Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill
Marie Ponsot and the rediscovery of language
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After Stroke, a Poet Hunts for the Language Lost,” ran a headline in The New York Times last summer. The 89-year-old poet Marie Ponsot, who raised seven children on her own, published six volumes of poetry, translated a myriad of books and won the National Book Critics Circle Award, was suffering acute aphasia as the result of a stroke. Jim Dwyer, the New York Times columnist, movingly recounted how Ms. Ponsot was groping not only for vocabulary but for order and placement and usage—in a word, for syntax. Her attempts to reclaim speech by going back “to the earliest thing I ever knew by heart,” the Lord’s Prayer, ended only in frustration.

I am haunted by the image of Ms. Ponsot struggling to order her words. I have admired her work since first encountering it over a decade ago. For years two of her poems have been pinned to my bulletin board—a rare honor, as space is limited there and literature must compete with the detritus of managing a household. There is “Rain All Night” from 1999, included in the collection Springing (Knopf), with its thrilling admixture of danger and hope:

On the road home the tide is rising.

Riding the road-tide is dangerous

but it’s not safe to stand still.

Hang on the verge & you drown.

I’m going along for the ride.

I may see more riders further on.

Drowning must wait till I get there

and who knows who might be waiting

with a flash-light, a thermos,

even a raft or a canoe.

Next to it is a more recent poem, “The Tree Says,” which originally appeared in Commonweal. Its enjambments imbue the poem with a lovely, spreading generosity: The tree says: “How to love: put down strong roots./ Be slow to rise. Study the turn of light/ before you ramify so that new shoots/ do not obscure old. Tolerate the flight/ of birds you welcomed....”

What must it be like for a woman who has deployed words with such sparkling sensitivity to have to scrabble for syntax? Syntax is defined in my Latin Prose Composition handbook as “the various classes or headings, under which all words used in speaking or writing may be arranged.” Syntax undergirds written works as divergent as Mark Antony’s stirring eulogy in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” and the instructions on an income tax form. Syntax is what Mr. Dwyer correctly characterizes as “a tool more fundamental to human existence than the wheel.”

It is fundamental to the spiritual life, too. For me, words and their arrangement have always been an essential component of religious experience. The prayers that touch me most deeply, that create in me a sense of the holiness and apartness of God, are marked not only by a judicious and sensitive choice of words but by their artful construction as well. Cadence, repetition, pairing and word order—these are the grace notes of prayer, the forces that transform spoken petitions and thanksgivings into music.

As a little girl growing up in the Episcopal Church, I absorbed the richness of expression that is the great Anglican heritage, confessing my sins in Morning Prayer: “Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts....”

As an adult Catholic convert, I have migrated toward St. Patrick and the plethora of prepositions that adorn his breastplate: “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me....”

And I echo St. Ignatius Loyola in his entreaties to the Lord: “Teach me to serve you as you deserve:/ To give and not to count the cost,/ To fight and not to heed the wounds,/ To toil and not to look for rest,/ To labor and not to ask for reward/ Save that of knowing I am doing your will.”

But my personal favorite (author unknown), which I pray daily, is this prayer:

O Lord, forgive what I have been,

sanctify what I am,

and order what I shall be.

To me, this little tricolon limns a perfect arc of prayer. It begins in the past, with an examination of conscience, spurring me to reflect on where I have fallen short (“forgive what I have been”). It proceeds to the present, with a plea for God to bless my current circumstances, helping me make peace with my imperfect self (“sanctify what I am”). Finally, it flows into the future with its call for trust in God, gently exhorting me to place myself in the hands of God (“order what I shall be”). The syntax of such a prayer, winging through past and present toward the future, has the capacity to direct a pilgrim’s progress, to illumine the salutary path. The ordering of the words both creates and reflects the way we might order our spiritual selves and may perhaps, just perhaps, propel us toward the kingdom of heaven.

Several years ago, during a visit to the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., I foolishly entered what was then called the “Touch Tunnel.” This is a maze of black tunnels utterly devoid of light (and, it seemed, of air). The idea is that, deprived of the sense of sight, bereft of familiar visual markers, the tunnel traveler will rely on the other senses—smell, hearing and touch—to find the way back to light and life. It looked manageable from the outside, and I did not want to appear timid in front of my children, so in I went. For what seemed like hours I groped in the darkness, thoroughly disoriented and increasingly certain that I would suffocate on my own terror before I found the way out. As it was for Dante’s pilgrim in the opening of Inferno, so it was for me: la diritta via era smarrita, the straight way was lost. To misplace one’s sense of syntax, to be unable to locate the correct pathways for words, must be similarly terrifying.

As the months have passed, I have often thought about how Marie Ponsot was doing in her efforts to reclaim syntax. And now I hope that God is sanctifying what she is and ordering what she will be. I wonder whether she has perhaps discovered an experience of God that lies on the other side of language, where words cannot go.

Language has its boundaries. Certain emotions and experiences are inexpressible by the human tongue, understood only by the heart in a wordless reality. As the poet John Berryman wrote, upon the loss of a beloved friend, “Nouns, verbs do not exist for what I feel.” Deep grief, extreme joy—we cannot adequately salve or celebrate these by throwing words at them. “The kingdom of wisdom,” writes the Rev. Raimon Panikkar in A Dwelling Place for Wisdom, “paradoxically, can be entered by all because it transcends both sensuousness and intelligibility and takes its seat in the mystical.” Does mysticism, perhaps, begin at the point where the sensuousness and intelligibility of language leave off?

If this is what God has ordained for us—a journey through a dark and wordless tunnel that leads ultimately to an everlasting effulgence of light—then I will go faithfully. But I cannot say I will not miss the nouns and the verbs.

Read a selection of Marie Ponsot's poetry for America.

Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill, co-author (with Joseph Papp) of Shakespeare Alive! (Bantam, 1988) and a graduate of the Yale Divinity School, is currently a visiting fellow there. The poem “Rain All Night” is reprin

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