Historicizing Absence: Spoken Tongues in brothers
by Andrew Moss
The absences in Lucille Cliftons dramatic dialogue brothers enunciate a port-war theology that calls for a response to its queries, its speech, and its recording of a mythological and concretely historical past. The sequence, a conversation in eight poems between an aged Lucifer and God omits one of a pair of its speakers. Gods silence ironically and significantly is amplified by the poems allusion to Carolyn Forché, a poet and historian whose work to witness the violences of the twentieth century bears a special significance to brothers. This striking replacement Forché speaks while God remains silent in the sixth of eight short poems in the sequence, when the conversation ceases its rehearsal of the Genesis story and wanders into the sins of the twentieth century, signals the entrance of a third speaker into the drama between Lucifer and God, the speech of human memory and history.
Such a change in the terms and speakers in a debate as old as Milton invites a revision of the vocabulary in which a god might speak, one whose context is the chronological time of Cliftons one-act dialogue, the time long after. brothers asks the simple, but fundamental question, after what? Cliftons situation of a Gods silence in a specific time implies a mutable relationship between poets (and humans) and gods. The temporal component of such a poetics pinpoints these absences and silences in specific contexts. In brothers the context might simply be, after Auschwitz, although I would like to qualify this chronological context, by suggesting that the entry of a human, poetic voice into the mythical debate between Lucifer and God is itself an intervention into the time of that Gods presence, turning mythical time into time that can be measured: it suggests the entrance of God into history.
This poem sequence challenges the conception of Lucifers agency and Gods omnipotence, however, in its sixth poem, which explores the gaps left by Gods epochal silences and the ruptures caused by human agency. Seven of Lucifers eight poems address the events of the book of Genesis, poems in which Lucifer rehearses fundamental theological questions: the presence of evil or sin, the problem of faith, the capacity of a punishing God to forgive. Lucifer departs his line of questioning, which for all its inventive diction lacks an awareness of time past, in a stanza that alludes to biblical and much more recent history, however. Carolyn Forchés enigmatic proof of God, presented as an epigraph, inserts a contemporary voice into the poem sequences dialogue. It is followed by a description of evil that draws on images of mass destruction and poetic crisis:
the silence of God is God.
tell me, tell us why
in the confusion of a mountain
of babies stacked like cordwood,
of limbs walking away from each other,
of tongues bitten through
by the language of assault,
tell me, tell us why
You neither raised Your hand
nor turned away, tell us why
You watched the excommunication of
that world and You said nothing.
In this stanza, Lucifer follows Jameson, historicizing Gods silence. The specific judgment for the incineration of countless babies is aimed at a world, punishment for a globes sins. Two World Wars, and the seemingly obvious allusions to genocide carried out as the burning of children like cordwood, locate these sins in the twentieth century. However, the densely packe image confusion of a mountain/ of babies stacked like cordwood suggests an overlap of Biblical and Holocaust images. The lineation here enjambs mountain/ of babies, which creates a visual and rhythmic division into two images: the confusion of th scene in which Moses receives and presents a first covenant with his Lord, and the Holocaust that signals, in its enormity, that covenants end. The first scene, of direct speech between God and humans, is a new covenant that recasts the fallen world and secures divine protection for the Israelites in the face of persecution. The second, in juxtaposition, is doubly tragic: genocide accompanied by a casting out of Gods presence, an irony rather cruelly alluded to in the pun excommunication. In this stanza, though, Gods silence, noted in each of the previous stanzas, returns with a difference: in an historical (not mythical) context, and following the utterance of human (not angelic) poetry.
