Just Saying


“Just saying,” we say, when we want to make a point but shirk the responsibility for making it, should we cause offense, as if to remind the injured that we have done nothing more than put together so many words, and words are only ever words, inexact and generic like the phrase “just saying” itself.

David Barber listens with an attentive, attuned ear to the way people say things, knowing that they’re never “just saying” something. Even—or is it especially?—in our clichés, we are expressing ourselves and our relationships to each other and the world around us. Barber approaches the scrap heap of common discourse as a connoisseur ready to celebrate the vitality of lexicons and vocabularies so encased in custom and context that everyone else has mistaken them (and by implication the aspects of our lives that they evoke) for dead.

“Mamihlapinatapai” is an amusingly long word, especially given that it refers to a moment of wordless communication. Wikipedia (did Barber find it browsing there?) informs us that it comes from Yaghan, the language of one of the native peoples of Tierra del Fuego. The word specifically describes a look shared between two people, expressing mutual agreement on a course of action that both desire but neither wants to initiate. Impossible to translate in a single English word or even in a short phrase, it becomes, when Barber makes it the title of a poem, a joke about how hard it is to find words for what we want to say to each other—to the point that the difficulty itself is what is shared and what we need a word for. Probably we should not be surprised to learn that only one native speaker of Yaghan is alive today.

“On a Shaker Admonition” takes off from one of the Millennial Laws of the Shakers.  These principles, “never printed or not even widely circulated in written form, implemented the doctrines of the order and thus, in effect, greatly illuminate not only its government but the intimate habits and customs of the people,” as Edward Deming Andrews puts it in The People Called Shakers (1963).  The particular admonition Barber seizes on is marvelously utopian: “All should be so trustworthy, that locks and keys shall be needless.” But our lives, alas, are not like that. Riffing on the formal, slightly archaic word needless, Barber sets out on a sort of pulsing rap (“Needless, useless, pointless, moot”) enumerating a Whitmanesque catalogue of the various locks and keys (“the deadbolt, the strongbox, the padlock … the little metal teeth”) that we depend on to save what is, we think, essential to us. “Just us,” Barber says twice, as if wistfully, now that his poem has made us feel that there is no “us” apart from our elaborate, multiform defenses.

Chock full of and energized by internal rhymes and various syntactic repetitions and reversals, “Saying” explores our everyday verbal exchanges, testing the truth in what we say or, rather, in how we say it. What comes across is not so much how smart we are, as how we smart, and how the pain of living sticks in the language we use, which is yet its own form of knowledge, and one that poetry enables us to share.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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