She Speaks in Tongues
by Karla Van Vliet
Anhinga Press, 2021
64 pages
Reviewed by Sue Scavo

The human need to move from experience to experience to expression has been with us as long as we have been expressive, as long as we have had “experience.” It requires us to confront not just silence, silencing, being silenced as a violent act (from inner forces and outer), but to move with and through silence as necessary, as its own natural language.

How to hold the experience of being silenced with the kind of silence that is sacred, full, necessary. A silence that embodies but does not need bring that expression to “language”? It is an especially sharp question for women.

Karla Van Vliet’s newest book, She Speaks Tongues (Anhinga Press, 2021) pierces and splays these contradictory layers of silence, what it means to be a woman finding voice and what “voice” is. Deftly weaving image with asemic writing with written poetry, Van Vliet leans – and takes us the readers – into an ambiguity that is fierce and quiet, devastating and hopeful, shifting and still.

A visual artist as well as a poet, Van Vliet’s book is divided into five sections, each one a feminine “voice” embodied in ways we embody silence, loss, hope. Every section begins with a silence through an image of an anonymous woman’s portrait, then intertwines asemic writing with short, lyric poems.

Each section feels full of the dance of what is silenced and what is the silence that sings through a kind of fragmentation.

In the portraits, which show only faces, the women are “etched” into the surface of a “plate” then saturated with layers of color. The saturation of the color is broken in places, leaving white spaces with only the etched lines, so what we see feels like an image from thousands of years ago that has been found in perhaps a shattered state and painstakingly pieced together. The white places with only etched lines suggestive of lost pieces, filled in by another’s hand.

Which is, of course, its own gesture toward texts and images found fragmented after being long buried in forgotten places that must be pieced together again. From here, Van Vliet moves to the weave of asemic writing with the written word.

Asemic writing is a gathering of marks on the page/paper/stone that gesture toward language and so, in the process, creates an intimate language all its own. It is a form that, for me, has its roots with ancient marks made on cave walls, carved into rocks, engraved on weapons and objects found in unearthed burial sites of lost civilizations. That has roots in markings of the natural world – the way ice crackles, the way the sea leaves etchings and found materials on sand and rock, the burnt lines in wood as a fire recedes. That has roots, too, in markings we, as humans, leave – the lines of brick, of buildings, the script cracks made in sidewalks by tree roots or by time in paved roads.

The asemic pieces in each section of She Speaks in Tongues, which echo these ancient markings, do form their own language, their own gesture toward word and sound and movement. A language of feeling, instinct.

In the first section, which begins with the image of a heron, for example, the asemic writing is elongated on the plate, suggestive of the long body of the bird. This “lexicon” is carried through the section. Each section of the book creates and carries its own lexicon.

The languages are not ones we, the reader, know. But they are felt through the gestures, through the movement of the marks, the colors – which look aged like the portraits. In the asemic pieces, unlike the portraits, there are no white spots to suggest something missing. Is this not what we do when we move from silence? Come into a language that is wholly our own, that is often gesture and sound before it becomes word?

It is tempting, then, to think of the poems, which accompany the asemic writing, as almost translation. Almost – like the sketched lines of the historian trying to fill in what was lost. Instead, each asemic piece and poem are in conversation with each other and have their own wholeness. Each pushing against silencing and holding the necessity and sacredness of silence. Holding the spaces between:

_______I, stripped bare, my torso
_____painted with hefty ash circles. The weight
_____of those markings held me to the ground. Such
_____blessings and despair carved a cavern.

These lines of this poem are set next to this “plate”:


The “ash circles” of the poem echoed in the image, which is like a large letter, but that is not also a full circle. A circle broken in two, perhaps. Or two curves nearly touching. Nothing broken. The suggestion of ash but also of water or water breaking through ash. And the spaces created – cavern and passages, circle and curve.

The poems, like the portraits, like the asemic plates, also carry a feeling of both fragmentation and wholeness. We are given moments of feeling, of hope, of despair. We are given a partiality of what is and what is not. The brokenness between the “I” and the “You” of the poems, between memory and waking, between silence and word. And how partiality can and does speak to and of a wholeness.

Van Vliet weaves the natural world of her native Vermont into her work – each of the five “voices” of the book find expression through water, river, bird, feather, stone, weather. What inhabits into her poems becomes like the sketch lines in the portraits, the unsaid in the asemic pieces – they gesture toward filling in spaces that have been lost in the body.

We begin with the stillness of heron and a body buried six thousand years, we wing with songbirds and crows, we are buffeted by hurricane, we dive into cold waters with whale and walrus:

_____we mark
_____our passage with a rift into the depths,/

_____into dark breathing, whale body, walrus,

Even the body of each speaker comes in fragments – heart, lips, the mouth, a hand:

But there is a heldness in the fragments, the pieces, the landscape – they all make up the body: “This ruckus in me; soon I will bloom a blue Siberian iris.” Almost blossom, but not yet, almost blue. Even as something arises from what was once buried.

In the last section of the book, it is finally the body of the speaker that moves, scratching messages (like petroglyphs or pictograms) in the drought-hard earth. It is the speaker’s own hands that have opened to language.

Van Vliet speaks of each section as being five different women. Yes, and for me, there is also a larger unity – the silences and spoken gestures as fragmented parts of one voice. How an ancient voice moves from being underground to refinding (rebirth) – the middle section is called Aubade – to naming to the end of drought.

She Speaks Tongues is a stunning book of instinct, intuition, loss, language, hope woven with silence, language, color, image, line. Van Vliet creates an experience of how language begins in the body, begins in silence, and gestures, wings, its way to words – a particular journey for women, yes, and for everyone with a human body. She brings silence and breaks it, while at the same time honoring another kind of silence that is necessary and sacred. Not all that needs saying should be said in ways “understood.” But in its own tongue.