November 7, 2018KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsEthicsLiteratureReading

“Spare this body, set fire to another”: Speech & Silence in Work by Kaveh Akbar, Brenna Womer, & Henk Rossouw

In the one volume of writing that he published during his lifetime, Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Indeed, grammar, and the rules that govern speech acts, inevitably structure our relationships, determining what can – and what may never – be said between two people. Even in solitude, it is linguistic convention that circumscribes the boundaries of our dreaming, even as we begin to sense that bright expanse that lies just beyond our reach.

Three recent poetry collections skillfully interrogate the limitations of language, exploring ways that we as readers and creative practitioners can expand the boundaries of what is communicable, giving voice to all that is “wilding around us.” Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Brenna Womer’s Atypical Cells of Undermined Significance, and Henk Rossouw’s Xamissa share a commitment to making audible that which lies at the outermost periphery of language. Though wide ranging in style and conceptual approach, these three gifted writers turn to experimental forms as a means of critiquing of linguistic convention, calling attention to its arbitrary limitations. Indeed, theirs is a critique that performs and dramatizes its grievances with respect to grammar, and we watch as that “whole paradisal bouquet spins apart.”

What is perhaps most striking about these writers’ experimentation is the way their gorgeously fractured forms invite silence into the work. As each of these three collections unfolds, we watch as moments of rupture, elision and interruption gesture at all that lies beyond the printed page. Akbar, Wommer, and Rossouw show us that “we are forever folding into the night,” and they give us, through their bold experimentation, a vocabulary for articulating its “regret,” “its spiritual conditions,” and “its diamonds.”


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Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf is structured as a series of linked persona-driven pieces, many of which make expert use of white space within the line. As the book unfolds, these seemingly small gaps within the text proper accrue vast, wide-ranging, and unwieldly emotional resonances. “As long as earth continues / its stony breathing, I will breathe,” the speaker tells us. And in much the same way that Akbar makes us attend to the almost imperceptible rhythms of the physical body, he calls our attention to the space between words, suggesting that the very foundation – of meaning, of speech, of communication – resides there.

When we first encounter silence in the work, it is in the first moments of the opening piece, “Wild Pear Tree.” Here, the poetic line is literally halved, a gap manifesting in the very center, its form making visible all that is yet unspeakable: “Its been January for months in both directions                frost…” What’s perhaps most revealing about this passage is Akbar’s use of white space to amplify the limitations of the language we do encounter. Here, we sense a sorrow just beyond the pristine imagery that we are actually given. It is that sorrow that cannot yet be named, that finds a name over the course of the book-length sequence. In these opening lines, however, all that is at that moment unspeakable – addiction, longing, excess and its disappointments – is rendered as a startling absence, and that elision is what gives rise to the wonderfully imperfect and awe-stricken music of these poems.

Silence becomes the driving force of the work, the language merely orbiting around its alluringly absent center. Akbar writes, for example,


they all feel it                  afterwards the others dream


of rain their pupils boil the light black candles

and pray the only prayer they know              oh lord

spare this body                  set fire to another


Here Akbar invokes silence as a way of performing and dramatizing time, both literal time and lyric time, that temporality which is measured in emotional, visceral, and psychic duration. It is the sense that time has elapsed (“they all feel it               afterwards”) that changes our encounter with the words that do exist on the printed page. But also, it is this sense of time passing that signals all that has been elided by the narrative itself. Here past and present are juxtaposed, and it is the reader’s task to create the lovely narrative arc that lends meaning, unity and form to experience. By gesturing at the arbitrary nature of language, narrative, and their repertoire of forms, Akbar opens up the possibility of alternative models for structuring lived experience. And by the final lines of the poem, we are given one in the deus ex machine that inhabits the final line: “spare this body              set fire to another.”

If narrative is a kind of conjuring, an appeal for meaning, structure or order that may not be immediately apparent, language is the space in which that alterity makes itself known. The meaning that we arrive at through the unwieldly apparatus of grammar is indeed an otherness, a specter that haunts a room that is not its own. What’s more, it is the space between words where the ghosts of “corpses” and “chariots,” the “blank easels” and “orchids” of memory, actually live, waiting for a body to breathe into.


