Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices.
Man is moved just like the ice floe sailing here and there out in the current. His thoughts are driven by a flowing force when he feels joy, when he feels sorrow. Thoughts can wash over him like a flood, making his breath come in gasps, and his heart throb. Something, like an abatement in the weather, will keep him thawed up.
And then it will happen that we, who always think we are small, will feel still smaller. And we will fear to use words. But it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves. When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves—we get a new song.
—ORPINGALIK, Netsilik hunter, shaman, and poet.
I celebrate myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
—WALT WHITMAN, “Song of Myself”
I BELIEVE IN THESE MOMENTS: the curiously intimate communion between mother and son, a bucket of water between them as they peeled potatoes for Sunday dinner—“her head bent towards my head, / Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—/ Never closer the whole rest of our lives. ” 1 Or the young black girl with her family gathered on a “forbidden” beach in Fort Myers, an open fire, crabs boiling in a pot, fearing that “they” will appear at any moment and chase them “back to the colored-only shore / crisp with litter and broken glass. ” 2 And then there's Bess, the small-town librarian, walking to work every day past “the secure houses, ” diligently attending to life's simple duties—all the while attempting “to keep her friends from knowing / how happy they were” 3 by not letting on that she was suffering from cancer and that her time was running out.
I trust these moments and the poems that brought them into my life in much the same way I understood the truth inside certain family stories I