I’m not sure how it happened, but The Great Silence by Ted Chiang became our Thursday morning poetry group’s story of last year. First one person read it, then another, and finally I read it too. And I immediately thought of Poetic Earth Month.
Like Poetic Earth Month, “The Great Silence” invites. Both these creative endeavors sometimes amuse and sometimes nudge, but neither tells you what to do. Instead they invite you to see the earth differently.
Poetic Earth Month was created by L.L. Barkat “to provide a month-long poetic focus for earth care.” It’s expanded to year-round inspiration, with art, story, poetry, simple ideas, and in 2020, vegetarian menus. So far the site has not yet advocated “Talk to parrots,” but perhaps that is because few of those birds live in New York as opposed to the many who live in the rainforests of Puerto Rico, where Chiang’s story takes place.
The Great Silence is narrated by a parrot who lives in the Río Abajo forest, where the telescope at the Arecibo Observatory has been searching for extraterrestrial intelligence since 1973.
The title of the story comes from something the parrot, who narrates the story, says:
The Fermi paradox is sometimes known as the Great Silence. The universe ought to be a cacophony of voices, but instead it’s disconcertingly quiet.”
The parrot knows some humans think the universe is quiet because there is nothing there, but it offers a different explanation: keeping quiet is one way to avoid extinction. And yet it affirms that the universe is never silent. The telescope has already heard something:
When the Arecibo telescope is pointed at the space between stars it hears a faint hum.”
Like a parrot, a short story is an odd bird. Like a poem, it communicates a lot with few words. Tom Hanks has said if a novel is a deck of cards, a short story is one hand. “The Great Silence” might then be described as one pair: a parrot and humanity. In this very short story, the parrot has four questions for humanity. He goes on to explain how parrots communicate, how human communication works, and how the two species might learn from each other.
We parrots used to think humans weren’t very bright. It’s hard to make sense of behavior that’s so different from your own.”
This year Tweetspeak Poetry is considering wisdom, especially in William Stafford’s poem A Ritual to Read to Each Other. If the parrot were to borrow the poet’s words, he might say something like this to humanity:
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
The sounds we make with our mouths — whether we are the story’s “Pythagorean mystics” or “Pentecostal Christians” or “Brahmin Hindus” or parrots sharing myths — should be clear. Recent weeks have revealed the depths of the darkness around us. The fate of the earth may depend on our ability to communicate, not only with people but also with the creatures who share this space.
We can start by listening to the parrot’s message, one it says twice in this very short story, just to be sure we don’t miss it:
You be good. I love you.”
This month is National Poetry Month, and Tweetspeak Poetry is celebrating in a variety of ways. You can learn William Blake’s The Tyger with us, By Heart. You can download our free cut ‘n’ color poets and learn 10 fun ways to teach them. (At home too!) And you can head over to Poetic Earth Month and interrogate your own eating habits. Become a Patron and receive a daily email prompt for Poetry on the Menu: A 30-Day Writing Challenge.
Poetry for Young People: Carl Sandburg, ed. Frances Schoonmaker Bollin, illus. Steven Arcella (illustrations are poems themselves)
A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, Nancy Willard, illus. Alice and Marten Provensen (more about this one in April’s By Heart, as we learn “The Tyger”)
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
The Great Silence, Ted Chiang
The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, Garrett M. Graff
Early Readers and Picture Books
How to Read a Book, by Kwame Alexander, illus. Melissa Sweet (This is a poem turned into a picture book)
Fear the Bunny, by Richard T. Morris, illus. Priscilla Burris (Join us for Children’s Book Club, April 10!)
Middle Grade and YA
The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo (Also poetry. Also will be the Children’s Book Club selection for May.)
Pax, Sara Pennypacker, illus. Jon Klassen
The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Matel (It seemed like a good time for a 700-page book, ending a trilogy, about another time the world changed.)
1. Too often I forget about short stories when I am choosing what to read. What collections or authors can you recommend?
2. Have you read any books that stimulated your desire to care for the earth?
3. Share your March pages. Sliced, started, and abandoned are all fair game.
Photo by USFWS Midwest Region, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Megan Willome.
