By Andrea Bates
“Ineffable” is one of my favorite words. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, if you believe (as I do) that poets should be able to write about those things that are typically difficult to express. These last few weeks there has been no sound of my fountain pen scratching paper or my fingers furiously clicking over the keyboard. I have succumbed to overwhelm. Global calamities and personal sadness intertwine: Tsunami. Nuclear disaster. Ill health of a loved one. War. A friend whose voice I miss hearing. More war. Radioactive particles in the jet stream. Bone-crushing fatigue. Meltdown.
A few days after the disaster in Japan, two thoughts would not leave me: the memory of one of my former writing students, Tim, and lines from a Marianne Moore poem.
Six years ago, spring semester, Tim was the tall, quiet kid who sat in the back of my freshman composition class. Composed and polite, he paid attention, but he never took notes and he never spoke. He simply listened, attentively, nodding on occasion or resting his chin in his hands. A few weeks into the semester, he had still not said a word to anyone. I tried to draw him out, asking what he was going to write about for his descriptive essay. “Japan,” he said. I mentioned that the entire country of Japan might be a bit too much for a 500 word essay and asked how he planned to narrow it down. “I don’t want to be rude,” he said, looking right into my eyes, “but I try not to speak unless it is absolutely necessary.” He said this so matter of factly, without the slightest hint of playing or getting over. If someone had told me that Tim was going to take vows as a Buddhist monk, I would have believed it. He was that earnest, that forthright, that sensitive. I could see it in his eyes, the ineffable, the thing he could not express, the thing he would not express.
Tim’s first essay was a warm up for what was to come. It was, as I feared, too general in its descriptions of the Japanese countryside, the food, the language. It read like a travelogue that anyone could have written, and I told him so. “You are mysteriously absent from this essay, Tim,” I said, putting the paper on his desk. “Your story of Japan is still untold.” Tim’s response was silence, a slight furrowed brow, a long gaze at the essay he held in his hands. “Don’t be generic,” I continued. “Be yourself. Tell your story.”
Some stories, as we know, are harder to tell than others. I am not sure how difficult it was for Tim to write the next essay, a narrative. I do know it was one of the most emotionally moving experiences I’ve ever had in reading a student paper. Tim’s father, a Marine, had been stationed in Okinawa and as a dependent, Tim went to Japan, too. He told the story of meeting a girl there, of falling in love, of pledges made, of kisses bestowed, of day after day spent together. And then a year after he had fallen in love for the first time, his father got orders to return to the U.S. Tim wrote of holding his beloved in his arms the last night they were together on the beach, how her hair smelled, how clearly the stars shone in the sky, how they both couldn’t stop crying, how the next day he threw up as he and his father were leaving, how he didn’t eat for a week, how he decided that the only thing he could do was hold on to who he was and how he felt when he was with her. The only way he knew how to do this was to conserve his very essence, his life force, by not speaking. Tim, in response to his personal disaster, took a vow of silence.
I was quiet after reading Tim’s essay – stunned by the profound sentiment felt by one so young and so wise. Tim’s silence was the way he felt he could best honor what and whom he had so deeply cherished. A product of shock and grief at losing his first love, his silence was also his choice – it was his way to pay homage to all that he had become, all he still wanted to be, all that being in love and losing love had given him.
How wise it is to sometimes be silent in the midst of disaster. How wise it is to take it all in and save the words for later. Marianne Moore agrees: “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence/not in silence, but restraint.” How wise it is to enter the moment, to truly feel its power, even when that power can be emotionally devastating. From this, eventually, the poems will come, no matter how hard the story is to tell.