Legs That Breathe Snake Venom: On Silence and Speech

I recently found myself on a nighttime walk through Washington D.C., discussing the power and limits of language with a science-minded friend. The next day, on the train carrying me back to my home-for-now, West Virginia, I scribbled in my journal:

“Tyler the aspiring ornithologist says English is the lingua franca of science because of its breadth and versatility. The poets/Dr. Pramuk/Thomas Merton say that language is impoverished to name the present adequately. The distinction, I suspect, is not irrelevant.”

Celebrating the entrance into the first state I would pass through on the road trip where I had never been before: Iowa.

My companion for my flight to D.C. had been my former professor Chris Pramuk’s book Hope Sings, So Beautiful. I had just completed a cross-country road trip taking me through the Rocky Mountains, the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park, the stark desert of Nevada, and the rolling, golden hills of Northern California, and as I flew back over some of those same landscapes, my professor’s artful dance of saying and unsaying complemented the scenes which daily I had watched recede in my rearview mirror.

At the beginning of the chapter titled “Silences,” Chris quotes his friend Fr. Bill McNichols: “You can’t make a big thing of yourself in New Mexico. It shrinks you down. It shrinks everybody down. People come and go, a lot of famous people, and it’s still here.” While I did not drive through New Mexico, I certainly felt the sensation of being shrunken down in the Southwest. My traveling companion Katie and I tried day after day to give name to these feelings, but eventually we seemed to reach a mutual understanding that gape-mouthed pointing punctuated by silence gave more authentic voice to our feelings in those moments. Sometimes those feelings were the kinds that caused me to throw my arms into the air and spin around; the verbs “exalt,” “revel,” and “unite” come to mind. But it was in the stretch of desert between Las Vegas and Bakersfield, CA where I found myself leaning my head up against the window, filled with a wonder garbed in resignation, desolation, and thirst.

When I spent a summer living in rural El Salvador, the issue of immigration shook loose the statistics and economics which had disguised its human form for me up to that point. I met so many people separated from their families living in the United States, and for those people the word “Arizona” carried a breathless dread. In my conversations about the journey pa’l Norte – to the North – I learned countless ways to express the state of being screwed over: está jodido, está fregadoestá bastante difícil, to name a few of the less colorful expressions.

From some deep urge to resistance, I half-jokingly resolved that while in Arizona (which only amounted to about thirty minutes) we would listen only to music in Spanish. “Unas piernas que respiran veneno de serpiente,” – “Legs that breathe snake venom” – cried the nasal female voice prefacing Puerto Rican hip-hop artist Calle 13’s song about immigration, “Pa’l Norte.” As I pressed my face against the window, my phone’s plastic case started to melt, I smacked my lips together, and from my seat I observed the landscape that offered nothing more to the legs who cross it than snake venom.

I recently listened to an episode of the Slate podcast on linguistics Lexicon Valley wherein the hosts, Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo, went back and forth about the use of the word “illegal” to describe people living in the United States without authorization. The thought kept occurring to me as I listened: where are the so-called “illegals” themselves in this conversation? It started to seem kind of ridiculous that I, in my privilege, was sitting around listening to these two linguists analyze the linguistic significance of word choice, as if it mattered more for the sake of language than for the people that language represents.

I suppose that’s why experiences of silence and shrunken down-ness are so important for privileged people like me. I’m used to reality being articulated in a way that favors me. It can be hard to hear the varied articulations of reality from within the din of polysyllabic jargon which strives for political correctness that never ends with a preposition. That polysyllabic jargon is my primary mode of communication, but when I am silent, I begin to ask myself, “Who decides the rules of language? Who decides whose voice is valid?” When I am silent and shrunken down, I begin to learn how to listen across the lines of color and privilege.


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