If a scream erupts in a forest, and no one hears it
—or if none of the hearers can connect
the substance of the scream to the face
of the wounded, whether because
these hearers are out of sight or otherwise unable
to perceive how a body nearby could be capable
of keening like that, or because the hearers are not
in the habit of connecting the nuanced arrangement
of particular human features to the nuanced arrangement
of particular human sounds, when considering a
particular cry of distress after shutting eyes tight
against any witness— did it happen?
Same question may be posed
with other variants. If the cry was piercing
and potentially recognizable but muffled
by the presence of a sudden hand
against an open mouth, does it count?
If the moment of the cry coincides
with the collapse of the known world
and the known world in question
was once synonymous with the depths
of the forest, did a cry even happen,
if the place that it would have
poured into was suddenly gone?
Now consider other variables.
If access is granted, but no one is told,
does the person at the gates no one was trying
to approach after years of denial get to shrug,
raised eyebrows, and claim innocence––based
on, well, I didn’t say they couldn’t. . .
Get to: what does this even mean? A body gets
to do what it will do until acted upon by an opposing
force. Except in the case of survival. Except in the case
of protection of children. A body will persist until
it can’t, and in persisting, adapt to certain givens
for the sake of survival. As in, this door is locked,
this knob will burn your hand, this exit will get you
shot. If someone on the other side unlocks the door
quietly in the middle of the night, hides the key
and leaves it closed, is it to be considered open?
Define: cry. Which sounds are included?
Define: pains. Which count?
Define: life. Which forms are we talking about here,
who is screaming––and who has stopped?
Where do these faces go when they leave us?
Here’s a better question: why do we keep
insisting that they are ours?
If someone shuts their eyes against some
never-ending light, can they be considered
a witness? If someone builds a dam across a river
of time, can it be stopped, and what is the name
for the resulting body? And if someone removes
a dam and the river moves again, now altered
in shape, is the dam still real, or has it been erased?
If eyes trained on sky notice wild promises in stars,
do these vows have any bearing once obscured
by the light pollution of the empire’s cities?
If breath denied fails to void the depth
of inhalation, what do you call the sound that follows?
The rising, leaning, lilting unsparing hallelujahs of
nobody knows, the forever-present notes that no hand
grants and no thief can steal, reaching back to some original
promise, in the first splitting of atoms, when it was
discovered that the matter they contained was mostly
open spaces for the vibration of shimmering notes,
haunting the seeming solids behind the spectral gates; what is this?
Consider moving. Listen. Consider this breath, the sound
behind it; consider the open mouth, the next note.
About the artist: Alma Woodsey Thomas, now a renowned figure of African-American art history, had her debut showing at the age of seventy-five, after a thirty-five year career of teaching art to D.C. junior high school students.