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by Kara van de Graaf

If you don’t think
all language is a kind
of apology, how do you
explain the little quaver
I hear in the voice
of my doctor
when he tells me
my hair won’t ever
come back? That
the slow scrape
of time over the body
sheared off that territory
long ago. What’s gone
is gone. And with words
he forms slowly
he wants to convince me
that he knows anything
about the traffic signals
of my brain, the blinks
on and off by whatever
helms me, whatever decides
what we can afford
to grow. Between
each syllable I feel
a ghost, gelatin-clear,
haunting the sound
of his sorry, sense his
true distance from me
though I could touch him
right now. And you
feel it too, a low
sibilance in my speech
like a hidden frequency
repeating I’m sorry,
I’m sorry, I know I can’t
ever reach you.

In this poem, I’m meditating on something I often talk to my students about—the inadequacy of language. We spend so much of our lives using language as an instrument to help us communicate basic needs and functions, the things that make our lives go. But we spend so little time doing the thing I think is most powerful about language: using it to understand other experiences of being alive.

It’s probably strange to hear a person who devotes so much of her life to words call them inadequate, but I don’t think I’m knocking poetry by saying so. I think I’m doubling down on what I believe poetry can do for us—help us move, even infinitesimally—closer to understanding the internal experience of another human being.

Here, I’ve extended my meditation on the limitations of language by positing that all words contain a hidden apology underneath them—for not being able to get at the true nature of things, some essence of reality or experience that remains elusive. It’s a great irony that language, the thing that gave me such a difficult diagnosis, also isn’t capable of fully capturing the human side of that experience. In this way, every bit of language simultaneously reaches us and never reaches us. That’s part of the mystery (and the allure) of language for me as a writer.

Kara van de Graaf is the author of a collection of poems, Spitting Image, which won the Crab Orchard First Book Award and was published by Southern Illinois University Press. Her poems appear in The Southern Review, AGNI, New England Review, Gettysburg Review, The Adroit Journal, and the anthology Best New Poets, among others. van de Graaf is associate professor of English at Utah Valley University.