Review by Eric Howard
VOCABULARY OF SILENCE
by Veronica Golos
Red Hen Press
P.O. Box 40820
Pasadena, CA 91114
2011, 94 pp., $18.95
In Vocabulary of Silence, Veronica Golos writes about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, exploring questions of agency (whose war?) and witness (whose story?). Aligning herself with the nameless and the silent, Golos makes their story ours. As part of a tradition going back to the lamentations of the biblical prophets and continuing to contemporary poetry of witness, Golos cites the particular (in the first poem: “kaffiyahs,” “Baghdad,” and “2008”) in order to reveal the general (“dream,” “bread,” and “tides”). The book’s sections (“News of the Nameless,” “Eden Is Ruin,” “The Silence,” and “Broken”) echo biblical and koranic voices as well as the news, including a quotation of George Bush (“At some point we may be the only ones left. That’s okay with me. We are America.”), which she uses as an epigraph to the poem “For Fallujah.” Endnotes indicate source material, giving the reader a chance to participate in the chorus of which Golos’s poetry is a part.
This chorus includes other poets of other wars. For example, “Snowy Egret” honors the poet Bruce Weigl, a veteran of the Vietnam War, and his poem of the same title (which itself echoes The Rime of the Ancient Mariner). In her poem, Golos addresses the origins of killing in the world “that pulled the / boy out. Wrapped him in / skin…a pearl out / of shell.” The world that created the boy also creates the egret that he will foolishly shoot. To “become what / you were made to be / the body must conjure out / of the kiln of air” that same creative force that gives rise to the destruction of the bird. Like its predecessors, Golos’s poem argues that creation, destruction, expiation, and renewal are all within the beautiful and frightening realm of the “Blank Sky.” Although the poem ends in the moment before the boy kills, it implies that the existential terror of being created ends not with destruction but rather with recognition of individual moral choice.
In another poem, “After,” a ghazal that quotes from Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals by Agha Shahid Ali, Golos gives voice to the lament of all who are exiled and must live where rivers “speak / a language I’ve never learned.” Her question, “What land is mine, when all was taken from another?,” makes an exile even of a native. Winner of the 2011 New Mexico Book Award, this collection mourns for all who have been wounded in the wars, who cannot speak for the silenced, and who have traveled “the road that took us far from home.”
A similar exploration of the human psychology of violence takes place in “Pietà,” a poem about a mother who tends to her “shattered” son, who once wore “the sharp crease” of “the uniform.” Unlike Mary, however, the mother in “Pietà” must change her son’s sheets “four times daily,” buying new ones at Wal-Mart. She remembers the time she was so mad at him she “could kill.” But if anything is lethal now, it may be her memory, “a sharpened thing.” As in “Snowy Egret,” Golos highlights the powerful role that emotions such as guilt play in the long, quiet aftermath of violence. The farm mother in “Pietà” thinks of “beauty words” such as “the sun’s out” and “the rye is up,” but they are “gone,” leaving only her son’s broken body. Words, the tool of the witness, also disappear in “For Fallujah,” in which they “spool into concertina wire.” The speaker in this poem despairs of being able to offer any healing or aid, as may come to the boy in the “Snowy Egret” or the son in “Pietà.” The speaker can only “offer grief” and “turn away.” At the end of the day’s terrible violence there is a “molten core,” a “word / that does not hold,” and hands that “can do—nothing.” This is the vocabulary of silence.
Eric Howard is a magazine editor who has published poetry in Birmingham Poetry Review, Caveat Lector, Conduit, Gulf Stream Magazine, Plainsong, and The Sun. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is a member of the Writers at Work poetry workshop.