Speak, Joy: Say the Words

By | 3 February 2024

I am a working poet. I spend my days in search and celebration of words, a series of sounds I can weld, if I’m lucky, into insights about being human, and I confess it has never been harder to do so. I have a newborn son, I am a newborn father, and despite a decade of practice at crafting language into literature, this child, so small and insistent and terrifying and beautiful and language-less, has in only a few months shown me how useless, how entirely unnecessary words are for that most important and derided endeavour: love. This is a word, an emotion, a foundational way of living, utterly essential for survival, and yet by invoking it, I’ve erred already – there are few things taken less seriously, or more likely to provoke an eye roll, scoff or sneer, particularly in the realm of writing, which for all that it is deemed effeminate, is nonetheless strangled by a masculine manner and aesthetic1. There is an unspoken understanding that one shouldn’t ever be sentimental – meaning literally ‘prompted by feelings’ – and that good prose is ‘muscular’, good writing is ‘brutal’, a ‘gut punch’, a violence. I should know. My own work is often praised with these descriptors, and it’s true, I am geared toward pain, toward sorrow, toward a primal force that makes loss bearable, if that is at all possible, though I would never describe my writing as a violence in the same way that I could never plant a sentence about a flower and hope to see a bud in the soil come spring.

I am a working poet. By this I mean that poetry, or the creation of literature, is my occupation, but I also live, always, under Philip Levine’s jurisdiction, which means that ‘to work’ is to love, not anonymously or subconsciously, but directly and purposefully, those who are in our lives – to hold them, maybe kiss their cheek, to say the words.2 In the months leading up to the birth of my son, I read poems and books to my wife’s swollen belly, to a captive audience of one, and in the months after, I continued to do so because all the advice for parents suggests this will aid your baby’s development, speed up their eventual use of words. He is seven months old and has not said a word, which is fine – I’ve seen him wake, seen his eyes open, flick toward me, a smile bursting wide, and there is no more glorious a feeling, no more serene a sensation than the sure knowledge that love is moving through our bodies such, that without moving, we are still touching. I’m telling you this out of fear, because in these same months I was diagnosed with autism; because I have struggled to speak all my life; because my father’s mother, Yurdanur, had a stroke which paralysed her mouth, and stole her speech. A decade ago, my mother’s mum had dementia, losing language and reality at once – of the two, I find the former loss is crueller, because Yurdanur was still there, behind her eyes, hearing and seeing, but unable to move her lips, even to smile. I hold her hands when I visit. It is all we have.

I’m working to understand silence, the strangeness of words, how impossible it feels sometimes to use them. Feels, not is, because I have an autistic niece who is non-verbal, because Yurdanur cannot speak – yet the feeling often becomes reality. Rivers of silence thrive in my life: sisters who do not speak to their brothers or to each other, uncles who ignore their nephews or vice versa, friends who let go of friendships, parents unreconciled with children, and in each instance, on either side of quiet, these people would say, ‘Never’, when asked if they could speak to the other. I swim in several of these rivers. As a boy in love with books, I could go the entire day and night without saying a single word, and yet never have felt silent, not with all the voices in my head, the constant conversation. I’m coming to terms with the fact that my silence unnerved the people in my life, that it wasn’t the books or the way they signify an intellect or class or aspiration to such, as I assumed, but the quiet itself. They were always making noise and I was always retreating from it. I’m coming to terms with the million instances I was called aloof or arrogant or disinterested, a bad conversationalist, because I didn’t speak enough or understand the right social cues. I am thirty-three years old, and I have a word, autism, now painted on my tongue – I can write it, but I find it hard to say the words, which has been true all my life.

I am a poet, which means I have a thousand fragments in my Notes app that reach for profundity like, ‘Language is the means by which our souls can meet outside our bodies’, a nice thought that isn’t true. When I consider my failures to respond to conversations, to speak at all, I’m overwhelmed by the sensation of distance, a vastness behind my eyes that is exhausting to cross. Would you run a marathon for small talk? I have, not as much as I’d like, but still more often than I can count. Sometimes my wife urges me to talk to our baby more, and I look at her in surprise, because whatever words I have managed were significant to me, and because I meet my son outside our bodies all the time without saying anything. I have only to think of my wife to feel her inside me. The phrase ‘love language’ is ironic, given love transcends our ability to compose words, be it vocally, textually, or physically. Love surrounds us, and it does not, as Ursula K Le Guinn once said, ‘have to be made’3, it can but does not need to be a verb, it is not transactive in nature, it is in fact not natural at all but the province of the divine, and therefore eternal. My son does not need to do a thing or say a word in order for me to love him, nor is there an action that he can take which could undo my love for him, which is astounding to the point of terror, because it reveals the lie of rationality, it demonstrates that I’m vulnerable to him and will always be so, which, if I were a lesser person, would no doubt prove fertile ground for insecurity and resentment. My responsibility as a parent is to ensure that doesn’t occur, and that requires a clarity first and foremost grounded in language; having used vulnerable earlier, the words that immediately followed all invoked violence, ‘he will always have a blade to my throat’, I wrote, then deleted. Let me say instead I’m open to him, and must remain so.

  1. As I began, I knew this essay would be in blocks, but not why. Is it an unconscious block-ish bloke-ish attempt to frame the softest feeling in a hard, outer shell?
  2. A reference to, and paraphrasing of, the poem, ‘What Work Is’ (1991), by Philip Levine
  3. ‘Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.’ (Le Guin, in The Lathe of Heaven.) I adore this line, to be clear, and think it applies wonderfully to relationships, which are indeed mundane, and require daily care.
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