There’s a saying that women need to learn to speak with the silence between words. Language is the realm of men, in its development, its definitions, structures, audience, outlets, volume, legitimization, in all of its terrible and wonderful noise and power. Women who try to make the words their own, to tell their stories or express their hurt, their sadness, their strangeness, and most especially their anger, are punished and silenced. But in the heavy pregnant pauses between words lies a wealth of meaning, emotion, and strength.
Emily Dickinson is the patron poet of the beautiful silences. The dashes in her handwritten poems defy printed reproduction. They’re of varying lengths, ascending, descending, leading from one word to another or trailing off into a wilderness of silence. They give the spaces substance and vibrance. Dickinson valued silence, she valued the power of the unspoken. “Speech is one symptom of Affection/ And Silence one – /The perfectest communication/ Is heard of none – ” Or
The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel
Are beautiful –
See how she ends it with a dash? Where does it lead? To the words the silent feel? Though silence is beautiful, and words are inadequate, still…
Silence is all we dread.
There’s Ransom in a Voice—
But Silence is Infinity.
Himself have not a face.
Dickinson gives a voice to everything around her. The birds, the trees, loneliness, solitude, death, anger. They all speak to her in their own strange words. Dickinson finds a way to use words as though nobody has used them before; she claims them (quietly) for herself, and imbues them with all of her wildly-felt strangeness. She gives them new meanings, which are bewilderingly, beautifully, frighteningly out of reach. “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun – “
Of course words aren’t the only way to tell a story. When Philomela threatened to tell the story of her rape, her rapist cut out her tongue. So she wove it in a tapestry. Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko used embroidery and bold colorful paintings to tell of the beastly horrors of war, famine, and abuse. Traditional folk art patterns and techniques become the backgrounds for strange perfect creatures born of sadness and anger, though they pass beneath the notice of the men who think of her art as simple women’s work. And Paula Rego harnessed her rage to make strange, explosive paintings, including a series on women who undergo illegal abortions. She channeled her anger and frustration into a “wild productive fury.” And it’s not just women who struggle to speak and be heard: anybody who is considered different, strange, or lesser is denied their voice, and robbed of their stories, thieved of their essence, their history, their worth.
It seems more important now than ever to tell our stories and share our stories, and listen to the stories of others. To amplify the voices of anybody struggling to be heard, and to celebrate when the words or images or silences speak to us or bewilder us or transform us. To harness our anger or sadness or joy in a wild productive fury, resonating with the strange perfect words we make our own or the deafening silences we inhabit.
And here’s Emily Dickinson, again, because she’s speaking to me so forcefully, lately, though I don’t always understand what she is saying, nor do I need to understand. Here she is telling of a pent-up anger that makes her a loaded gun, a vesuvius, and the words are so wonderfully powerful and incomprehensible to me.
My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun
BY EMILY DICKINSON
My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply –
And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through –
And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared –
To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –
Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without – the power to die –
Read the July Issue here. We’re really happy with the way this issue turned out! Very grateful to the artists who let us share their powerful words and images.