Michael Bazzett: On Silence; or, How I Wrote “The Epidemic”

The chatter of humanity must generate trillions of syllables daily. If you stop and think about it, the accumulation of words is staggering. And even with all these words in the world, there is infinitely more that remains unsaid. Particularly when it comes to the important things. Just as almost everything that truly matters to us as people—i.e. love, trust, courage, understanding—cannot be directly seen, so too, do the most enduring truths live in silence.

I don’t know why, but this is something I think about a lot: the power of what remains unspoken, what cannot be spoken, of silence itself. All of these absences are, I think, necessary elements of poetry, composing the emptiness that allows the little bell of the poem to chime.

This preoccupation is what was simmering on the back-burner as I worked on “The Epidemic,” on and off, trying to capture an anecdotal moment from when I was walking my son to school as a little boy, back when his hand still slipped unthinkingly into mine. The boys, the scorpion, the stick, the clanking bell were all just straight reportage. And it’s true that the boys had hardly spoken. Yet given that our family was living in Mexico at the time, my poor command of Spanish created another layer of silence, which subtly changed my relationship to my own language, and also had a habit of charging what might otherwise have been mundane moments with more meaning.

That’s when the “What if?” frame occurred to me, the thing that began to push the recollection from the land of anecdote toward the territory of poem. What if such silences were contagious? What if we all just quit talking for a day or two? What if we couldn’t talk? What if we all started simply living and listening, what then? We would begin to embody our words? Would the world itself become the poem?



Michael Bazzett

Michael Bazzett is an NEA fellow & the author of three books of poetry: 'You Must Remember This' (Winner of the 2014 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry); 'Our Lands Are Not So Different' (Horsethief Books); and 'The Interrogation' (Milkweed Editions). His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Sun, The American Poetry Review, Tin House, and The Iowa Review, among others. His translation of the Mayan creation epic, 'The Popol Vuh,' is out now from Milkweed Editions. He lives in Minneapolis. You can find out more at www.michaelbazzett.com.

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