The Bones of Language

Katie Peterson

Barnes and Noble

I’m a little in love with the idea that a poem is an occasion for two people to share a trouble, whatever the outcome of that trouble might be. So, I would say that the listener I would want is a person with whom you are sitting in a broken down car, waiting for a tow truck to come. I know that may not sound very romantic. But I’ve had some very wonderful conversations with people sitting on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck to come. —me, apparently

I said this a few weeks ago as an answer to a question from my friend Louise. We were speaking to each other in front of an audience. We had a good time, talking and listening, even though all those other people were there. But now the words have appeared on a page, and I’m reading them alone, and I wonder what I meant. By that I mean, I wonder if what I said is true.

• • •

What is the sound of that wondering? What is the sound of the mind considering what can even be said in the first place?

• • •

I’m attracted to poetry that I can hear before I understand.

T. S. Eliot said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood,” but I’m a step behind that, thinking of the moment the ear catches on something it wishes to remember, or recognizes something it believes it’s heard before. I’m attracted to poetry that I can hear before I understand. This preference doesn’t just arise from an intuition of pleasure, though pleasure has something to do with it. Sound can move around corners; sound takes a little longer to organize itself in the senses than what’s seen. I think what you’re hearing when you hear such poetry is the bones of language. You’re seeing something like the interior architecture of the great cathedral, you’re getting closer to the intuited structure behind the very possibility of saying anything at all. Poetry like this admits the illegible spaces in who we are, the inaccessible places where communication is always attempted, but rarely fully realized. James McMichael’s 2016 collection If You Can Tell does this. The rich uncertainty of its title predicts it; the book follows suit. The poems are hard to read out loud, and hard to excerpt, but their moments of illumination produce barely heard, impossible to forget, possible truths. These are creation myths for the interior, contracting rather than expanding, doubt-driven but precise. Some of them retell bible stories, the New and Old Testaments reinvented. Here’s one:


order was it
that made the ends of the earth?
Who put clothes on the deep?
What is his name, and what is his

son’s name,
if you can tell?

Wisdom can. Still a child,

she attended God when God had not yet
divided the waters.
It was no one but God’s to do
to divide what

isn’t said
from what is.


In retelling these stories here, McMichael speculates on what we might be able to say (about God, in this case) though the poem does not say it. The work of his God is not just to divide the waters but to divide language into what’s possible to say and what’s not. Which means there’s a terrain of what’s impossible to say undergirding all we can say—which means, what we can say is only a fraction of what’s present.

Here’s another retold story with sound and the sense of hearing at the heart of it, even earlier in the creation myth from Genesis. I begin to speculate that if McMichael could retell the moment before all the stories were told, he’d do that, too:

God went ahead and said
Yes to things.
Right away

light was there,

and life,
and the life of persons. Persons
didn’t understand.


McMichael’s retold creation myth tells us that the moment of the creation of our understanding was a moment of our listening. And that we listen badly. It reminds us, also, that the moment of poetry is sometimes revelatory because it’s error-studded, fallible. And yet, those errors have their own truth, a kind of cheeky one. What part of “Yes” did you not understand, says God. McMichael composes another mysterious and wonderful poem in the book by arranging pieces of heard speech. The parts form strange wholes, sinister and intimate as code:

I’ve killed other people.
You’ll find this will go better
If you and I don’t talk.

On the answering machine:
If you could

Call me tonight
No matter how late,
It would be a good idea.

“Heard Said”

The clarity of the language doesn’t guarantee a clarity of understanding—who are these speakers? Why do I feel scared? The most ordinary words can get creepy in a particular context. The “answering machine” that felt a part of life for a bit seems, in the poem, like a euphemism for loneliness. The aggregate of these fragments, the overall effect of their slowness, is an intuition of all that remains illegible and unexpressed in language even as we keep trying to understand.

The clarity of the language doesn’t guarantee a clarity of understanding—who are these speakers? Why do I feel scared?

