Poetry is made up of words and sounds.
A poem has a voice.
A poem can say anything.
Once, a cord was tied around my throat and tightened. At the time, my brain wasn’t quite right, but my thinking was oddly clear. I wondered if I’d be able to feel my capillaries rupture or sense my hyoid bone’s snap. I remembered breathing just a moment before and then I couldn’t and maybe wouldn’t ever again. I closed my eyes.
When the cord was loosened, I could breathe, but I was afraid to speak. I was afraid it would hurt or maybe I’d lost my voice forever. When I woke up the next morning, I did speak because I could speak. But there are some things I never said aloud again.
When I was growing up, the only people I knew who didn’t talk were people who also didn’t hear.
Yet there are many people who don’t speak and there are many reasons they can’t. Damage to the brain can cause aphasia, the inability to understand or express speech; damage to the body can cause aphonia, the loss of voice. Some children take longer to talk, and some never learn to communicate in the usual ways. Other children only speak in certain circumstances; this used to be called elective mutism, but is now called selective mutism as elective implied it was an act of willfulness, whereas it now appears related to severe anxiety.
Hysterical muteness is sometimes used to refer to a person who doesn’t speak after trauma. The term first appeared in medical literature in the late nineteenth century. It was used to describe soldiers’ silence after returning from battle, but it still shows up in other places, including online discussions of characters in films, books, and soap operas.
When I was growing up, the term for people who didn’t talk was dumb.
Teenagers are supposed to feel like no one in the world has ever known their pain. I make that statement with the luxury of age and experience. When I was young, though, I knew—I mean, knew in the very heart of my heart—that no one would ever understand me. Which is why I didn’t bother explaining. Instead, I’d lie on the grass and look up at the night sky, a reminder that the Earth was round and no one could know all the people who’d ever lived on it. I was no more important than any of the now dead or still living. I would not know their lives, and they would not know mine. There was a sameness in our difference. It was the way of the world. It kept my mouth shut.
At this point in my life, James Baldwin had already said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” Anne Sexton had already written “Her Kind,” which opens with:
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light: lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
I read the poem in high school. And then I knew I, too, was her kind, and maybe there were others as well. I was and was not alone.
This is one power of poetry.
I have had many experiences in my life that you’ve not had. I understand things you do not. Yet, the same is true of me and you and you and you.
For example, I have never been to war. I do not know that fear, that focus, or guilt. I have never returned from battle.
But when I read poetry, I become the I in Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Nude Interrogation.” I quiver at the questions “Did you kill anyone over there? . . . Did you use an M-16, a handgrenade, a bayonet, or your own two strong hands, both thumbs pressed against that little bird in the throat?” and I know the truth that’s coming: “Yes, I say. I was scared of the silence. The night was too big. And afterwards, I couldn’t stop looking at the sky.”
I have also never lost a newborn baby. Yet, I gasp and weep with the grieving parents in James Reiss’s “The Breathers”:
Late that night you hear them
in the nursery, the breathers.
Their tiny lungs go in and out like the air
bladder on an oxygen tank
or the rhythm of sex.
Asleep, your arms shoot towards that target
with a stretch that lifts you like a zombie,
wakes you to the deafening breathers.
These poets give me the gift of those experiences. When I read their poems, I can feel what the speakers feel. But I am also able to close the book; I stay safe from their pain in the silence of my room.
That is also a power of poetry.
I am no longer a teenager. I’ve lived more life. I’ve learned more lessons. I’m not dumb. I make better choices about what to say and what not to.
Sometimes silence is safe. Sometimes silence is sad. Sometimes silence is scary.
There are many ways to use a voice.
I am willful and selective.
I choose to write poetry.
My poems tell you everything.
Christine Brandel is a British-American writer and photographer. She studied creative writing at Miami University and Bowling Green State University, education at the University of Derby, and logotherapy with the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy.