Toward Larger Truths:
Using Poetry in Creative Nonfiction
“Alaska. As a college student, a dream for me of blue-white tundra, wolves, caribou, moose, indigenous hunters: wilderness. A dream of emptiness, silence” (3). With this first line in her first chapter of Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss among Vanishing Orcas, Eva Saulitis presents her reader with an idealized, poetic view of the place she is about to bring us. With these images and sentence fragments, she paints us a lyrical picture of the place we will come to know and study through her. Though she writes about scientific research and the imminent extinction of a group of transient killer whales, Saulitis uses poetry and poetic language throughout her account to allow her reader to feel her connection to Prince William Sound and to experience that same level of connection and loss.
Throughout into great silence, Saulitis weaves poetry and lyrical language throughout the text. She begins her book with an epigraph of poetry by Dylan Thomas. She also begins her prologue with lines of poetry by W.S. Merwin. With these two epigraphs, Saulitis sets the stage for a book about science which the reader knows will not be a typical research book. Though into great silence recounts her days as a field biologist studying whales and includes much of her research, she chooses to begin her book and her prologue with poetry. This shows her reader that she will be narrating this story not only through the lens of a scientist, but also through the lens of a poet.
Saulitis continues to use epigraphs to insert poetry into her narrative throughout the book. In particular, she uses the epigraphs to frame points of especially poignant emotion. For example, she begins Chapter 18, “Beast and Beauty,” with two lines of poetry by Cyrus Cassells. This is a small cue to the reader that this chapter will be one of the most evocative in the book. In this chapter, Eva slowly realizes the true effects of the Valdez oil spill. As she says, “Every zooming skiff, every blackened beach, every harassment of whales triggered ire, until it seemed the oil was inside me” (92). She goes on to compare the scene to a “war zone” (92). This realization that some of the worst fears of the researchers are becoming reality is one of the most emotional moments in the book and Saulitis uses Cassells’ poetry to highlight that.
Saulitis uses a poetic epigraph again to begin the last section of the book, titled, like the book itself, “Into Great Silence.” On page 179, Saulitis begins Part 4 of her book with a poetic quote from Li-Young Lee. This section of the book is by far the most emotional. Saulitis begins to leave her day-to-day accounts of research behind and allows herself to ruminate on the emotions and repercussions connected to the loss that she is witnessing and the grief that she is feeling. She becomes more introspective and more speculative, trading in scientific research for meditations on death, loss, and ultimately hope.
Saulitis also chooses to begin her second to last chapter with poetry by Peggy Shumaker. In this chapter, Chapter 47, Saulitis begins to write in present tense. This is a chapter in which she uses some of the most introspective, reflective language. It is in this chapter that she revisits her battle with cancer and relates it back to the story of the whales. She reflects on the process of writing the book. At the very end of the chapter we see Saulitis as the author who began the book meeting herself as present author directly and telling us how her views have changed. Not only does she begin the chapter with poetry, she rewrites the poetry as the title of the chapter. The poem that she uses ends with the line, “In a language lost to us/god is singing” (239). She chooses to name this chapter “In a Language Lost to Us, Eyak Is Singing.” These poetic devices set her reader up for a very poignant ending.
Saulitis does not only use the poetry of others in her account of her whale research and the loss of the pod. She also brings her own poetry into the retelling. This happens most often in Saulitis’ use of letters to her parents and her own journal entries from the time. These things give the reader a penetrating look into the narrator’s relationship with the world around her. Her letters are often strikingly evocative. Saulitis makes a real effort to pull those around her into her world. For example, in her letter to her parents, she writes, “The hemlocks, gray-barked and bearded with lichen, remind me of ancient men in Tai Chi poses. Gnarled, wind-scoured, half alive, they seem to hold each cry, each gasp of the Sound under oil, under boats, under trash, under storms, like memory given form. When I lean my body against one, I’m dizzy from their knowledge” (80). This kind of lyrical language does not just describe the place to the reader, but makes the reader also feel the connection and emotion attached to this place as if we are there with Saulitis and feeling the same sense of connection and attachment.
The emotion and passion with which she writes to her parents also comes through in her journal entries. Amid a myriad of observations about wildlife, one journal entry muses, “If I sat here all day, what would fill these pages? Out of nowhere, a helicopter. Clouds sink and rise, wind rises and stills, the air becomes moister and cooler. It’s impossible to predict what will happen next” (135). This kind of imagery and introspection is incredibly effective. It is clear in both her journal and in many of her correspondences that she is of that place. There’s an immediacy about those passages that brings the reader into the experience. In these instances, the reader can feel the place and Saulitis’ connection to it in a very powerful way. Additionally, the speculation that she engages in here allows the reader to feel the possibility that the place holds.
This kind of lyrical language is juxtaposed with more straightforward accounts of her scientific studies. She gives not only detached scientific explanations, but also an emotional sense of loss. This juxtaposition comes to bear on both the factual portions and the poetic portions of Saulitis’ writing. The lyrical portions are given a sense of authority when they are seen next to the research of a scientist who has been studying the place and the whales for years. The scientific portions are made much more poignant and the reader connects with them much more when they are placed alongside poetic accounts. Saulitis gives us not only facts on a page, but these facts are given meaning and weight through her use of poetry and poetic language. Rather than undermining the validity of the scientific research that Saulitis did, it intensifies it. The poetry and the science both become more authentic and more true.
Saulitis becomes most lyrical and introspective at the very end of her book. She begins her last chapter writing:
Fine mist falling, fog down to the decks of boats in the harbor. On the breakwater, shags and herons cluster, hunch-shouldered against gusts. I see them through the spaces in his ribs. I stare down into the cradle of his rib cage, basket of bones, hoop of barrel staves, empty frame… I want to crawl inside, huddle at his skull’s base, a dark, secret place, to listen (241).
The strength of this writing is in the way it plays with images and lyricism. We can feel the sense of longing and loss inherent in the way Saulitis talks about the space between ribs and wanting to crawl inside. But we can also feel the sense of hope and connection in the resiliency of the hunch-shouldered herons and listening. This echoes the feelings and imagery that she uses at the very end of the book in which she writes, “That what’s broken can be mended. That what’s shattered can be made whole. That what’s damaged can be repaired. That the end of the story is ‘and then –‘ And then there was Eyak. Always and forever. Amen” (245). In this, she closes the book much in the same way she began it, through the lens of a poet, someone who felt on a very special level a connection to a group of whales and a place and wants to bring that connection to the reader.
As writers of nonfiction, we can use these devices in our own writing as well. Like Saulitis, we can include poetic epigraphs to heighten the poignancy of our nonfiction stories. We can also use poetic language, such as metaphors, to share not only the factual details of our experiences but also the emotional facets. We can juxtapose the lyrical, emotional language of our areas of expertise or personal experience to give our readers a fuller, more true picture of the events. The use of poetic language in nonfiction can serve to enhance the experiences we are sharing with our readers. Evocative, lyrical language can help take stories off the page and make them more visceral and relatable for our readers.
into great silence is also available on amazon.com.