by Caridad Svich
I want to tell you something about being in the wilderness because everyone always says how quiet it is, and may even say how peaceful it seems, but I can tell you that neither is true. There’s always sound even through the aperture of silence; there’s also a rumbling kind of chaos at play in the seeming peace.
I came to the wilderness without knowing why.
Let’s say it found me. Or better put: let’s say the work created its own wilderness.
The work is the work of writing, but it is also the work, quite simply put, of being alive on this planet, wearing itself scarce by our own rapacity. In broken times such as these, writing takes on a charged meaning. Every word, every sentence positions itself against the narrow constraints of neoliberal economic power.
Which words will I use today when so many are mis-used and abused, not only at the level of government and authority but also in the more random and ubiquitous virtual spaces of Facebook and twitter (to name two)?
I find it astonishing how easy hate speech comes to us in the roaring silence of cyberspace communication. IN ALL CAPS. IN OUTRAGE. IN FREE N EASY HATE wielded with the bluntness of a baton accompanied by the brazen audacity of entitlement. Words that in human to human conversation might be uttered in whispers or in drunken shouts are regularly volleyed across the virtual net with callous and wilful disregard. Such NOISE with which to contend it begs the question – why write at all?
My words are not mine. They belong to the greater universe of language, in this case, English, as I write here, but in other cases, when I am dreaming or talking to my parents and extended family, in Spanish. The words I choose create their own music on the page – the ready canvas for imagination’s play. But between these words are other words and sounds that some call subtext but really are an undertone – the bass line of writing, the one that ignites the spark to put this word next to that one and try to create a sense of order in the difficult mess we often make of communication.
I wonder about this undertone when the freewheeling cacophony/pornography of hate speech is wielded equally by those on the left, right and so-called center of the political spectrum. Who are we when we become NOISE? Who are we when we admit silence?
A friend of mine likes to go to confession. She is a lapsed Catholic but although she rarely goes to Mass, confession is something in which she takes solace. I once asked her, as a lapsed Catholic myself, if absolution was what she craved. But she said ‘no.’ It wasn’t the dutiful act of saying seven Hail Mary’s and two Our Father’s as potential penance for her menial sins that she looked forward to, but rather the act of confessing itself – old school-style – in a confessional box with only a shuttered grill between herself and the priest in officio.
The shared privacy of that space made her feel safe because she knew that others had just confessed their sins there too. How could this confessional box hold all these sins?
“The air must be thick there,” I say.
“No,” she replies, “it is light. That’s what I love about it. It feels as light as air itself.”
“And silent, too, then?”
“Yes,” she says, “silent as the rain.”
My friend is something of a poet. But she doesn’t call herself that. She says poetry belongs to others who have read many, many more books and know a thing or two about the world. I tell her that poetry belongs to all of us, and that one of the things that most distresses me about so much of the contemporary Western world in which I live – although I like to think I live in the whole world sometimes – is how insidious a mindfuck it is that a great many elementary and secondary school curriculums and the test-based and enrolment-driven corporate ethos of higher education have made poetry the domain of the academy and, therefore, only for those that can afford it.
Yes, the spoken word movement has brought poetry back into the hands and mouths and ears and bodies of “the people” (who are ALL of us) but not a day goes by in classrooms where I teach or visit without hearing students claim that poetry is not for them and that it is of no use to them either. I take the latter to mean of “economic” use.
What function does poetry serve in its rendered silence on the page?
What indeed is its usefulness in societies that value a materialist existence above all?
In 2008, Jeanette Winterson remarked in her essay Shafts of Sunlight how a tough world needs a language that can meet it, and I would add transcend it, and how an attention to the properties and beauties of oral and written speech acts that go beyond merely quotidian expressions can perhaps make us strive for more progressive societies and more tolerant co-existence with one another and our slowly dying planet.
“In dead worlds, we will dance,” my friend says.
To which I reply: “Why not try to dance now? With all of the abandonment and joy and restlessness and ache and wonder we can muster?”
It is perhaps sentimental to think about transcendence in this day and age where speech is corroded and virtual and material noise overwhelms us to the point where silence itself – its beautiful illusion – seems like a lost register from a time long passed.
“Well, we can always go to the woods,” she says with an odd smile.
I think she’s being ironic, but I’m not sure.
“The woods” has become synonymous in our circles with “escape”.
Picture a field, oak trees in bloom, sunset waning on a late spring day.
But this image of the so-called “woods” is a fallacy at best. We all know that nature rustles and heaves and is rarely steady. It is in constant evolution, however microscopic. The woods are always in turmoil. It is not for nothing that they are often situated as the sites of struggle in fairy tales and other stories where lessons need to be learned.
“Ah, yes, but at least they’re quiet,” she says as she walks away, furtively running her fingers down the length of her well-used handbag.
