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Silence's Volume

Jayne English

Cube Light  by Ai Weiwei

Cube Light by Ai Weiwei

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”
John Keats

In a September post, I wrote about  how artists like John Muth, John Cage, and Suzanne Cleary open doors for us to explore what inhabits silence: movement in John Muth’s brushstrokes; sounds coming to life in Cage’s silent concert halls; or the feeling of suspended time in Suzanne Cleary’s poem “Elm Street.” Again, silence draws me back, this time, into its depths.

Poet Donald Hall talks about the importance of pursuing depth in his book Essays After Eighty. He says, “I learned most about poetry—for instance, by hearing [Henry] Moore quote Rodin, who quoted a stonemason: ‘Never think of a surface except as the extension of a volume.’” A dandelion on a canvas, for instance, looks two dimensional but the inner eye knows you can snap the dandelion off its stalk, pat its feathery dome, and blow its seeds to the wind. A poem has depth of meaning that extends beyond its simple lines. And just like the descending layers of poetry and art, silence offers more than superficial quiet.

Billy Collins takes us beyond the surface of silence in his poem by that name. Its imagery and the questions it raises are proof against superficiality. Take this simple line: “the silence of the orchid.” Isn’t this speaking of more than just quiet? For one thing, why is the orchid silent? Can it speak, but keeps its counsel? What would it tell us if it did speak? There is more dimension in the following lines:

The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.

The cup and water brings to mind the same weight of mood as a pond shimmering deep blue in the night. And doesn’t a silent moon seem to be lost in thought? It waits, it listens, there’s something that it understands, or seeks to understand. In the roar of the sun, we sense the blaze of traffic and the day’s rush of footsteps contrasted with night’s tranquility.

With these narrow lines, Collins shows us that silence has volume. William Blake tells us, “One thought fills immensity.” Silence is one thought.