Browse more from A Ritual to Read to Each Other
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro
- Perspective: The Two, The Only: Calvin and Hobbes - December 16, 2022
- Children’s Book Club: A Very Haunted Christmas - December 9, 2022
- By Heart: ‘The night is darkening round me’ by Emily Brontë - December 2, 2022
A story collection I thoroughly enjoyed — and whose title story is absolutely riveting — is “The Pier Falls” by British author Mark Haddon. If you’re into classic noir of the 1920s and 1930s, Dashiell Hammett’s “Nightmare Town” and “The Hunter and Other Stories” would do the trick.
I’m also getting ready to tackle “The Mirror and the Light.” “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” were outstanding.
Horror in the Highlands by Alison Golden
One by One by Sandy Braccey
An Honest Man by Simon Michael
Criminal Instinct by Vito Zuppardo
True Blue Detective by Vito Zuppardo
A Cold Dark Heart by Stephen Puleston
Charmed by the Cowboy by Debra Clopton
Her Cowboy Hero by Debra Clopton
Dream with Me, Cowboy by Debra Clopton
The Wreck & Rise of Whitson Mariner by S.D. Smith
The Last Archer by S.D. Smith
Beautiful Sky Beautiful Sky by Stephen Parolini
Andalusian Hours by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
The Elegy Beta by Mischa Willett
A Man’s House Catches Fire by Tom Sastry
Poems to See By by Julian Peters
Inside Out: Poems on Writing and Reading Poems by Marjorie Maddox
Between Two Millstones, Book 1 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Gas! The Battle for Ypres 1915 by J.L. Williams and R. James Steel
Constable on the Hill by Nicholas Rhea
The Grace of Les Miserables by Matt Rawle
And reading right at this moment: The Benson Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine (1926)
Megan Willome says
Glynn, since you liked the first two books in HIlary Mantel’s trilogy, I think you’ll like “The Mirror and the Light” too. I’m about halfway through. Even though I know what’s coming, I’m enjoying the unraveling. It’s made me think a lot about King Henry VIII in ways I didn’t when the first two books came out. And Thomas Cromwell would do well to pay a lot more respect to the women around him. He underestimates them.
Rebecca Solnit, ‘Reflections of My Nonexistence’
‘For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts’ edited by W. David O. Taylor with Foreword by Luci Shaw
W. David O’Taylor, ‘Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts’
Ali Nuri, ‘Rain and Embers’
Joshua Sperling, ‘A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger’
Reginald Dwayne Betts, ‘Felon’
‘Is It Hot in Here or Is It Just Me: Women Over Forty Write on Aging’ (I have a poem in this anthology.)
‘Take a Stand: Art Against Hate’ (I just reviewed this anthology on my blog.)
Reread Ilya Kaminsky’s ‘Deaf Republic’.
Carolyn Forche, ‘In the Lateness of the World’
Waiting to Be Read
Tommy Orange, ‘There There’
Erik Larson, ‘The Splendid & the Vile’
I don’t recall when I last noted my reading here. I finished Eric Mataxas’s biography on Bonhoeffer, Anne Boyer’s ‘The Undying’, and Patrick Radden Keefe’s ‘Say Nothing: A true Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland’.
I’ve been re-reading a lot of collections in my poetry library and have some books on order.
Megan Willome says
You have read a lot, Maureen.
I have come across Reginald Dwayne Betts through my friend Mark Osler, who has shared his poetry. He’s a significant voice.
L.L. Barkat says
“You be good. I love you.”
Simple wisdom, indeed.
This sounds like a fascinating story, Megan. I’m glad you highlighted it.
For me, caring for the earth comes most deeply from a sense of reciprocity—I understand that the earth takes care of me. Books on the subject that have affected me…. hmmm. Probably Wendell Berry’s The Gift of Good Land was a foundational experience. But even C. S. Lewis and Tolkien’s weaving in of the life of trees and other creatures probably began a long journey of care for me, beginning in childhood.
This month I finally finished Farmacology and I am so glad I did. Excellent!
Megan Willome says
I agree that good fiction can heighten our appreciation for the earth.
I’ve also been spending more time with my book of tree poems, referenced in last month’s roundup. Today I read an excerpt from a short story titled “The Man Who Planted Trees” by Jean Giono and thought of Wangari Maathai.