As a child I spoke when spoken to,
learned my place as children often do
and stayed there,
a still and silent thing, the picture
of assigned perfection, a portrait
of good-little-girl obedience, painted
by the refined strokes of the bible belt
across my back.
By adolescence, my mouth was a tight fist
where words were folded,
like my fingers to my palms,
an arsenal of unloaded weapons.
the intentional hand, seeking to shut up my mouth
or extract words, like teeth.
I chewed my nails ragged,
swallowed the dead remains
and fed on silence to stave the threat of violence
and its dark premonitions.
Fear found fodder and took root
in the damp and toxic dump
of broken meanings, cast off words,
and useless verbs,
of what wasn’t said,
my funeral bed
of hot and smothered shame,
and every time I failed to claim
the air and muscle to speak my name,
I died another suicide.
Death was a bad habit.
Your silence will not protect you, the poet said.*
Instead, two possibilities exist:
the risk of speaking one’s mind
or the small and petty deaths that over time
In other words,
there is no middle road.
There’s no half-way to say: “No!”
No, I will not shut up.
No, you will not beat up the verbs
that emerge from my throat.
No, I refuse to choke
on unspoken words.
As I cut my wisdom teeth,
I gnawed the bone of my own fear and grief
and dared to speak, as if words would save me,
which is why I’m speaking to you now,
as if somehow you will hear me,
mouthing what you cannot speak, to say:
Your silence betrayed me.
You believed your indecision was benign.
You walked ahead, left me behind,
remained silent, as if blinded by the violent onslaught
of human flesh, aimed and launched at me, the easy mark,
as if you were deaf to the words, slurred
to name and shame me.
I do not blame you
for what you could not do then.
But your unforgivable sin is
you refuse to speak of it now,
and somehow, you do not see me,
even as you examine my face, smooth rouge
over the bruises darkening my flesh, paint
the jagged scar, marking my lips.
I am no victim,
but to say I’ve survived
suggests I didn’t die
with the dark prints of two hands
around my neck
Perhaps, it’s my demise and rise
from the flames of another’s fury that makes
for my impatient wait,
for the audible naming and claiming
of who you are,
where you’ve been,
of what you haven’t said.
We are poets.
Words grow on our tongues,
become food, giving life for our living
or they are the rocks that weight our pockets
for our drowning beneath the river’s rage.
There is no written page to read,
no chapter or verse
to memorize or rehearse
the words, lining our lungs.
This is improvisational speaking—
the un-sensational stanza and rhyme,
the un-extraordinary poetry of our ordinary lives.
The poet wrote,
Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.**
What she meant to convey is no mystery.
Our poetry and prose is so pretty,
but we never stood a chance of escaping a stance.
The freedom of speech is not free of responsibility.
The price tag of our ability to speak measures the cost, the loss
of our careless and casual spending of the pennies that bought our thoughts.
Our silence costs as much,
bears the burden wrought
by what was lost, by who
we sacrificed for our fears.
I see that you are broken.
I hear your stunted, stuttered, and unspoken words.
But you are not so fragile.
You will not break beneath the weight
of words you can’t erase or revise.
Our silence and lies are as dead and deadly
as the knives we pull from our backs.
My intention is not to judge or to preach
but to somehow reach across the chasm
of these words unsaid to say:
When you speak it,I will hear you.
© Ami Mattison
* Excerpt by Audre Lorde
** Excerpt by Adrienne Rich
Flickr photo courtesy of AJ Baxter
For One Stop Poetry's One Shot Wednesday