The Word-Soaked World
Troubling the Lexicon of Art and Faith
Since 1989, Image has hosted a conversation at the nexus of art and faith among writers and artists in all forms. As the conversation has evolved, certain words have cropped up again and again: Beauty. Mystery. Presence.
For this issue, we invited a handful of past contributors to examine our common lexicon as a sort of personal inventory on the part of the journal. Were there words we were using too glibly, we asked, words that needed to be reconsidered, revitalized, or tossed out?
The writers’ responses surprised us. Some pieces retain an element of that self-critical spirit we requested, such as the essays on beauty and suffering. But the majority of the essays ended up as a referendum on the power of language, like art itself, to represent and reveal. Words, the writers seemed to say, deserve to be weighed heavily. On consideration, some words that seem simple or obvious are more demanding than we think.
Language is double-edged. On the one hand, the ability to call things by their names can connect us to others, and can anchor an artist in the created world. Perhaps language itself even offers an image of the divine. Some would even go so far as to say that language is what makes religious experience possible.
But at times, even after long wrestling and careful study, language can seem inadequate, more a stumbling stone than a pathway. Sometimes language seems able only to point to things just outside its reach, things we crave but can’t grasp, things we dare not approach, things we draw back from in awe or revulsion.
This collection of short essays demonstrates the push-pull relationship believing artists have with words: We are in pursuit of a God who is revealed through the poetry of the oldest Psalms, but whose true name is impossible to pronounce.
AFTER I RECEIVED a couple of music degrees from a small liberal arts college in Ohio, I found myself being tugged away from academia. I was caught in the gravitational pull of visual artists and writers who were pursuing their own unique visions and obsessions come what may. The prospect of beginning to create work of my own felt like being nudged onto a dance floor by a mysterious partner. I was feeling called. I was finding my people—humans who would become lifelong mentors, colleagues, and friends.
In my case, most of those humans were connected to the oddest of locales, an old neighborhood in the river town of Cincinnati called Over-the-Rhine. Even the name wooed me when I first heard it—echoes of “over the rainbow,” but with an otherness as foreign as I felt. Over-the-Rhine was built and settled mostly by German immigrants in the mid to late 1800s and remains the largest intact neighborhood from that era on earth. Blocks and blocks of three and four-story brick buildings, with more detail and old-world craftsmanship than the eye could ever take in, sprawl and wind north of downtown like a lost European city transported and dropped whole in Ohio. It’s now a racially mixed neighborhood in various states of neglect and renewal. And it’s still widely thought of as the bad part of town. For ten formative years of my life, it was home.
The songwriter Maria McKee wrote, “When a big city beckons, you have no choice but to go.” I had been beckoned. I carried my boxes and suitcases up to a third-story apartment overlooking the activity of Main Street. With a few ten-dollar bills, I persuaded men standing around drinking out of bottles wrapped in brown paper bags to carry my upright piano up two flights of stairs. I put the piano next to my bed.
Most of my early attempts at songwriting and recording happened in those third-story rooms. The sound of the street seeped in always, but it, too, felt like music. The sirens wailed in the night, dashing sleep on the rocks. Since I was awake—all my summer windows propped open—I leaned over my desk with an insomniac’s fountain pen, taught myself to strum the guitar, or sat stripped to the waist after midnight at the upright piano trying to unlearn my formal training and channel the sweatier, grittier city around me. Songs made in those rooms eventually began to make their way into the marketplace, with the usual measure of surprise, heartbreak, dashed expectations, tiny victories. I began to make a tentative living. I embraced a vocation.
But I also realized I could see no green tree from any of my apartment windows. And I saw only narrow corridors of sky, obscured at night by a milky street-lit veil. I began to read longingly of various American artists and writers—Thoreau, Frost, the Wyeths, O’Keefe, Berry—who had found a patch of unpaved earth on which to work and put down roots.
Perhaps I was feeling a second calling. Maybe my cells were tingling with embedded memories of childhood, of days spent running in the woods. That’s what small-town kids used to do in the 1970s: run out the door after school and disappear. If nothing else, there was always some lofty maple to climb.
When we lived in Pennsylvania, I remember more than once walking deep in the woods only vaguely aware of where I was and stumbling into the vision of a gray, weathered wooden house—no road, no driveway, just an empty house in the woods—alone in a small overgrown clearing, lost in its own story. And we always explored the musty rooms—horse-hair plaster falling off the walls, shafts of dusty light at odd angles through broken windows, an old iron bed upstairs. And the pioneers always left a pile of their trash somewhere nearby, which yielded a child more treasure than a heart could hold: bottles made of thick green glass with bubbles blown by long-ago lungs, a discarded inkwell, maybe from some child’s wooden desk.
Yes, I was a young songwriter in a beautiful city, but haunted by shaded green days gone by.
