Close Reading: An Education in Silence

The longer I spend in poetry’s experimental borderlands in pursuit of linguistic monsters and verbal wizardry, the greater the importance of making regular visits back to the lyric mainstream to remember that skilled, nuanced, exciting poems aren’t the sole preserve of any single tradition. Here’s a wonderful dramatic monologue from Jessica Traynor’s collection Liffey Swim, reproduced here by kind permission of the author.

An Education in Silence (Jessica Traynor)

for the women of the Stanhope Street Magdalene Laundry

This morning, light spilled into the courtyard
as if God had opened a window.
The light is quiet and can’t be herded
from dormitory beds to morning mass —
it shines where it wants,
blushing the stained glass windows,
washing the priest’s words.

My mother doesn’t write.
It’s been three years. My hands
crack from the heat of the sheets
as we feed them through the mangle.
The high windows admit one square
of light, on the word repent,
and I am silent like the sunlight.

Structurally the poem is a balance between two stanzas, with most of its force coming from what’s left unsaid between them. Although it appears straightforward on the surface, it’s interesting what happens if we zoom in on the micro building-blocks of grammar and syntax.

The first stanza is built from two sentences, the grammatical subject of both of them being “light” (initially an indefinite “light”, then more definitely “the light”). In the second stanza we find twice as many sentences and a succession of grammatical subjects: “My mother”; “It” (time); “My hands”; “The high windows…and I”. At the simplest syntactic level, the poem starts with the symbolic light and then narrows in on the unnamed speaker after circling a couple of times.

Looking at the verbs rather than the subjects, the light does a mix of expected and unexpected things: spilling, being quiet, not being herded, shining, wanting, blushing (as a transitive verb), washing and (by implication at the end) being silent. Spilling and washing claim an analogy with water (and with the women’s work in the laundry, though also with the interplay of sin and redemption / spilling and washing); being quiet/silent and shining are part of light’s basic job description; not being herded, blushing and wanting are more interesting — setting up an obvious contrast with the women in the laundry, and also alluding to their reason for being there in the first place (“blushing” suggesting both the memory of sexual transgression and the idea that the institution itself, as represented by the stained glass, ought to be blushing/ashamed rather than the women themselves, just as the priest’s words rather than the women’s deeds need the redemptive act of washing).

The second stanza is all about what isn’t said. It’s also remarkably compressed and layered while appearing straightforward and uncomplicated on the surface. On first glance “My mother doesn’t write” is a simple snippet of dramatic/autobiographical narrative, foregrounding the speaker’s isolation and rejection by her family. But admitting the word “mother” into the poem inevitably invokes the speaker’s own status as an (unmarried) mother and her enforced isolation from her own child. And although the primary denotative force of “doesn’t write” is unambiguous, it also comes trailing secondary associations about the poem itself: the speaker’s mother doesn’t write, but the speaker’s own proxy (i.e. the poet) does, setting up the poem as a kind of unstated representative of a higher moral order that doesn’t repress or blame the women (just as the light doesn’t).

“It’s been three years” is not only a powerful example of not-saying (“it” being time, the speaker’s ordeal, separation, etc.) but also a way of postponing the appearance of the first person nominative singular “I” until the end of the poem.

That final “I” rounds off the poem’s cluster of not-saying and not-doing (with the logical conclusion of “is quiet…can’t be herded…doesn’t write” being “I am silent” — and perhaps an unconscious echo of “can’t be heard” in that “can’t be herded”). But it also brings the poem full-circle, reintroducing the sunlight from the beginning and identifying it with the speaker (in effect, appropriating its moral freedom indirectly by simile rather than by any direct claim).

I’ve concentrated on syntax and word-choice because there’s a lot to tease out, but I can’t finish this post without mentioning the wonderful sound-play, especially in lines like “from dormitory beds to morning mass” and “crack from the heat of the sheets / as we feed them” that are just crying out to be read aloud (go on, you know you want to).

Liffey Swim, Jessica Traynor, Dedalus Press, 2014

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