Poem of the Week | November 20, 2017

This week, we are excited to present a new poem by Jeff Oaks. Oaks has published poems in a number of literary magazines, most recently in Barrow Street, Nimrod, Superstition Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Tupelo Quarterly. His essays have appeared in At Length, Creative Nonfiction, Kenyon Review Online, and in the anthologies Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, and My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them. He teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh.

What Is To Be Done with Silence


On one hand, it’s death.
On another, there’s breath
regained in it. Ears unring in it.
Some days go on in it
in perfect happiness.
                                        The dog
lies down in it, sighs out
what barks he has left in it.
A few minutes later, asleep,
his tail begins to beat the air.
My mother made plans in it
to leave and start again in it,
where silence might not be another
waiting to be hit in it. (The slow
sizzle of her picking herself
off the floor in it while he sat down
and wept without apology.)
Much of the country lives lives in it,
without one friend to trust
or turn to. Minute by hour by
day of it. Filling the ticks
of the terrible old clocks we
had to remember to wind.
The lucky ones find books
in it, become filled with it,
such spaces in it in which
to practice acting, learning
ways to live. Until they
can make a break from it.


Author’s Note:

“What Is To Be Done With Silence” was drafted on January 21st of 2017. I was writing poems all that month with a group of friends as a way to process the anger, frustration, and grief we all were feeling around the Trump Election and what it might mean. We were afraid that many of the things we loved would be changed irreparably, that people we knew would be targeted, denied rights, denied healthcare. Some of the poems were sarcastic, some were melancholy. Some were symbolic, some were narrative. We were looking for voices we could speak in.
As a gay kid from Western New York State, I have wrestled with silence most of my life. As a member of a family whose motto might have been “Nobody else needs to know,” I grew up surrounded by silence. When the slogan Silence=Death appeared in the late 1980s, I was struck by it. Suddenly here silence, which had protected me in many ways, was the enemy to life, and I took it, as I was meant to, personally. I was hiding in it. That breaking of that silence allowed me to live then. In many ways, “What Is To Be Done with Silence” marks an attempt to think again about silence and its uses. I remember feeling exhausted by so much emotional turmoil that I could hardly function some days. I needed silence to clear my mind on one hand. But I didn’t want to suffer in it like my family had, like many do. I think the poem pointed out finally a way out of suffering, as it had when I was a kid—finding new language, finding new ways to live.