Article - Autumn 2021

The Bird That Sang I Am

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Poems about the place where we belong

By Christian Wiman | September 7, 2021


A few years ago, I edited an anthology of poems called Joy. This fall I’m publishing a new anthology, Home, which I had intended to be a companion book. In many ways it is, but in one major way it’s not. In Joy a long and wide-ranging search led me to an increasingly focused sense of what the word might mean. With Home a similar search caused the governing word to disperse into more definitions than one book could contain. This frustrated me at first. A word that means everything—home is a house, a country, a language, a love, a longing, a grief, a god—means nothing. Gradually, though, I found the linguistic slippage provocative. That a word could have meanings so various and contradictory meant something was deeply—and still—at stake. A certain circularity is to be expected—and not embraced, either, but endured. “In the realm of primal words,” as Josef Pieper says, “we are always on the verge of tautology.”

Poetry, though, can push thought beyond tautology. “I have learned and dismantled all the words,” writes Mahmoud Darwish, “in order to draw from them a single word: Home.” Note the progression: first he learned, then he dismantled. First he carefully assembled a structure adequate to his love and longing, then he suffered its destruction to get back to some original source. As with other primal words—poetry is one, actually—the cost of knowledge is loss.

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