Poisonwood Language

Dr. Robert St. Clair is a good friend and mentor of mine whose work I have followed since he taught me in graduate school. A linguist, philosopher and teacher he has written tons of stuff on language, society, metaphor, communications and countless other topics. Most of the time I agree with him, but while perusing some of his essays on metaphor and culture I came across one that, alas, I must admit perplexed me.

In his article, “Cultural Wisdom, Communication Theory and the Metaphor of Resonance”, St. Clair attempts to discuss the disadvantages of language, by asserting that authors are limited in their ability to connect with readers on a deeper level because language is limited. He says that “any theory of literary analysis which is based on linguistic structuralism has definite limitations”. Well, yes maybe. I mean who can say how many times we’ve said, “there just aren’t enough words”. Or “I can’t find the words.” I agree that sometimes it might be a hit or miss for an author. It’s one of the reasons some people loved Bridges of Madison County and why some of us said, “ehhh.” It’s why there are classics of literature that have survived centuries and why other works fade into oblivion.

But there are those moments in literature where somewhere, someone resonates with what the speaker says.

The first time I read The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, my daughter was just a year old and I had decided she was the last. So when I got to the paragraph that describes that experience, I sobbed and told my husband (who really thought I had lost it for a moment) “You’ve got to read this paragraph!”

But the last one; the baby who trails her scent like a flag of surrender through your life when there will be no more coming after- oh, that’s love by a different name. She is the babe you hold in your arms for an hour after she’s gone to sleep. If you put her down in the crib, she might wake up changed and fly away. So instead you rock by the window, drinking the light from her skin, breathing her exhaled dreams. Your heart bays to the double crescent moons of closed lashes on her cheeks. She’s the one you can’t put down.

St. Clair uses the tuning fork to describe the metaphor of resonance and how some things just can’t be related through words, and I am drawn back to this moment in my literature experience that has stayed with me now for five years. My daughter is six now and I still read that paragraph with a catch in my throat. I resonate that experience; those words are like a tuning fork to my heart because my heart has been there, and I KNOW that feeling.

It’s why we continue to read; it’s why we continue to write, to create, to blog…. Because sometimes there really are enough words.