The language of a pandemic is fraught. For many of us, it is burdened with both anxiety and utter exhaustion. These trying times, we say, Hope this finds you well. Be safe. When we first groped for the language to describe this new life, unprecedented was strikingly prevalent as we continued to proceed with an abundance of caution and keep our social distance. In the past months, many of us have spent so much time isolated that language—through text, audio, and video—has become our sole connection to the world.
Recently, I’ve asked myself, how, with all the time I’ve spent alone, have I yet to experience silence?
“Silence is one part of speech,” Camille Dungy writes in her sonnet “Language,” published in the anthology Black Nature and printed online at NPR here. Full of nature imagery, this poem flirts with Romanticism in both its sonnet form and its exquisite description of the natural landscape. In the ecosystem of Dungy’s poem, human and non-human meet. Here, “the aspens' bells conform / to the breeze” while the voice of a lover sounds “so close / it's your own tongue.” We are distant and nearby; we are immersed and yet separate. We are also overwhelmed with the soundscape of this wild place.
“Language” is a poem concerned with sound. Here, sage and pinyon speak distinctly. Wind is a “war cry” and a hawk’s screech is the key that “unlocks the throat of the sky.” Sound is the engine that powers each living part of this ecosystem, connecting each living being to the others. If sound is language, then I too feel connected to the world through sound.
Today, a thousand news outlets report what feels like a thousand never-ending disasters. My Facebook notifications blink and blink. I keep my cell phone on silent, lest it buzz every few minutes with texts from my mother and emails from friends, and, most recently, hurricane warnings. My university inbox overflows with messages about the upcoming semester. As both a student and an instructor, the messages come through two channels and I have to listen to twice as many concerns and praises for my dedication, inundated with the language of the virtual learning environment. I know I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed by these sounds of pandemic, by this rush of noise.
What would be left if we silenced this clamor? What would result if we attuned ourselves to silence, that essential part of speech which seems to have to disappeared sometime back in February?
The world turns. A sonnet turns. In the world of “Language,” with wind as her hand and water as her brush, Rock “spells and then scatters her demands.” This is line twelve, the sonnet’s volta, the twist before the final thought. Here, language rips and spreads: “some notes tear and pebble our paths. Some notes / gather: the bank we map our lives around.” Music notes become paper notes, torn and strewn across the landscape. The river’s bank becomes a word bank, full to the brim. Ultimately, language gathers into the building block of this ecosystem, of our lives.
But what holds language together? To answer this question, we must return to the poem’s first line: “Silence is one part of speech.” Between each segment of language, then, is the adhesive of quiet. Without silence, sound would rush together: garbled, overwhelming, impossible to understand. Perhaps as the summer fades into fall, we’ve reached the volta of this pandemic. Perhaps it’s time to turn from language, pivot from sound, and carve out a space for silence. What could be waiting for us there?
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at http://www.staceybalkun.com/