No Words?

When something terrible happens, this phrase pops up: there are no words. Well, yes, there are. Whoever proclaims this has used words to say there are no words. Instead, how about no words yet. Or words will be coming. Getting thoughts and feelings into words is a major way that our world moves forward. We search for the right words, and recognize them when we speak them, hear them, or read them.

Even words that express a small step toward finding the words move us forward. The murder of Philando Castile by a Twin Cities police officer was unspeakable, but only for a moment. The phrase “I stay woke” had been recorded in a soul song by Erykah Badu eight years earlier, its meaning at that time unconnected to racial justice. But “stay woke” picked up steam as Badu and others recast the phrase to mean a wide-awake awareness of racial injustice, earned by vigilance. Simultaneously, Black Lives Matter took the phrase viral in protest of Castile’s death and the deaths of so many other black people at the hands of police. The tragedy became speakable. There were words.

Consider the ordinary phrase “me, too.” In 2006, civil rights activist Tarana Burke ended a harrowing piece about a young girl named Heaven with the words: “me, too.” Heaven had confided to Burke a story of sexual abuse, unspeakable until she spoke. “Me, too” in itself reveals nothing of Heaven’s story, nor of Burke’s, for that matter. But the stories implied were many. And when, twelve years later, the film actress Alyssa Milano added a hashtag and called for a tweet storm, the phrase traveled the globe.


I Find Keats

I Find Keats

Remembering the poet, John Keats, on the anniversary of his death, Feb 23, 1821


1967, Goffstown, New Hampshire. I’m fourteen, dropped suddenly into public school after a year at the all-girls’ Catholic High School called (ahem) Immaculata. I will have to learn to relate to boys, and it seems they don’t appreciate seeing my hand fly up, volunteering to answer every single question. Fortunately, I can go crazy writing without disapproval from the boys, and Mr. Durocher, the burly soccer coach who teaches English, assigns us our first term paper on any writer in our anthology.

And I find Keats. This is just before a revival of interest in Keats, and he’s represented by only one poem in our anthology: “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” O, what can ail thee, knight at arms /Alone and palely loitering? A pale, loitering guide to poems that will speak directly to my yearnings, particularly his sonnets.

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain…

And there I am, after school, hunched over a small desk in a corner of the tiny attic I share with three sisters, reading all of Keats, tracing the life and the work, and falling in love, scarcely aware of the effort of reading and writing. In a few years, with money from my first writing fellowship, I’ll be visiting the Keats museum in Hampstead and then on to Rome to step into the room where he died, and then following the route his cortege must have taken, from the Spanish Steps to the cemetery.