The Failure of Language

First day of class, I ask the students, by way
of introduction, what they believe:
Language is our best tool, or language fails
to express what we know and feel.
We go around the room.
Almost everyone sides with failure.
Is it because they’re young,
still find it hard to say what they mean?
Or are they romantics, holding music and art, the body,
anything wordless as the best way in?
I think about the poet helping his wife to die,
calling his heart helpless as crushed birds
and the soles of her feet the voices of children
calling in the lemon grove, because the tool
must sometimes be bent to work.

Sitting next to my friend in her hospital bed,
she tells me she’s not going to make it,
doesn’t think she wants to,
all year running from the deep she’s now drowning in.
I change the flowers in the vase,
rub cream into her hands and feet.
When I lean down to kiss her goodbye,
I whisper I love you, words that maybe
have lost their meaning, being asked to stand
for so many unspoken particulars.

The sky when I walk to the parking lot
this last weekend of summer
is an opal, the heat pinkening above the trees
which dusk turns the color of ash.

Everything we love fails, I didn’t tell my students,
if by fails we mean ends or changes,
if by love we mean what sustains us.
Language is what honors the vanishing.
Or is language what slows the leaving?
Or does it only deepen what we know of loss?

My students believe it’s important
to get the words right.
Once said, they can never be retrieved.
It takes years to learn to be awkward.
At their age, each word must be carefully chosen
to communicate the yes, but also leave room
for the not really, just kidding, a gateway car
with the engine running.

Inside us, constellations,
bit thread knotted into night’s black drape.
There are no right words,
if by right we mean perfect,
if by perfect we mean able to save us.

Four of us pack up our friend’s apartment.
Suddenly she can’t live unassisted.
I remember this glass, part of a set
I bought her years ago
when she became for a time a scotch drinker.
I bought it for its weight, something
solid to hold, and for the way an inch or two
of amber would look against its etched walls.
I wrap it in newspaper and add it to the box marked Kitchen.

It’s my friend herself who is fragile.
When I take her out to eat, each step is work.
The restaurant is loud and bright.
She wants to know if she looks normal.
I make my words soft. Fine,
which might be the most useless word in English,
everything is going to be fine.

~ Jacqueline Berger

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