Diary Poem: Uses of Silence

1 February 2014

The great basso profundo Vladimir
Miller explained that the reason
Russia loves the bass voice is that
there are no musical instruments in Church
so that the profoundly resonant singer
holds the sound of the choir together.
When I mention this to Katharine,
she adds that one real cause
of the Russian shock at Pussy Riot
was that they played a guitar
in Church, and I remember
again that quote from Argentinian
Borges that one use of having written
under a dictatorship was his knack
at metaphor. When asked to write
this poem, one of the first
pictures I saw on the internet
was a bright primary monastery garden
in South America with the sign
‘Silencio’ prominent and no doubt
the sounds of a thousand bright
winged things all around it. Meditation
requires some subliminal noise.
Silence is never whole, as Hamlet,
declaring ‘the rest is silence’, perhaps
realised as he heard the military din
of Fortinbras arriving at the last.
And speaking of military din, the Government
has just declared silence, at least
on a weekly basis about arriving boats
of asylum seekers. Outcry ensued
and everyone on Christmas Island
said they would speak out whenever
any boats arrived. General Schwarzkopf in
the first U.S. Gulf War would explain
delay was the very best form
of censorship. Perhaps we should explore
if all silences are tactile with what
I’ve called ‘the violence of waiting’, first
when writing of Winnie Mandela, later
of things like Manus Island. Silence
is well-populated, whether as a choice
or as an imposition. In the Sixties,
pop songs protested silence as cancer,
saw it as lack of care. Chesterton
earlier saw it as virtue, but with limits, as
the ordinary people of England, who hadn’t
‘spoken yet’, but he seemed to hope
would speak if the time was right. That
of course was before many Coronation Street‘s
like boxes of human chocolates
and commercial football wistfully conceived
by Flash Harry as a military endeavour.
At football matches, the English often
observe minutes of silence for those
crowds who weren’t heard dying, some
crush or other, marked by silent
teddy bears and flowers. The silence
of teddy bears is overpowering, like
the silence of mouthless stuffed cat
dolls scattered from people’s houses
near Fukushima. Yeats wrote
‘we have nought for death but toys’, but
he meant playthings for a sick person, not
helpless soldiers at a quiet tomb,
where the winged light still plays strange. I am
wondering now if snow country quietness
isn’t full of pied eucalypts
breathing out air and what we hear
as a silent blanket is just how the ear
classifies that needed intrusive, hence
actually hearing the silence. I often
value my lack of audience (except
for you, of course) in that one
can speak freely in a poem because
no one will read it, which is like
being silent, but with almost none
of the corollary frustration. Prose
is self-conscious with inhibition. Hopkins
begged his ‘elected silence’ to speak
for him and explain his reasons
to him and his readers, but
like Nye Bevan who used to laugh, ‘That
is my truth, now tell me yours’,
without waiting much to listen, I doubt
Hopkins paused from writing, nor
should he have. The human always is
the best song for the divine. Bergman
used God’s silence as a subject
allowing for his best fine images
like manse as wilderness in the black
light from trees or the helicopter-
spider overwhelming distraught Karen.
Silence illustrates well. However,
the silence of Pussy Riot in prison –
even if politically well-planned – is
a problem as that provocative guitar
is as profound as all pleas for attention:
ipso facto innocent. They objected
to the Chuch hierarchy being state-appointed
mostly KGB like Putin, and
as in any Russian Church the human voice
was the first and last thing they heard. Putin
having silenced Chechnya, however, can
luxuriate loudly in peace, outwit
the silent-as-a-drone-in-air Obama
on all from Syria to Snowden. Russia
has profound snow forests of silence, versts
vast enough to exhale resurrection. I like
that Vladimir Miller was born
somewhere in Siberia, whose silence
has uses other than prison. Silence
is a silent stage for the alive, can
not exist except as metaphor.

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