Why Speak

by Nathaniel Bellows
W.W. Norton & Co. 128 pgs .
ISBN 13: 978-0393-06240-3 © 2007

A Review by Grace Cavalieri

Nathaniel Bellows has no other voice but his, I thought, as I read this new book. It is existential thought where all consciousness is connected, and language makes the relationship with the world. The long title poem “Why Speak” begins with lyric fiction, a recipe for closeness to the voice, and an argument for silence:

Don’t you see? There’s nothing to be said, no need to say a thing
when our hands meet during the reading and our fifth fingers link,
hinge, hang locked for a moment so we both lose our
focus on the poor reader emoting from the podium.

Then we see what I admire best, a love of the irrational through the rational,

Let our lips be the shut clasp of a coin purse, my sister’s:
red leather, gold clasp likes two fingers about to snap. That
was the first test, the doctor snapped his fingers beside my sister’s ear.
Eventually, he shaved the side of her head, removed the misshapen


How shapely these connections, making time itself our fiction. The poem is an exploration of the now, the only certainty there is—but is it certain? Kierkegaard says truth is ” an objective uncertainty/held fast in/ an approximation-process of/the most passionate inwardness.” This is the best parallel I find for the way Nathaniel Bellows sees the world…held fast in the poem… It requires risk, faith, passion, and individual’s inwardness. “An objective uncertainty,” says Kierkegaard. This is the equivalency to what is Bellows. Artists make consciousness. They start in their heads and then move out and through. Bellows is a beautiful example for the conversation of philosophy and poetry.

He uses the story of his sister’s deafness throughout the title poem,

Don’t you see? She couldn’t hear a thing except what she thought

The animals were saying. Silence in the barn. Quiet in the paddock. What
was there to hear? …

We return to the reader at the podium. The sound of his pages reminding the writer of sheet music dropped, when late to a music lesson. Time as fiction again, playful and tender the way memory is and no one can disagree with memory. Bellows has us where he wants us. The poem ends after an intricate story,

Because vines live this way: climb, die, climb, die. Like flowers: bloom,
wither…or birds: soar, shot from the sky. Don’t you see? Who knows
what to make of the moment? Our hands…we don’t plan these things.
We don’t need meaning. So why speak about it? Why speak?

Bellows is a novelist and a painter. These aspects of vision are evident in this book. And the book’s strategy is wonderful. A case for silence is made by Nathaniel Bellows in the title poem, and yet what we want more than anything is to hear his voice.

Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. She produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.