I had found a willing wife and partner, a transplanted small-town singing girl often caught daydreaming along the same lines. One day in early fall, out driving the back roads of Ohio alone, trying to finish a song, I rounded a narrow bend and saw a pre-Civil War farmhouse for sale. It stood with a few ramshackle farm buildings that looked as if they too had been transported from another time and place. I felt a tug and turned around and drove past the little farm again. And again. I told my wife about the discovery later that evening. Before I got many words out, she told me to call the real estate agent and ask her to meet us there in the morning.
This was before the crash, when a couple of songwriters could still get a bank loan. Sure enough, when spring arrived, friends were carrying our boxes into this new fixer-upper dream, a dream surrounded by rolling tree-lined fields and some ancient towering maples that the pioneers had planted for shade. There were woods nearby, and a creek beyond the hill, and the air was alive with the songs of birds. We soon realized we knew the names of very few of them.
There was no indoor bath then, just a toilet with no lid and a utility sink, so we soon rigged up an outdoor shower in an old cherry tree. We stood as the sun sank low and soaped our skin beneath a riot of cherry blossoms. We planted our first vegetable garden.
My parents arrived for an initial visit and my mother gathered apples from the old tree out front and began peeling. My father, a lifelong birdwatcher and gardener, couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing and seeing. Bobwhite quail calling from the fringes, finches galore, curious hummingbirds hovering around the porch, the occasional owl holding forth after nightfall.
And what a garden, he said.
He had another encouraging word for us as we surveyed the overgrown scene: Leave the edges wild, he said. Let the songbirds have hidden thorny places for their untamed music.
Several years prior to our move, the old upright piano had been replaced by a seven-foot Steinway grand. We hired professional piano movers to truck it out to the farm and set it up in the southernmost room on the wide-planked floor—a floor made of a mysterious wood we couldn’t name. Chestnut? Old-growth pine? After the movers left, while my wife ran errands back in the city, I sat and played for an hour or so to make sure everything was in good order. I listened to the sound of the room, the plaster walls, and wondered about the humans who might have walked it 150 years earlier. The room seemed thirsty to soak up sound.
Feeling good about the prospect of making more music in the old house in days to come, I closed the lid, walked out on the back porch and happened to look down. Stretched out beneath the window of the piano room was a five-and-a-half-foot black snake. At first, I thought it had to be some neighbor kid’s joke—a fake, garishly large toy to make the city kids jump. But it was real.
Lying perfectly still, he calmly returned my stare, showing no interest whatsoever in relocating. He had found a comfortable place in the sun, and had apparently been listening to my playing. At the time, I couldn’t imagine sharing our house with this prodigious fellow, so I raced to the tool shed and brought back implements for the killing. It hurts my heart to this day to know I killed something that meant no harm, whose only crime was a willingness to lie still in the sun and listen to my music.
Did I mention we didn’t know the names of much of anything? It felt like an act of disrespect not to know what was singing just over my shoulder. Or the names of trees that shaded us and swayed in their high exchange of secrets. Or weeds that bloomed excessively along the paths we cut. Or which after-dark star or planet was winking at us more brightly than the rest.
Slowly we began to learn.
That is a silver maple. That is a red maple. That is a sugar maple.
That is a black locust. That is a honey locust.
That is a chipping sparrow. That is a song sparrow. That is a house finch, which looks like a song sparrow dipped in communion wine.
That is Venus, with the Milky Way thrown back like a wedding veil across the Ohio night.
We have now lived here on the hideaway farm for seven years. This past summer, we finally lured a pair of bluebirds into a box my father built before he died. We watched their daily routines in awe. Against many odds, in time the pair did fledge four young successfully.
Thoreau said, “The bluebird carries the sky on its back.”
It is no exaggeration. The male bluebird flails himself through the air at any potential enemy, a wordless blue streak of beautiful terror. But they are surprisingly tolerant of humans, and I even stood guard a few times with a twenty-gauge shotgun to try to help ensure their safety.
There is conflict and endless competition in the natural world. There is a sometimes cruel but always exuberant struggle to survive. But to this human’s eye there is a conspicuous absence of conflict at the heart of particular things.
The silver maple reaches for light and rain with outstretched leaves and is wholly itself. The red-tailed hawk circles high above, unflinchingly realized in its perfect need to hunt. The goldenrod waits for fall to bloom and then holds the five-acre field aloft in a glowing mirror to the sun.
I am now a human largely surrounded by a world not made by human hands. I have given this gift a measure of my attention. I have tried to call things by name. I take my place upon this particular piece of earth. I try to do my work.
“Sing unto the Lord a new song,” wrote the Psalmist.
That is one commandment I have found impossible not to keep.
Linford Detweiler and his wife Karin Bergquist make up the band Over the Rhine. Their newest album is The Long Surrender.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.