There is a language too for this quiet.
In the waning nocturnal hours in which I tend to write, as I am writing now, quiet envelops me like a second skin. The hateful ALL CAPS chatter on the recent twitter feed fades into the background, as I imagine new worlds into being. These worlds sometimes have characters and sometimes just have voices, but always a terrain – an earth hardened by the harsh lessons of history – that responds to the call of the ancients and the dead. I have taken to calling this terrain a kind of wilderness, although I don’t mean it the way it sounds. Rather I am thinking of the concept of being wild, and how staying true to a powerful sense of wildness is a form of resistance to value systems that do their damn best to deny and refuse poetry in everyday life.
When I write, the quiet can feel like a lover and sometimes like a stranger and sometimes like an old friend that takes me by the hand and whispers old songs in my ear – songs usually from adolescence – the time when songs matter in ALL CAPS and matter, like, to the death, so much so that friendship and love could be broken overnight and for ever by a mere dispute over a song or a band or a singer.
On nights like this I think of Bowie swaying his hips. The come-hither smile, the intelligent wink, the knowing look that seemed to say: “I am performing, always performing and you will be my wilderness.” I think too of girl bands and boy bands and bands that played with constructs of being girls and boys and how Patti Smith belted her version of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” as if her very life depended on it.
My quiet is full of music and images and stories overheard in my parents’ living room over Spanish-language television programs that were always too loud and too intense and too “over the top” for my taste, although I secretly loved them.
It took me a long time to confess this. And I admit that I seek no absolution. My confession comes without penance, save the one of knowing that at one time I could not reconcile the co-existence of Bowie and Patti and all the beautiful freaks that showed me what being wild could be with the kind of wildness that blared on Spanish-language TV and radio.
You see, I had a fear of melodrama. It is a common fear. Especially in societies riddled with reality TV soap operas and post-Jerry Springer-like news and chat shows where the best “tell-all” becomes the prized commodity in the ratings game. Come to think of it, the tawdry spectacle of lower-case melodrama, also known as “pulp”, has taken center stage in the US’s highest political office and its resoundingly tinny halls of power. It is no surprise, then, that a fear of melodrama is common and indeed an aversion to it signals what I like to call “good taste aura”.
But the current spectacular melodrama to which I refer is not quite the same as the one that played in the aural and televisual background of my childhood. This one was often in variants of Spanish, Castilian, Puerto Rican, Cuban and Mexican, and it was intoned in old films from the golden age of Latin American cinema as well as the less golden days of home-grown and imported Latinx TV variety and game shows. This melodrama, as I wriggled my nose at it disdainfully, was full of emotion – overt, sometimes extreme, and too, too full of itself in a way that seemed inappropriate, as if emotion were indeed cheap and easy. I resented the ease of this kind of articulated expressivity and I wanted nothing to do with it. Give me Bowie’s cool sexual heat and Patti’s burned-up fervor any time over the languid, ripe boleros and fervent flamenco-inflected pop ballads signalling their anguished, studied maneuvers from the flickering bands of the TV screen.
But lately, in the quiet, in this quiet of the writing dark, when the wilderness is part solace and part isolation, and part something I cannot recognize, I miss the studied anguish of those Spanish-language songs as much as I miss Bowie and Patti’s youthful, punkish daring because, well,
yes, it was all performance,
and yes, no one had a claim on authenticity,
and yes, I miss that it didn’t fucking matter how you wore your wildness and owned it, as long as you did,
and did it because the silence in your heart and the silence too of exile and the uneasy silences around queerness in form, expression and self were demanding another kind of silence from you – one that asked you as a citizen on this earth to keep silent and refuse the epic, the mythic, the unnervingly poetic in your life in favor of something else… something that seemed like the best kind of quiet ever but was really a vacant geography of being.
Long ago I heard a story about how if you found yourself in the wilderness, perhaps a kind of freedom could overtake you. Because no one was looking at what you were making and how you were making it and how unruly it could be. And perhaps being unseen or un-noticed would allow you to do things you never thought were possible.
In times of wilful, vocal and demonstrative acts of resistance, I wonder about the paradox of performing, shall we say, against performance. One spectacle to another. And how maybe embracing a form of quiet, a certain kind of stillness, full, open, yearning, alert, and unafraid may yield new ways of seeing, making and being in the world.
I think about how in the US we are still trying to figure out how to mourn the dead from 11 September 2001 and how the decision by President Bush and his cohorts to invade Iraq left this broken country no time for grieving. The rush to war paralyzed our senses and maybe even our sensibility (to use the word in its old-fashioned meaning), and even though it is now 17 years later, that still point of grief remains unexamined.
My friend says “the woods will save us”, if we go there for a while. I think the woods are in us and we just have to listen.