We are excited to share that past contributor Brooke Sahni has a book coming out this November! Before I Had the Word is a poetry collection that explores the confluences of religion and culture in the world. In the poems, Brooke draws on her backgrounds in Sikhism and Judaism to challenge our notions of the self and the divine. Nature, sexuality, and the body, plus the secular and mundane worlds, are thoughtfully questioned.
Before I Had the Word invites us to consider what is essential and what is sacred: language, the body, pleasure, faith. It invites us to consider who we are, how we inhabit ourselves, how words – “words that give and words that take away” – shape our experience. There are poems in this book that are etched in me now. Poems I’ll return to again and again. Poems I’ll teach. Poems I’ll share with my own daughter. This book is a gift.
Maggie Smith, Author of Keep Moving
Before I Had the Word is the 2020 winner of the X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize and is available for pre-order from Texas A&M University Press. Brooke contributed to our Issue 24 and is also the author of the poetry collection Divining. To learn more about Brooke, visit her website or Instagram. Congratulations, Brooke!
Prior to the corona outbreak, which
has demanded that we form new relationships with isolation and stillness, I’d
been thinking a lot about the connection between religion, writing and the
concept of silence and solitude. I
often think and try to write about how religion and writing are intertwined,
how both seek to create meaning out of the ineffable. Many organized
religions rely on language to get at the holy, unspeakable things, and so does
writing. A good piece of writing shows the reader life’s ineffable nuances.
More than that, writing elicits the feeling of holiness—a feeling of
recognition, connection and empathy, without dogmatism or divisiveness. The act
of writing, for some, is a spiritual practice. It is for me. This isn’t to say
the act is joyful or anywhere near divine—it’s often a painful practice,
laborious and difficult. Still, it feels like holy work in that I have to do
it. Whether or not the writing is seen by anyone else, whether it’s good
writing or bad, the need to write calls, and I surrender.
By default all artists are
theologians. We create meaning out of disorder and succeed far greater in this
meaning-making pursuit than any organized religion ever will. We strive to
show, not preach, connect, not separate. Yet there is something to be said that
silence and solitude show up in religiosity and art-making. Virginia Woolf’s A
Room of One’s Own, and Thoreau’s Walden, are just a few examples of
the long history between writing and solitude; we understand writing as an
inherently solitary act, one that is often accompanied by silence. Some think
of cabins in the woods, private rooms in which to muse. Religions, too,
particularly monastic traditions, emphasize solitude as a means to get closer
to the divine, with nature and therefore the Self. The scholar Alan Altany says
that “silence and solitude are as mother to the monk, leading him into the
abyss, shorn of distractions to be alone with god.” Religious traditions are
rich in their attention to isolation, pilgrimage and exile.
In The World of Silence, Swiss
philosopher Max Picard asserts that silence is not merely an absence of sound,
but an internal state that can be achieved anywhere. Thoreau makes this point,
too, when he says, “the really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of
Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervis in the desert.” Silence, Picard
says, is not a negative lacking: “When language ceases, silence begins. But it
does not begin because language ceases. The absence of language simply makes
the presence of Silence more apparent…language and silence belong together:
language has knowledge of silence as silence has knowledge of language.” Although
it is not necessary according to this point of view, quiet time with nature, for
me, is religious. And it’s true that I do not need language, theology,
or poetry for that matter, to tell me to feel moved. It’s just there. It’s
unnamable. It feels sacrilegious to try to name it outright—that’s what art is
for. In fiction we try to mimic that unspeakable feeling through plot, through
the specificity of an individual life. In poetry, via surprising, precise metaphors,
form and structure.
Now suddenly our world has changed.
The corona outbreak, this microscopic virus, has asked us to engage with large sociopolitical
dilemmas as well as theological and spiritual questions. The term sabbath
comes to mind, both as a religious observance and, more poignantly, as an
internal state of stillness and rest. Most of us are not retreating to the
woods, and many of us are attending work—i.e. nurses, doctors, grocery store
employees, etc.—all the people who are keeping us going during this time of
flux. Many of us are disengaged from a literal silence, but all of us are
interacting with isolation, change, uncertainty, fear, patience,
empathy, and surrender—these human conditions that are obsessed over
by both theists and artists. Altany writes, “Solitude and silence are not so
much attempts to stop the world or to escape it, but to engage in a new way.” We
needn’t identify as a theist or an artist to find internal states of sabbath,
nor must we live a silent, monastic life. We will continue to make meaning
because we are human.