, don’t let me be poor, voiceless, disenfranchised. Let the pitiable reside in others. Let my soul remain elevated, privileged. Do not show me the cost. To myself or others.
Strings of words haul us into the unexpected, repair the rifts and silences between people. The truth is—at the same moment—they erect walls. They bridge, they barricade. I signal class with language, and the pernicious ranking of age, race, gender, physical ability, all the inequities. The iniquities. Three incidents in one short trip, a brief karmic lesson one could say. In any case I can’t seem to stop contemplating how language keeps people apart.
Fear of what could happen, who we are if not immune to danger—the failings, the wounds we see in others—a stream of dread runs beneath all bias. As if we won’t, can’t, be like the alarming others, as if we too are not impaired, broken.
Words are fetish objects. Fetish, from the Latin facere to make, signifies a) an object believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner and b) an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion. Fetish objects bypass fear. My self is adhered to words, made up by words. Words empower me, enable me. To think of being without language is terrifying. Though perhaps in time it might be merely dizzying. Dizzied, as I feel my way through unknown places. Where would the ordinary go then?
I practice meditation too, almost a counter-practice. The difficult thing there is to release the mind from thought. To not compose, analyze, imagine. To be without meaning for brief moments.
Thought requires language, though there is also the “unthought known,” as psychoanalyst and writer Christopher Bollas names it (using words), what we know but cannot put into words. Inchoate knowledge—possibly also terrifying. Is this close to the groundlessness of Buddhism? I can’t say, but for me words are ground. I easily imagine a sense of groundlessness, good or bad, holy or unholy, without them. Looking down that road dismays me, feels dangerous.
Buddhism uses koans, words put together to disrupt ordinary meaning, to trick the conscious mind past its usual limits. The donkey looks into the well, the well looks into the donkey. We look at others, see their articulate/inarticulate selves. They see us. “It is a two-way traffic/the language of the unsaid,” Anne Carson writes in The Glass Essay.
What did the man on the plane see when he looked at me? I want to know what he saw.
The cruise ship of writers docks at their shore, the workers observe. I chatted briefly with one of the blue-suited guards, an exceptionally tall man, exceptionally polite, with hands on his hips as he surveyed the expanse of bodies scurrying by. He sympathized, chuckled with me over the crazy layout of the building.
From his perspective perhaps the mob of writers at the conference looked less like a boatload of tourists than an ant farm, poor ants disturbed every hour and a half, fleeing in all directions for ten minutes then settling back into place. I don’t know what he saw or thought. That wasn’t our subject. I think of Philip Bromberg, another psychoanalyst, who writes about dissociation, the things we don’t know that we don’t know. Encounters between people can amount to “a collision of realities.” They can lack any channel of communication.
The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount are also koan-like: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven... Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Heaven and earth. One can’t help but think—really? Really hard to understand this, but it hints at how we are deluded. Consider the opposite: blighted are the obliviously privileged for they shall be poor in spirit.
If the articulate ones listen to the inarticulate, as well as the opposite, what does the dialogue offer? A larger one, our universal woundedness more fully recognized.
No cure for desiring words. If we are drunkards, we want to be drunk as often as possible. Intoxication frees. It releases us to say what we couldn’t/wouldn’t otherwise say, to feel more than we might otherwise. It dulls. Gain, loss. Drunk, we’re at risk. Immersed in a dream, a waking dream.
We dream as we speak, as we cook, stand guard, sweep the floor. We dream as we write. Essential and unstoppable, dreams. Equally compelling is the possibility to realize we are dreaming. This life, a waking dream. Shakespeare said so. Buddhism says so. We can know the dream even as we desire to keep dreaming.
I came home with a book of dystopian poems, stunning enough to read twice through. A troublesome book, it disturbed me and thrilled me, its language sweet enough to sleep with. Then came the dreams of the sleeping mind, deeply unsettling.
Dreams, mostly wordless, wholly graphic, like psychic holography—what we apprehend in dreams seems more complexly dimensional, more real. Images beyond words. Everyone dreams, the articulate and the inarticulate. A democracy of the night, everyone endowed, everyone baffled.
Wordless, dreams overlap poetry, go so far away from words they close an ineffable circle. They are all about compression, are at ease with the surreal, take dazzling associative leaps. Their images move us, disrupt us with elusive and shifting meanings. Our nonverbal world comes into tenuous awareness. The dreaming mind seems to know things we don’t know we know. Yet we inhabit them naturally, without much need for language.
The language of poetry meets dreams in that moment when it uses image to escape the limits of words. A moment that moves us beyond personal aphasia. Its paradox: it lets us go wordless, allows us to glimpse our common groundlessness.
Beverly Burch’s fiction and poetry have appeared in New England Review, North American Review, Antioch Review, Willow Springs, Southern Humanities Review and Poetry Northwest. Her second poetry collection, How A Mirage Works, won the Sixteen Rivers Press competition and was a finalist for the Audre Lorde Award. Her first, Sweet to Burn, won the Gival Poetry Prize and a Lambda Literary Award. She is a psychotherapist in Berkeley.