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Like Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Womer’s Atypical Cells of Undetermined Significance explores the ways in which silence, rupture, and elision call into question all that resides on the printed page. She takes physical illness and medical trauma as her subject, interrogating the body as a discursive construction, knowable only through our relationship to language. In much the same way that Akbar forces the reader to attend to the space that separates words, and the almost imperceptible rhythms of the human body, Womer calls our attention to the transitions between the many discrete episodes that comprise the book. For Womer, the female body resides in these apertures, in that bright and liminal place between the various narratives and myths that have been imposed from without.

Presented as an extended sequence of hybrid texts, which shift rapidly between “psychic injury,” “emotional shock,” and “Lipton iced tea powder mix,” Womer’s writing mirrors the experience of being a patient through the behavior of its language. She actively involves the reader in the struggle to glean meaning in the space between fractured, contradictory, and ultimately incommensurable fragments of text. Womer writes, for example, in “When a Psychic Says We’re Soul Mates,”


Recall how you know the heart,

and remember the future, the

brain, the chronic hunger and

burn; life in a wet summer, loud

and close—eternal, intolerable.


Number the young.



After this lyrical meditation on the delights and displeasures of the human body, Womer transitions to a prose vignette:

We drove in the day before Hurricane Isabel with our lives blocking the rear view of our Ford Expedition. There was no available housing…

In the moment between sections, that brief pause, the body shifts from being a site of pleasure (and emotional labor) to a site of endangerment and finally, disconnect, as the speaker manifests as a split subject (with their lives “blocking the rear view” mirror). Indeed, she dissociates from her physical body, giving voice to a palpable separation. The swift movement between “Hurricane Isabel,” “crumbling red brick,” and “1970s standards” performs and enacts this disconnect, involving the reader in an impossible task of meaning making and creating unity from a discontinuous experience. “I found a pair of seagulls caught on two hooks of the same iridescent lure,” she writes. Here, imagery mirrors the book’s philosophical underpinnings.

As we traverse the “trauma,” “fatal diseases,” and “deal-breakers” that comprise the narrative, Womer shows us that not of these lexicons renders experience more faithfully than the last. Not the “chronic hunger” of the lyric interludes, nor the “categories” articulated in the more scientifically minded sections. Like Akbar, Womer uses silence, rupture and elision to call into question, and provocatively undermine, what is on the printed page.

Using the same stylistic repertoire, she gestures at the artifice of many conceptual models for understanding the physical body. Much like Akbar’s provocative consideration of narrative and syntax, this argument is made through form and technique, rather than in the text proper. As Womer’s hybrid sequence progresses, we are made to confront the varying levels of authority and credibility that we attribute to different registers and discourses, which, in this case, range from poetic imagery to medical jargon (“150 viruses, each assigned its own number”).

“I wanted to be a mother but only on Sundays,” Womer tell us. Throughout the collection, lyrical interludes like this one are juxtaposed with medical documents, patient questionnaires, and records of the senses. By transitioning between rhetorical modes in such a way, Womer suggests that the female voice is rarely accepted as a source of knowledge about the body, or a credible vehicle for an explanatory model. Indeed, Womer implies that facts about the body are often only seen as credible when they arrive in familiar forms, particularly those that populate the medical field and the biosciences. Yet it is in the silences, and the elisions, that these power dynamics become clear to the reader. It is in the apertures that the ethics of the text crystalize. As Womer herself tells us, “You didn’t ask for a miracle, but got one anyway.”


