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I called this series of posts Lifesaving Poems because I actually believe there is something redemptive and healing in the art of making, speaking, listening to and reading poems.

This may sound terribly old hat and beyond the pale, but I now feel I have lived long enough and seen enough things to have some kind of confidence, however tentative, in that claim. If you have read the posts in this series you will know how my own experience, especially of illness, has shaped my search for these transformative capabilities.

I have had special cause to reflect on this in the past week, having lost two friends who in their different ways also believed this to be true. At the funeral of one I chose to read another poem of Brendan Kennelly, ‘The Good’, which you can read here, in honour of this.

My first experience of seeing that working out in the life of someone else occurred in an encounter with another of his poems, ‘May the Silence Break’, below.

Several years ago we got the news that a young family friend had been involved in a road traffic accident. She had been hit by a car, which did not stop to attend to her. We found her in a hospital which specialised in head injuries. The doctors, in their frank way, said she would be affected for life by what had happened to her and while we could expect her to live she would need almost constant care.

The doctors encouraged us to speak to her, hearing being the most enduring of the senses. Would you mind if we read to her, we asked. They thought that was a good idea. Almost on a whim I took in Kennelly’s A Time for Voices (Bloodaxe, 1990) to read to her. Partly this was because it was what I was reading at the time, but I also sensed that Kennelly was someone who knew about ‘the war on silence’ and the cost of trying to overcome it.

Plus, I felt I had nothing else to lose.

Over the next two weeks I read the poems to her, after work, as she slept.

Watching her now you would not know what had happened to her. She is married with children;  she has a successful career. It is a miracle. Every time we speak I think back to those vigils by her bedside, watching the apparatus surrounding her help her breathe bleeping softly in the blue glow of the ward, praying for the silence to break.

May the Silence Break

Because you do not speak
I know the shock
of water encountering a rock.

Supremacy of silence is what I hate.
Only gods and graves have a right to that
or one who knows what this is all about.

Perhaps you do.
If so, let something break through
the walls of silence surrounding you.

Out here among words
your silence is the magnet I am drawn towards.
Men’s mouths, animals eyes and the throats of birds

fear this impenetrable thing.
So do I, all day long
and when the night drops like a confirmation

of what you are,
controller of every star,

of what the daylight struggled to reveal.
This possession kills
whatever it wills.

Nothing I say matters tonight.
Nor should it.
This silence is right

because it knows it is.
I shiver in the cocksure ice
and long for the warmth of bewildered eyes.

May the silence break
and melt into words that speak
of pain and heartache

and the hurt that is hard to bear
in the world out here
where love continues to fight with fear

and the war on silence will end in defeat
for every heart permitted to beat
in the air that hearts make sweet.

Brendan Kennelly, from A time for Voices

Lifesaving Poems

If you liked this, why not try John Burnside’s ‘A Private Life’ or Tom Paulin’s ‘A Lyric Afterwards’