• • •

I’m affected, right now, by poetry that lives under the surface, not on top of it. My ear remembers poems that rearrange what I already think I know into something new or strange. I’m convinced by poems that don’t assume a shared reality, but fiercely, often gently, move through language trying to figure out what a shared reality might feel and look and sound like. I can think of some other poems that try this—Forrest Gander’s work, Katie Ford’s sonnets in If You Have to Go, Rob Schlegel’s poems about parenthood in In the Tree Where the Double Sex Sleeps, everything by Christina Davis. Sandra Lim’s prose poems in The Wilderness. Shared understanding is a rare commodity in the world right now; maybe it always is, but right now, our lack of it reveals violence not so far underneath the surface.

• • •

Behind everything, this week, I see Notre Dame burning its ceiling, its stone towers still standing, but my imagination goes to the inside, the candles and statues and pews and the little letter even grand churches put on tables at the front to tell you when to come for services. I worried about the Rose Window all of the 15th of April and I am glad it appears to have been saved, but I can’t get out of my head the feeling of heat rising toward it. I imagine the chemistry that explains the height those flames would have been capable of, or at what temperature the glass would have cracked. The window avoided that fate, somehow. The facts that conspired to allow the window to avoid such a fate are a kind of creation myth of their own.

• • •

McMichael’s poems in If You Can Tell can feel, for the reader, like near misunderstandings. They mess around with prepositions; they break their lines in odd places and make their stanzas according to an obscure logic that feels restrictive, elegant, processional, but gives no reason for itself other than to create patterns of sound. The voice of the poems likes to reverse the usual order of things; the new logic feels invented rather than familiar, even if the tale told is familiar:

Christmas comes from stories.
These promise that God’s love for us will outstrip death.
Only if it’s not likely to can the believed in happen.
All I can be sure of waiting for it
Is that I want it to come. I’d rather it be

Love that at its last the body can’t

Take anymore and dies of,
Alive at once to its having been made good.
Results at the end vary.

“The Believed In”

Here, all of Christianity doesn’t come from an image, a theory, or even an event—it comes from the voice, from what’s heard said, and therefore, what’s only barely understood. It comes as much from what’s under the surface of language, desire, as from what’s eventually spoken at all. Proximity and affinity are easy ways to be with others. The Founding Fathers thought such qualities, along with the owning of property, were all that was needed to form blocks of voters. But there’s something else under the surface that we share that language and attention, and, indeed, ambition, can get to, only occasionally, and poetry is what we have to preserve those moments and that possibility.

• • •

I read McMichael’s earlier poetry when I was borrowing a house in the desert a decade ago, the long story-poem Each in a Place Apart. What I loved about his work then was that the non-negotiable core of the poem was always the experience of early childhood, as real to the poet forever as the present tense because of his mother’s death when he was six. It is truly as if a part of him is fixed at six. But it was the silence around that death that McMichael chose, and chooses, again and again to learn from. The poems make silence a constituent part of all conversations. It’s what we talk to, together—that absence.

The poems make silence a constituent part of all conversations. It’s what we talk to, together—that absence.

• • •

A friend of mine shared this quote on his social media “page,” which isn’t a piece of paper, but still feels more permanent than speech. He heard it in his mind, spoken, the way a reader hears, and he wanted to hear it again, and he wanted everyone to hear it. It’s from a book I’d read before, Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, but I’d missed it the first time, I’d heard it without hearing it:

I thought about the great desire among friends and colleagues and travelers who meet on the road, to share what they know, what they have seen and imagined. Not to have a shared understanding, but to share what one has come to understand. In such an atmosphere of mutual regard, in which each can roll out his or her maps with no fear of contradiction, it is possible to imagine the long, graceful strides of human history.

It doesn’t feel possible right now to imagine the long graceful strides of human history. As Notre Dame burned I overheard a reporter say, “I never thought I would outlive a great work of art.” But what if we could preserve the possibility of imagining it, even if we know we can’t do it right now? What if we could remember what the thin air at the top of the mountain feels like, scarce and exhilarating, when we travel back to the origin of all we know? What if this possibility lives not in the lofty thoughts of philosophers but in how we retell the human condition, how we retell our own stories, the mere prepositions we choose to link our actions to their consequences?

• • •

Maybe help is on the way.

Katie Peterson is the author of the poetry collections: This One Tree, Permission, and The Accounts. She lives in California and teaches at the University of California, Davis.