Milkweed Editions, 2017. 353 Pages. ISBN-13: 978-1571313621
by Sarah LaFleur
“The mind of Man is framed even like the breath
And harmony of music; there is a dark
Invisible workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, and makes them move
In one mystery, some song no one can sing
Because the song sings us.”
Of Silence and Song examines the power of language to make and un-make meaning. Dan Beachy-Quick considers how silence expresses itself in song and how song dissolves back into silence; essentially, the relationship between the infinite vastness of the un-said and the finite sweetness of the spoken word. While the two exist simultaneously, how they interact is a mystery, the quest for poets. The chasm between them only widens when the poet considers the silence his or her song both hails from or disappears into.
For a work that boldly declares its pursuit of the poet’s paradox with the title alone, I must admit I opened the first page with skepticism. Even if a writer is honest that his book is an examination of an eternal question, there is an assumption for an answer; or if not an answer, at least a testament worthy of attention, something my energies—which burn with the same pressing curiosity—can hold onto. Beachy-Quick articulates his task and confirms my assumptions early, on page 7:
I want to ask a question about silence.
The answer is in the disappearance of the question.
From the beginning, Beachy-Quick offers warning and invitation, smoke that disguises as much as it signals: language cannot traverse itself and yet language is midwife to the un-said. Answers actualize only when the seeker forgets the question.
If the question to know what cannot be said must disappear to understand the answer, why not stop reading on page 7?
The realist in me scoffed but the poet stirred.
Life thrives between the tensions of what can never be fully reconciled, and Beachy-Quick’s 353-page memoir celebrates the chasm between dichotomous forces like silence and song, un-known and known, infinite and finite as he shouts with different voices across the divide: poet, father, scholar, husband, teacher. Beachy-Quick dances between poetry and prose, short musing and stalwart essay, Greek myth and personal memory so smoothly that the reader cannot help but be swept up by his spell-binding circles. His generous sprinkling of excerpts and quotes from writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Keats, and Dickinson only deepens the work’s rosy, dream-like effect; it’s nearly impossible to not go starry-eyed over the rich breadth of literature he covers in his consideration of the question about silence.
Beachy-Quick’s work possesses startling depth as much as it contains impressive breadth.
While several essays have a magnanimous character, interweaving Greek myth with historical event, or work of literature with personal memory, much of his work also takes on a distinctly personal tone more characteristic of Dan Beachy-Quick, the poet. “Confessions,” for example, offers ten short poems, or musings, on Beachy-Quick’s struggle to make sense of the question he poses at the start of Of Silence and Song. He writes:
Cannot wear light as a garment.
Cannot say the names that existed before the sun.
Cannot see my children as ears of corn patient for the reaping.
Cannot see my death as a fig ripe on the fig tree.
Cannot find the measuring reed.
Cannot build with darkness, water, wind, and the deep.
Cannot feel the toothache in another’s mouth, but I can sing another mouth’s song.
Not the cornerstone. Not the stone the builders cast away.
Not the burnt-offering. Not the meal-offering. Not the peace-offering.
Find the law of the comet precedent over the fact of the sun.
Beachy-Quick’s essays and poems are divided by asterisks and numbered sections that have the effect of reading like a set of prayers or contemplations. His question about silence unfolds in a circular rather than linear fashion, so that the reader can turn to any page and still be overcome by the sweetness of Beachy-Quick’s song, the nature of which is the scope of this book. In this sense, what struck me as most powerful about Beachy-Quick’s work was his ability to thrust me into the dilemma of song and silence that he lays on the page at the beginning of the book. I found myself repeatedly in a state of re-reading his words, savoring his luminous descriptions while thirsting for more, but then needing to put the book down and think. But not quite think. Maybe consider. Or contemplate. Pray, perhaps, if prayer is a state of believing God to be the silence in myself that words humble me to and yet fall short of completely reaching for.
Beachy-Quick demonstrates the exquisite power of words to un-veil meaning and the powerlessness language reduces us to as we are led in our dreamy stupor to a chilling (or exhilarating?) no-words land. “#68” reads,
Heidegger says: “Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home.” But how do you guard it while living inside it? is a question I often ask myself, thinking there in the hut of my thinking.
How can you guard what you inhabit?
Beachy-Quick muses further:
Somewhere, while I’m sitting in the hut thinking, that distracted field of blankness grows wild and extends just a little the ragged edge of the world. It labors for itself, as the tendril is a solar principle, and the flower a star’s distant delegate, when my labors break down, when all by itself the edifice of my pride comes apart — and if I can see the wild carrot and the amaranth only through the chink in a board, and if I find, having built my hut around me, that I forgot to add a door or even a window, and all this effort to be in the world has removed me from it, it’s a cost I’ll pay, this ostracism, to see through the knot in the board of pine a bee cast her vote by packing her legs with pollen.
A bee cast her vote by packing her legs with pollen.
A reader casts her vote by reading on, insisting on entering the same foolhardy hut to which Beachy-Quick retreats to only realize, upon closing the book, or closing her eyes, that language is a structure that can only house what it divides itself from: silence’s vastness, where wisdom circulates without mortal edges. Language can only shelter to the extent it segregates.
In this sense, Beachy-Quick answers the question he poses at the beginning of Of Silence and Song by humbling the reader to the silence his work both heralds from and resolves back into; while it may be impossible to make sense of silence and song’s inverse relationship, it’s the “cost I’ll pay” to be alive enough to consider the question.