James Goldberg’s poem “In the Beginning”* exults in orality. It begins, “When he was young, / they read the books / out loud.” But the poet doesn’t revel simply by stating that his experience with language is grounded in the spoken word. He also alludes to the revel-atory power of speech with his title, which echoes John the Beloved’s (later the Revelator’s) witness that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). What we read as “the Word” is here translated from the Greek term logos, which according to Strong means “something said.” So John’s “Word” refers to something spoken, an idea mirrored in the additive, parallel structure of his opening statement, whose coordinate structure (“. . . and . . . and . . .”) parallels the rhythms of spoken language. When translated with the article, as it is in John, “the Word” refers especially to “the Divine Expression,” who is Christ, who was–who existed–“in the beginning,” before taking on flesh, and who did so “with God” and who “was God.” Through this witness of Christ, when heard in conjunction with what we now have as John 1:2″“5, it becomes clear that Christ is the Father’s deepest, most creative, most transformative expression to humanity. He is the Father’s promise of salvation spoken through the very structures of the cosmos.
James calls upon these associations from the beginning of his poem with its title and its subject matter, both of which suggest that the sounded word has a transformative effect on those with ears to hear (see Alma 31:5). And he deepens these associations with word-power through the additive, parallel structures of the poem, which mark its essential orality. These structures are evident especially in the repetition of “When he was young”; in the poet’s simple language; in his use of the second person mode of address, which suggests a face-to-face conversation (“You could still. . .”); and in the additive phrasing of the second and third stanzas: “And . . . so . . . and . . . . Then.”
However, the poet’s exultation in orality weakens in the last stanza where he directly addresses the reader and abruptly changes his conceit from the intimacy and the transience of spoken words to the contrasting permanence of written language. In the first three stanzas, he vividly explores the influence the mother’s voice had on the son’s body. The verbs he uses beautifully convey the dynamics of this relationship: her words dance, percuss, cause trembling, spark, ricochet, swing, wiggle. These actions all suggest that the mother’s words are never received by the son and his siblings in quite the same way, which jibes with the nature of spoken words: they’re given and received dynamically. No sentence will ever be voiced the same way, even by the same speaker. But the poet ultimately mutes these dynamics in the last stanza by suggesting that readers “could still see the trails” the mother’s language left “branded” into her children’s bodies and lives if we “had God’s eyes.” This is a jarring, subversive, almost violent change in direction.
I say this because the change suddenly privileges sight over sound, whereas the majority of the poem praises the sounds of language and the relationships enacted thereby. In fact, this move directly contradicts the speaker’s statement in the first stanza that the mother’s words “didn’t climb straight up an ocular rope to settle in some recess of [the son’s] brain / –perhaps never to return.” Sounded language and its reception are, as I’ve briefly discussed, more dynamic than that. Oral language doesn’t really “settle”; it’s far more transient, more active. As such, it may not necessarily wear “trails” or brand someone: the first action suggests that the words repeatedly followed the same paths through the listener’s mind, while the latter suggests an arguably violent action of marking someone with a label.
And this doesn’t feel quite right, not just because it doesn’t jibe with the nature of orality, but also because it mutes the mother’s voice in favor of God’s (and the reader’s) vision. Such privileging isn’t necessary. The poet ought to praise sound to the end. As I argue in my first paragraph, God is, after all, a being who creates, transforms, and saves things by speaking. (See Lectures on Faith 7:3.) In this light, this is how I would render the last stanza:
if you had God’s ears.
Could still hear how the words she read to her children
bound them to Him.
Some notes on my suggested changes:
1. Changing “see the trails they left” to “hear their echoes” would preserve the poem’s focus on the nature of spoken words.
2. Changing “God’s eyes” to “God’s ears” would suggest that God is an oral/aural being who both speaks and listens closely to his children’s presence in and influence on the cosmos, which is in line with what has been revealed about him.
3. Changing “Could still see how the the words she read her children / branded them His” to “Could still hear how the words she read to her children / bound them to Him” would preserve the focus on orality, unmute the mother’s voice, and suggest that God found her voice efficacious as a means to bind her children together in a relationship with the Divine.
My hope in posting this interpretation and in suggesting a different take on the final stanza is not to suggest that James’ poem is weak. On the contrary, I think it’s a strong statement of the potential spoken language has to bind humans to one another and to God in deep kinship bonds. I just think this statement could be more strongly made if the focus on spoken words carried through to the end of the poem.
* * *
Postscript: Since this poem revels in spoken language, it begs to be heard; so here are two takes: in the first, I read the poem as written; in the second, I read it having incorporated my revisions.
*When I posted this, the site on which James’ poem appears, everydaymormonwriter.com, returned a malware warning. So rather than link you there and risk infecting your computer, I’ve taken a screenshot and posted that here so you can read the poem as it originally appears.
3 thoughts on “Listening Closely to James Goldberg’s “In the Beginning””
My first thought is that finally someone has paid James the compliment of digging into his imperfections. My second is that perhaps Tyler does not believe in synesthesia.
My second comment is more serious than it appears. I see your point and you may well be right, but I wonder if the change in privilege was intended to allow these ideas of speaking to be strengthened by allowing them to colonize the other senses. It’s a possibility anyway.
You bring up a good point, Th., about the synaesthetic potential of the poem. I hadn’t considered that in this instance, so I’m glad you did.
Having said that, I still think the negative reference to vision in the first stanza works against the references to sight and the (possible) violence of being branded in the last stanza. What’s more, the rest of the poem makes a pretty clear connection between sound and feeling (as in the physical sensation): the mother’s words “dance across her vocal cords,” they “percuss into his ears, / [. . .] / making tiny bones tremble,” and they “wiggled / off into the nerves / around the edges / of [the son’s] body.” These references suggest to me an awakening of the senses of hearing and touch (sound is, after all, an embodied phenomenon that can be felt by both speaker and listener); but that awakening doesn’t automatically translate into renewed vision, as assumed in the final stanza. Maybe if there was more in the poem about how sound influenced the son’s vision, the synaesthetic potential you mention would be realized. But the connection isn’t made clearly enough for me, especially (as I mentioned) because in the poem’s second sentence the speaker “straight up” shies away from the connection between language and vision and, by extension, the connection between orality and literacy.
I would also like to thank Tyler for this thoughtful review.