There is so much silence between the words,
you say. You say, The sensed absence
of God and the sensed presence
amount to much the same thing,
only in reverse.
This quotation, from “In the Secular Night,” from Morning in the Burned House,is an example of the games that Atwood likes to play with language. The speaker paces her house alone and thinks back over her life, listening to the silence around her. She realizes that even when speaking and interacting with others, the same silence exists. Mere words cannot bridge it. The repetition of “you say” implies hollowness and suggests the emptiness of human beings mouthing meaningless phrases in empty houses at night. Still, this repetition suggests the inadequacy of their language does not stop humans from speaking or striving to cover up these silences with chatter. Nowhere do the failures of language become more evident than in the other person’s (the “you”) attempt to pin God down into a single tidy aphorism.
Atwood questions whether language can ever approximate concrete meanings and truths. If it can’t, she wonders, why one should bother writing at all? In the poem “Beauharnois,” an account of a civilian massacre in Quebec, Atwood offers a slightly different perspective:“A language is not words only,” she writes, “it is the stories / that are told in it, / the stories that are never told.” Part of language, then, is the human content that it communicates. Despite one’s best efforts, however, it is impossible to ever fully communicate this content.