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Rossouw’s Xamissa continues Akbar’s and Womer’s exploration of what silence makes possible when articulating a philosophy of language. In the work’s “Proloog,” he notes that the title of this thought-provoking volume actually derives from linguistic accident:

Perhaps it was here the urban legend emerged: “Camissa,” we thought, meant “place of sweet waters” in the indigenous Khoe language. And the waters the urban legend speaks of have run from Table Mountain to the sea, under the city itself, since before the Dutch ships. An untrammeled toponym, from before the 1652 arrival of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), “Camissa” became a wellspring for the cultural reclamation I witnessed in newly democratic Cape Town. In the 2000s, Café Camissa shut down to make way for a real estate agency—a symptom.

Here meaning, and the task of translating, seem straightforward, but begin to unravel and refract over the course of Rossouw’s introductory narrative. This anecdote frames the work beautifully, as the style of the writing skillfully performs this unraveling of narrative continuity.

Formally, the book begins with the semblance of wholeness, and the reader is borne from pristine prose paragraphs to the almost tangible documents of an archive. We are presented with the author’s identity documents, and no accompanying information or caption. In an instant, the rhetorical situation of the work changes: the reader shifts from a passive recipient of meaning to an active agent in creating meaning. With that in mind, the space between texts and episodes in Xamissa is especially powerful. It is in these bright apertures, the liminal spaces within the text, that the laws of grammar, syntax and narrative no longer hold. In these brief pauses, the rules of the text, and the rules governing its language and narrative, can be entirely reconfigured.

“Heretofore unseen:/
a piece of census again/or a ship’s manifest/
redacted with ash and/doubt,” Rossouw writes. Like many passages in Xamissa, even the poetic line serves to amplify uncertainty. Just as the pause before “doubt” conveys even the narrator’s trepidation, it is the silences in this work that are made to house the weight of history. Much like Akbar, Rossouw envisions silence as the center around which the book’s poetics orbit. Just as Calling a Wolf a Wolf creates music out of all that cannot, and will not, be said aloud, Xamissa envisions the space between languages, histories, and temporal moments as an invitation, that “half-light” beckoning the reader inside what had once been a darkened room.

As the book unfolds, its form – and the silences to which this experimentation give rise – become unruly, even disruptive, when considering the narrative conventions engaged by Akbar and Womer. Here, we are made to walk through the archive that accompanies any subject’s life in language. Handwritten ledgers, official documents, and watermarks are juxtaposed with lines of poetry and lyric fragments. “I write the debris number C 2449 on the form/in pencil and wait for the ash in the half-light,” Rossouw’s speaker tells us.

In many ways, it is this movement between documents, “secrets,” and “fire” that presents such a provocative challenge to what does exist on the printed page. Indeed, the transitions between different types of language, and the silence that fills the moments we spend in these liminal textual spaces, allows the reader to fully inhabit the archive in all of its indeterminacy, rather than a neatly structured master narrative. In other words, we encounter language – and the histories contained within it – in a nonhierarchical way. Like Womer’s interrogation of medical jargon and the rhetoric of diagnosis, Rossouw erases the judgments, and the arbitrary valuations, that we impose upon different types of language and text. What’s left is a “field on fire,” a subversion of the politics surrounding the very documents he has gathered.

If silence is a gradual undoing, then the space between things makes visible that unraveling. It is the pauses between words that are most dangerous, as they hold the power to destabilize the text that surrounds them. Indeed, Rossouw’s archival poetics reads as both homage and destruction, a lyric appreciation of the work silence can do (and undo).


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When silence becomes a gradual undoing, an unraveling of certainty, there is a violence done by saying nothing. Womer, Akbar, and Rossouw undoubtedly destabilize many of the rules that govern our lives in language. At the same time, they do so with a true ethical sensibility, as their efforts to interrogate, and undermine, linguistic convention are borne out of a desire for a way of communicating that’s more just and more true. For these three gifted poets, silence becomes a form of resistance, as well as a weapon and a relic of all that is holy. By interrogating the space between things, these poets have offered a philosophy of language where anything becomes possible. After all, it is in the liminal spaces that rules no longer hold. It is in the brief pauses between arias that it becomes possible to shift keys. As Rossouw observes in Xamissa, “I listen not in silence but in song, a form of interruption.”