Following Lucifers allusions to a twentieth century of evil, Lucifer retreats into the ahistorical position of faith, and, even, to an ethical position that links theological inquiry and poetry together as endeavors that ultimately produce confusion and pain. Lucifer thus critiques both the absence of God following his second week and in our twentieth century, and Lucifers own objection to that silence. That God did not, but could have called Adam and Eve, and that he did not answer the language of assault during more recent violence, requires the enunciation of Lucifers poetry to correct. That Lucifer and that world of contemporary violence doubted Gods ways during their own excommunications requires the certitude of faith in poem seven, whose epigraph reads still there is mercy, there is grace:
could I have come to this
marble spinning space
propelled by the great
thumb of the universe?
could the two roads
of this tongue
converge into a single certitude?
could I, a sleek old
curl one day safe and still
at Your feet, perhaps,
but, amen, Yours.
Lucifers faith and poetics propel him, as if in perpetual circular motion, into doubt. How otherwise, he repeats three times, a refrain signaling not entrapment in a physical or spiritual hell, but in a static dialogue, a dialectic without movement. Lucifers inability to find the comfort of alienation from his position in relation to God has him aching for another way. He is searching for an otherwise to the recoiling certitude of God, itself a safe and still circle. Lucifers compromise in poem seven completes the drama of a declination narrative that begins with Lucifers invitation in the poems opening lines: come coil with me/ here in creations bed/ among the twigs and ribbons of the past [. . .] let us rest here a time/ like two old brothers who watched it happen and wondered/ what it meant. Here, at the end of yet another act of contrition, does Lucifer the hopeful colloquist capitulate to the embarrassing corporal punishment prescribed him in Genesis, retold in the present time of the poem, wearily, as the bruising of his heel, my head,/ and so forth.
The poem sequence resolves Lucifers queries in a way Lucifers faith and Gods silences do not. Its final poem begins by eliding the words of Carolyn Forché in its epigraph, after which Lucifer, who has shown the wit and spite which has endeared him to us, bites with particular sharpness:
. . . . . . . . . . . .is God
having no need to speak
You sent Your tongue
splintered into angels.
with my little piece of it
have said too much.
to ask You to explain
is to deny You.
before the word
you kiss my brother mouth.
the rest is silence.
Forchés name and Gods silence are here absent. But brothers confuses the meaning of its absences in this stanza. In stanza six, Gods silence presented itself to the violences of the twentieth century. In stanza eight, Gods silence is elided briefly because the poem withholds Carolyn Forchés formulation. Put simply, God lacks the words before which he can appear as he has appeared to Lucifer. Lucifers so, an abrupt transition that signals the end of his speeches, also signifies his surprise. Since Lucifers attempts at dialogue and theology have posited speech as the primary movement in a conversation with God, the erasure of language in this stanzas epigraph seem like a new way of calling to him. Lucifer, then, seems rebuked not by God, but by a poet.
The tonal shift of this final poem, in a series of poems that figures Lucifer as jester, cynic, sycophant, and ironist, is tragic. Lucifer recognizes his flaw as miniscule and condemning: even i,/ with my little piece of it/ have said too much. As the brightest of angels, the farthest from Gods ear, Lucifer has transgressed with a little of Gods tongue, a little speech. The little speech that invites Gods presence is language that evokes silence: the elided word, the signifier silence. The poem ultimately plays with the possibilities for poetry that at once speaks and does not speak, that creates absences in which God might appear.
The poem goes about its work, which is to justify the ways of God, dialectically: in its own little piece of speech, it constructs a space in which Gods silence can register, a word before which God can be. The poem concludes: before the word/ You were./ You kiss my brother mouth./ the rest is silence. These lines, suggesting the necessity of speech/language to demarcate Gods being, highlight the importance, if not the totality, of languages effect. The image of the kiss reinforces the dialectic performed, between speech and silence and between Lucifer and God, which results in the third term of human existence. The silent exchange of tongue and breath, metonymies for the opposed terms of speech and God both in this poem and in a rather classical theological tradition, unite an eternal and changeless God and the agent of human history in the act of a kiss. This unification, however, occurs under the sign of poetry, in the space of a sequence of Lucille Cliftons poems and the sign of Carolyn Forché.
Copyright 2001 by Andrew Moss
Return to Lucille Clifton