Actual Miraculous

October 10, 2016

Contributor’s Marginalia: Jessica Johnson on “I am the miraculous” and “My Environs” by Martha Silano

In Seattle, where I lived for eight years, tech giants, research institutions, and freeways with life-altering traffic rise up alongside deep blue (and deeply altered) bodies of water and woods that shelter owls, raccoons, and other nocturnals. In “I am the miraculous” and “My Environs,” Martha Silano, based in Seattle, writes within this urban knowledge center, encompassing fact and miracle, technological and natural. Silano’s poems, emerging from a richly associative web of language, undermine dichotomies and spin off new ways of experiencing our post-industrial urban landscapes and interiors.

“I am the miraculous,” envisions the miracle as a fierce and fluid actual:

the traffic running smoothly down Oak, the octopus’s
three-tenths of a second transformation from algae-leaf sprig

to many tentacled astonishment. I’m the sacs and cells
that brought you into focus, the aqueous humour, the hyaloid canal.

The actual in these lines is daily experience—an unexpected gift from the traffic gods—and it is also that which we receive from science: an understanding precisely named and measured. This actual-miraculous is anatomy, zoology, and “every bit of physics.” It is also foxes and wolves. It also materializes from the correspondence of sounds: the s sounds in sacs refracting to cells, humour’s h cascading to hyaloids.

As if all this isn’t miraculous enough, the poem goes on to name the siblings of the miraculous, the self-sacrifice of Chernobyl responders reacting to a natural phenomenon—radiation—gone awry because of human intervention. A genealogy is revealed: the miraculous is the parent of “Incredulous,” myriad instances of disbelief.

And then, in my favorite move, those moments of disbelief give birth to “the owls who fly to their breeding grounds/ at the coldest hour of night.” Up until this point, the miraculous has been associated with worlds and bodies of knowledge external to speaker, but in a deft reversal that works against the internal-external divide, our own sense of Incredulous now calls a particular miraculous creature into being. The miraculous is many actual things, and it is also the grandparent of owls whose ardor is—unnaturally/naturally—undeterred by cold.

Similarly sound-driven in content and form, “My Environs” happens where the built and the living coincide with language: “I say warbling vireo and/ a turbo jet drops from my tongue./ I say trill while a mower/ groans away the cottonwood breeze […]” Attempts to speak the natural are drowned out by loud machines. (Who hasn’t experienced these weekend morning invasions?)

Next, human language is the only one through which a bird’s song can be spoken—another overlay—while the omnipresent traffic breaks still breaks through the speaker’s rendering of the bird’s song: “A bird says If I see you, / I’m gonna seize you and squeeze you till you squirt/ as a line of cars slashes its psalm like lenticels […]” The bird’s song is somewhere under the words through which we can hear it, somewhere behind the road noise.

The poem asks, “How best to solve this natural/unnatural dichotomy if not by clapping/ one or both hands?” Silence and sound are interchangeable in these lines, suggesting that either could be an offering, and that a simple resolution to this construct isn’t available. In the following lines, a squirrel’s “scritch” gives rise to an equation’s “x, x, x”; “those who solve for y” call sonically for the “bye bye” of a glacial moraine. Sound answers sound, and the speaker states “I am multiplying/ existence times the peculiar tufts of dozing/ owls. Mice make their own sound.” The poem settles here on particularity, where one image, one sound can’t be rendered in terms of another. There are no substitutes, no intrusions, no appropriation. The owl-tufts and mouse-sounds are what they are. At the end, “a person/ mishears momentous as moment” and an entity called “nothing/everything” appears, “in flux.”

Both of Silano’s poems develop with an energy, an inevitability, that evokes both organic processes and the play inherent in language. Images and ideas arise from the demands of one word, one sound, for another. Whatever experiential and philosophical questions the poems bring up, the pleasurable experience of their expected/unexpected unfolding—of the potential becoming actual—is, for me, the best possible answer.

Jessica Johnson is a community college instructor in Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her husband and two small children. Her chapbook, In Absolutes We Seek Each Other (New Michigan Press), was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Brain, Child and Harvard Review. New poems appear online at Public Pool and The Account, and she’s on Twitter @jjopdx.

Previous post:

Next post: