Mary Kovaleski Byrnes: How I Wrote “Whistling Language”


Originally published in the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review and in the Best of Kore Press Anthology. It’s also published in So Long the Sky (Platypus Press, 2018).

It’s last night again. Sky lit up
from another eon. Airplane pushing east

over the Pacific, a belly full of televisions.
The children fashion paper bag wings, jump off

the shed into the rhododendrons. Still, we dream
embraces with the gone-before. The never-been.

A doorway in an upside-down world—
a childhood home afloat on a raging sea.

I’ll soar across it, only to land once more
on that autumn road by the coal slag mountain,

leaves singing by our ears, a voice
I love and lose again on waking.

Someday, I promise, we’ll go to La Gomera,
where the people have learned to be birds.

We’ll circle the volcano, listening.
Soon enough, a call from one coffee-ground hill

to another. The whistling language—
lilt and grammar transcribed

into the ancient mimicry of canaries.
We’ll hear them, but won’t understand the message

from shepherd to shepherd across the divide:
I’ve lost one down the hill. If someone’s up there,

tell me, what can you see?


This poem is about flight—like so many of the poems I write, and there’s a large probability the early notes for it were written on a plane. Every time I look out an airplane window, which was a regular event due to a job I had for most of my twenties, I marvel at this incredible feat we humans have pulled off, as cliché as that may sound. Clouds at arms-length. Our world faded to miniature far below. Once, a shelf of an ice field somewhere over Siberia and a tiny village brilliant in the primary colors of shipping containers, half-buried in snow. And twice, the international dateline, that impossible instant when you get to start a day again. Literally, a groundhog day. I have no memory of what I did with those extra days. No doubt they were wasted in the exhaustion of travel, in those liminal airport spaces, waiting for the next thing. But, inevitably, these places are where poems, or the pieces of poems, begin to happen for me.

I’m regularly filled with wonder at flight, but mostly I’m brought to how this triumph over nature isn’t nearly enough for us humans. It’s not the right kind of flight, not the flight of memory, longing, loss and desire. I think this is what this poem is about. (And I say “I think” because so often when I’m writing, I find the poem gets at more truth than any explanation I’m going to attempt to make about it.) No matter how much I traveled, no matter where I went, I still dwelled in memory with the people I missed, “the gone-before,” or even the impossible, the “never-been.” To me, this speaks to some of our deepest desires as humans. If we could just have had one more moment/conversation/day/year/lifetime with that one person… No matter how much miraculous flying we do, we still want more. We still want the impossible. We long to be more than our human limits will permit.

And then I was having coffee with a friend of mine, who was planning a move to the Canary Islands to raise her daughter closer to her extended family. She told me about one of the islands, La Gomera, about the rugged volcanic landscape, and how the people there developed a language of whistling that could carry their messages over two miles. It’s an ancient language, one developed by the original inhabitants of the island. I learned about how this language was especially useful to shepherds on the island, as they needed a way to communicate over vast spaces to help each other locate wandering sheep. I couldn’t help but think of this ability to communicate like birds as super-human, god-like or mythical, and imagined their voices carrying over these imposing volcanic hills.

I can’t think about volcanic landscapes and people adapting to them and not think about coal slag mountains, these looming, man-made hills of refuse that dominate the towns where my parents grew up and where I’ve spent countless days of my own life. (It turns out “slag” heap is actually a misnomer: they are made of shale and referred to as “overburden,” which I think is a terribly apt metaphor for what happens to the land that isn’t relevant to profit-driven mining industries.) The shale mountains in my parents’ hometowns have been there as long as I can remember, and I never even knew they didn’t occur naturally until I was a teenager. They look like volcanos—my memories of so many holidays are dominated by these mountains in their stark height, towering over entire towns, an American flag or two fluttering from the skeletons of old coal collieries rusting precariously on their steep sides.

It turns out, no matter where we go, we return to homescapes. To our early memories. To the moments that, for better or worse, define us. We return again and again to the people or possibilities that haunt us.

Ultimately, though, this poem is about hope for transcendence, for otherworlds and afterlives, whether in this place or the next—for the places we’ll travel metaphorically, where we might finally get some radical shift in our limited human perspectives.

That’s why the poem ends in a promise, the kind of pact. And a royal we. Yes, someday, I promise we’ll go there. Or, we’ll get there. To this place where we might give some peace to each other, where we might be able to help each other find what we’ve all been looking for. And where we might finally have the language to call out, across the widest expanses, what that is.



Mary Kovaleski Byrnes

Mary Kovaleski Byrnes is the author of 'So Long the Sky' (Platypus Press, May 2018). She teaches writing and literature at Emerson College, and is the co-founder of the EmersonWRITES program, a free creative writing program for Boston Public School students. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Salamander, the Four Way Review, the Best of Kore Press, Best of the Net, and elsewhere. She served as Poetry Editor for Redivider and has been a poetry reader for Ploughshares since 2009.

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