November 2013 Discussion Guide

The Power of No

Creation and Negation in the November 2013 Poetry

The Power of No

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"Saying nothing...sometimes says the most," Emily Dickinson wrote her aunt in 1874. As Jen Bervin explains in the November 2013 issue of Poetry, for Dickinson "nothing" didn't mean just anything: "Nothing," the poet wrote, "is | the force that renovates | the World–,” and "no," “the wildest | word we consign | to Language.”  

Dickinson wrote many of her own wild words on envelopes: scraps of paper that, at first glance, might seem like nothing much. A special section of the magazine—titled “The Gorgeous Nothings,” like the book that Bervin recently co-editedfeatures images of those envelopes as well as transcriptions of the poems Dickinson drafted on them, letting us see for ourselves how much those "nothings" say.

Quite a lot, it turns out:

In this short Life that only lasts an hour
How much – how little – is within our power.

In this short poem, which only lasts six lines, "little" at once echoes and corrects "much," as if to hint at how much is in little, and how little in much. Generally presented as a couplet, as above, the poem appears quite differently in Dickinson's draft: it tapers down the page to match the angular form of the envelope's seal, as if to make a point (so to speak) of smallness. In so doing, it enlarges the poem’s effect, even as the ragged envelope and cramped scrawl seem to detract from the words’ grandeur. The envelope thus supports the poem's themes while nearly negating the poem itself. 

As though drawing a leaf from Dickinson's book—or an envelope from her stack—Todd Boss makes something of nothingness in "Bravery":

A rung’s come broken 
in the stair to the mow,

and so one hesitates

to clamber up

to bomb a cow

with hay.

As in Dickinson's draft, the form of the poem complements its topic: it stretches down the page like a ladder, its missing line standing in for the absent rung. Boss then compares the broken rung to a missing tooth—a symbol of childhood’s passing phases. Gaps, breaks, a creeping sense of loss: absence lends this poem its substance.

But then everything changes: a neighbor’s son, “too young to know / it was otherwise once, / braves it,” and before long everyone else does, too, “at a run, like pros, and / so it goes, as before.” For a boy who doesn't know what he’s missing, the lack doesn't matter; the erasure is as good as erased, the negation negated. But what of the poem's hinted-at protagonist, the "one" for whom the missing rung constituted a meaningful absence? Perhaps fittingly, by the poem's end he seems to have vanished from its lines entirely.

The theme of disappearance threads through "The Matyó Embroidery,” by the Hungarian poet Szilárd Borbély. That poem begins:

On the platter set out in the center of the Matyó-embroidered tablecloth
was the syringe. And around it was silence.
........................................................
….If I consented to the injected dose,
we could all fall asleep. We would stay together

for all time. And evade the uncertainty in mortifying 
desperation. A fifteen-year-old’s desire to live

cried out in me: “No!” 

In the wake of the Nazi invasion of Hungary, the speaker’s parents have placed a syringe—an instrument of annihilation—on a platter that should instead offer nourishment. This passage inverts still more expectations: the parents present death as a pleasant version of life, and when the speaker says “no” to suicide—again, negating negation—he is choosing a life to be filled with death.

Like an embroidered tablecloth, the poem is rich with patterns. The syringe is one of several sharp instruments that weave in and out of these lines, including uncle Erno’s razor, uncle Vilmos’s servant’s ax, and the bolt of the concentration camp door (all of which recall sewing needles). Fabrics, too, recur and evolve over the course of the poem: the Matyó-embroidered tablecloth, the quilt thrown over a baby to save his life, Nelly’s pullovers—and then the Jewish stars sewn onto clothes. But at the camp, the prisoners lose their clothes and even their hair, till all they wear is, “upon their skin, the writing of goose-flesh": wording that acquiesces terribly to the Nazi view of Jews as animals. One might describe this poem as “the writing of goose-flesh,” too.

The poem ends suddenly: we don’t learn the fate of the speaker, who has been locked in a room that may be a gas chamber. Borbély leaves us as dreadfully unknowing as he is, haunted by “the uncertainty in mortifying / desperation." And the white space that follows the poem’s conclusion becomes as communicative as print, a symbol of annihilation, of the very loss of consciousness the speaker had protested at the beginning. "Saying nothing…sometimes says the most."

And yet this silence speaks so loudly because Borbély has already said quite a lot, painting the speaker’s death-filled days in lively colors, providing details on family (Erno, Vilmos, Nelly, Gyurika, Peterke, Tomika), geography (Pest, Brünn, Toulouse, Újvidék), and psychology (the pullovers Nelly knits to comfort herself, the speaker’s father’s futile belief that the family will stay together). Only because so much has been silenced does this silence say so much.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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