Silence and abandonment

Dear Ilya,

I read your poem “Town Watches Them Take Alfonso” this morning as I cradled a cup of coffee, caffeine infusing my bloodstream. My heart rate rose with each sip. Its bitter mouthwash browned my teeth, a consequence I live with because I like the ritual.

Some people practice morning writing but I start the day with a poem that is delivered to me from which is how I found you. Afterwards, I sometimes write a poem inspired by lines read or sometimes I free-write based on the resulting brew in my head. Occasionally I read the daily poem aloud in the car as my husband drives me to work tunneling through the darkest winter months with high beams of beautiful words. 

But this morning I was alone with my tiny perfect dog in my lap, coffee in one hand, Smartphone in the other, words glowing on the screen, a small fire warming the room. Was it the caffeine that made my throat flutter or these words:

What we don’t say
we carry in our suitcases, coat pockets, our nostrils.

You could have said “the body remembers”. Instead you gave me an image so clear I knew the words would stay with me forever in the same way that words we don’t say stick in our craw. You didn’t say “Words unspoken choke us” – which they do – keeping us from speaking as though they’re too big and too pointed to swallow, impossible to digest. No, they stay there in our nostrils, a scent memory where every inhalation is a reminder. Like the scent of a freshly struck match and its blast of sulfur reminds me of my mother and her mouth stuffed with a cigarette, her unspoken words scorched, silencing her.

Your poem is about cowards not speaking up, about bystanders watching and doing nothing. But I also think how silence is a form of abandonment. How my mother was abandoned by friends and family for the shame of being married to an alcoholic, denied friendship, denied kind words, words of love. How my father excoriated her and me daily for minor infractions – a dinner too salty, the wrong radio station playing. How she retreated into silence. I think of the word “no”, tucked tight in a pocket inside a clenched fist, packed away in a suitcase. I think of the word “no” burning in my nose like sulfur.

Finally, you knock me down with your last phrase “…Our silence stands up for us.” Silence says it all by saying nothing. Oh, god, how this line makes me want to shout and knock down everything around me with sound, the way my 3 year old daughter used to do when angry, her tantrums a symptom of a hurt stuck deep inside. She needed attention and her voice was her weapon and her friend. We heard her. Sound led her to help. Sound healed her.

Your poem rattled me, Ilya. The dog in my lap felt it, too, as I uncrossed my legs and planted my feet on the floor to steady myself. On the coffee table, the lit candle flames tilted. The budgie woke up and sang.

Mostly, I want to thank you for your poem. I didn’t want to not say it.


Landsdowne Park skating rink, Ottawa, Canada – The Rideau Canal is not yet open for skating so we consoled ourselves with a nearby outdoor rink sponsored by the Ottawa Senators Hockey franchise. Go Sens!


14 thoughts on “Silence and abandonment

  1. Susanne, Ilya’s poem and your letter to him are both beautiful and you know what, I read it as I was enjoying my ritual of the day! Coffee and reading. It would have been hard for me to understand the words “written in the 1970’s, a time of political activism against Russian oppression”, had it not been for our memorable and life changing trip of Poland, Lithuania and Estonia in October 2016. Some of the people we met in these countries, talked about those those dark times… and also, Susanne your writing takes me to the time when I was a devoted reader of Cynthia’s blog and felt emotions that only her poems would draw out of me. Thank you Susanne for this post.


    • Shubha, I am so honoured to know that this post struck an emotional chord with you and that in some way this reminded you of Cynthia. I miss her so much and go back to her blog to scroll through her poems and the comments to bring her back to life.

      Isn’t coffee a marvel? For me it’s all about the morning ritual.


    • Thank you, Andrea. I’m reading an old textbook from university days called “How Does a Poem Mean?” and working my way thru the chapter The Words of Poetry. It talks about the usual stuff like connatation, denotation, context, word history, sound – all kinds of wonderful word-nerd stuff. But it doesn’t talk about word association the reader brings to reading the words. And then there’s the whole issue of how a response changes from day to day, year to year. Ah, the beauty of good writing. Its a kind of magic, isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reminds me of that Desmond Tutu quote that’s been making its rounds around social media, about how silence takes the side of the oppressor.
    Of course, your description as you go is much more descriptive than the powerful poem itself. Or maybe that’s because we’re your readers and not Ilya’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the kind comment, Joey. Its often our own experiences that make us connect to a poem or any form of writing, don’t you think? Like when I read your posts about your family life, they sound familiar and makes me feel “ah, I’m not the only one with this going on”. I think about some of your writing about anxiety, for instance.

      I’m beginning to see a pattern in the posting of poems on Poets. org and I think there’s a protest happening. This is an intensely political poem, although set in another time and country.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. the silence we keep inside always finds a voice, its music, this poem found yours again Susanne, Beautiful.


    • If we’re lucky and diligent and purposeful, it finds a voice but I’m not sure it always does. Lots of voices are suppressed or repressed either by ourselves or outside influences. You’re right about music being one of those voices that escapes, though.


    • The writer is Ukranian and this was written in the i970’s, a time of political activism against Russian oppression. I find it fascinating what happens to a poem when a reader brings her own experiences to the words and how the meaning fans out. I hope you liked the poem, too, Dawn.


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