Small talking things

As I get further away from you
I see you more clearly.
Your souls should have been immense by now,
not what they are,
small talking things –

(Louise Glück, ‘Retreating Wind’, Wild Iris)

The poem speaks with the voice and the perspective of the retreating wind, or perhaps of God, a once-present deity who has given up on its creation and withdraws from it, leaving it to spool out on its own. Perhaps the creator has been disappointed in its desire for an interlocutor, a respondent who could rise above mere noise and chat to a purer level of communication. ‘You’ are not like that. Your talk has restricted your soul, tied you to earth, perhaps, and to the everyday, stunted your growth. I am reminded of the sixteenth-century Christian preference for silence, which for pious and erudite worshippers like the reformist queen Marguerite de Navarre was closer to God than the babble of everyday prayer – a way to praise God more fully, perhaps even communicate with him. When Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, as Diarmid McCulloch puts it in Silence: A Christian History, he wanted to chatter; Jesus refuses to engage in conversation. Generations of ascetic Christians took Jesus as an example and withdrew into silence and inaccessible places. What all this suggests is the banality of the evil of chatter: it ties us to the contingent and the worldly, bogs us down in the detail, distracts our souls from following the retreating wind. Chatter is minute; silence is immense.

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