James Goldbergâ€™s poem â€œIn the Beginningâ€* exults in orality. It begins, â€œWhen he was young, / they read the books / out loud.â€ But the poet doesnâ€™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 Belovedâ€™s (later the Revelatorâ€™s) witness that â€œIn the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was Godâ€ (John 1:1). What we read as â€œthe Wordâ€ is here translated from the Greek term logos, which according to Strong means â€œsomething said.â€ So Johnâ€™s â€œWordâ€ refers to something spoken, an idea mirrored in the additive, parallel structure of his opening statement, whose coordinate structure (â€œ. . . and . . . and . . .â€) parallels the rhythms of spoken language. When translated with the article, as it is in John, â€œthe Wordâ€ refers especially to â€œthe Divine Expression,â€ who is Christ, who wasâ€”who existedâ€”â€œin the beginning,â€ before taking on flesh, and who did so â€œwith Godâ€ and who â€œwas God.â€ Through this witness of Christ, when heard in conjunction with what we now have as John 1:2â€“5, it becomes clear that Christ is the Fatherâ€™s deepest, most creative, most transformative expression to humanity. He is the Fatherâ€™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 â€œWhen he was youngâ€; in the poet’s simple language; in his use of the second person mode of address, which suggests a face-to-face conversation (â€œYou could still. . .â€); and in the additive phrasing of the second and third stanzas: â€œAnd . . . so . . . and . . . . Then.â€
However, the poetâ€™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 motherâ€™s voice had on the sonâ€™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 motherâ€™s words are never received by the son and his siblings in quite the same way, which jibes with the nature of spoken words: theyâ€™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 â€œcould still see the trailsâ€ the motherâ€™s language left â€œbrandedâ€ into her childrenâ€™s bodies and lives if we â€œhad Godâ€™s eyes.â€ 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 speakerâ€™s statement in the first stanza that the motherâ€™s words â€œdidnâ€™t climb straight up an ocular rope to settle in some recess of [the sonâ€™s] brain / â€”perhaps never to return.â€ Sounded language and its reception are, as Iâ€™ve briefly discussed, more dynamic than that. Oral language doesnâ€™t really â€œsettleâ€; itâ€™s far more transient, more active. As such, it may not necessarily wear â€œtrailsâ€ or brand someone: the first action suggests that the words repeatedly followed the same paths through the listenerâ€™s mind, while the latter suggests an arguably violent action of marking someone with a label.
And this doesnâ€™t feel quite right, not just because it doesnâ€™t jibe with the nature of orality, but also because it mutes the motherâ€™s voice in favor of Godâ€™s (and the readerâ€™s) vision. Such privileging isnâ€™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 Godâ€™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 â€œsee the trails they leftâ€ to â€œhear their echoesâ€ would preserve the poemâ€™s focus on the nature of spoken words.
2. Changing â€œGodâ€™s eyesâ€ to â€œGodâ€™s earsâ€ would suggest that God is an oral/aural being who both speaks and listens closely to his childrenâ€™s presence in and influence on the cosmos, which is in line with what has been revealed about him.
3. Changing â€œCould still see how the the words she read her children / branded them Hisâ€ to â€œCould still hear how the words she read to her children / bound them to Himâ€ would preserve the focus on orality, unmute the motherâ€™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.