Tacit Testaments

In the unspoken gestures of love language, Alexandra Huỳnh encounters the true substance of silence – an inimitable basis for her poetic output

Episode 4: Alexandra Huỳnh

A Before We Could Drink Series

“A colleague of mine was helping me locate stories for this project. Every week, she’d compile a list and send it over.

“Alex’s name stood out, mainly on account of her poetry. Most of the kids involved with this project engage in high energy activities. I wanted something a little slower, with an emphasis on creative messaging.

“I contacted her through Instagram and scheduled a call. I was really taken aback by how exquisite she was, and is. You can really tell how much she loves semantics, because she has such a startling command of them.”

Leah Judson, Before We Could Drink Creator

“This too, is a song.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

If phrases really do ‘turn’, then the boundaries of sentence and expression are surely bordered by silence. Often, a noiseless pause is the only viable response to something meaningfully felt, ushering its participants into the shared understanding that this: this matters. When Simon & Garfunkel immortalized these sounds, they understood their essential purpose. Rather than convey an absence of meaning, silence speaks where words cannot.

Last year, Alexandra Huỳnh was unveiled as America’s fifth National Youth Poet Laureate. At just 18 years old, the accolade was a distinguished honor for the Sacramentan native, strengthening her standing as the country’s most exciting poetic prospect.

As fame and distinction expectedly followed, she’s faced the predictable pressures of the award, and all it entails. Alexandra currently studies English at Stanford University – an illustrious addition to an already flourishing résumé. Talking assuredly about her new-found prominence, she’s had to contend with a whole host of challenges. The fallout has been something of a whirlwind.

“This too, is a song.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

 

“It’s been especially hard to grasp, and make sense of,” she laughs. “Since I became the laureate, I’ve faced increasing anxiety. There’s this pressure to constantly say something meaningful. I’ve frequently felt like I’m having to make this concise statement in relation to who I am, without having the necessary experience to do so.

“I wanted to push back against that entire notion with a poem. You shouldn’t always be taking up space with your voice. Every so often, the best thing to do is listen, and learn from people around you. A lack of sound is not the same as a lack of care – it can be an indication that you’re sincerely listening. When I was thinking how to best embody that, I came up with this title: Synonyms for Silence.”

Synonyms for Silence

I think about my mother:

and the way she would ferry a piece of bok choy from her plate to mine when I wasn’t looking

as if to say

I want more for you

here is what I can give

I pass a bowl of sliced fruit in the kitchen

and know it’s meant for me

I wake up to

folded sweaters

at the foot of my door

I shelve the books turn the pennies sweep the floors

 

Our love language is

a dispatch of quiet invitations, weaving a certain welcome into our hands

meaning

 

we can only build promises not break them

ask me about synonyms for silence

and I think about every car ride & phone call

& photo posed with all the teeth showing

where I need no small talk

to mark progress, and instead rest in the gentle hum

of our bodies

this, too, is a song

 

& what if silence is not silence but a surrender to all else

that demands to be felt

this confusion this magic this grief

I am quiet because I am thinking

there are things that need not be named to be real

 

isn’t gravity

a pulling thing regardless of its name

& does the sky

not blanket you

whether or not you call it

look me in the eye

tell me in all the speechless ways

that I am here,

I am here,

and you are with me.

“There are things that need not be named to be real.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR

“There are things that need not be named to be real.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR

Although her concept was conceived in relation to a specific event, Alexandra’s latest work encompasses a plethora of associated themes. Packed with imagery and pathos, it’s a gorgeous rendering of implicit sentiments, wordlessly understood in unconditional gestures of support.

“My starting point was that weird dialect most of us know and recognize, yet can’t completely define,” she summarizes. “I’m still working on comfortably saying ‘I love you’. My family tend to demonstrate it through action. You don’t have to portray it verbally for the feeling to resonate. I strived to trace those sorts of non-verbal interactions and exchanges. They’re a record of community care. It’s a completely valid way of demonstrating that you’re there for a person – you don’t always need words. Some things are better expressed when you don’t use them.

“I’m not afraid to be quiet. I don’t have to be constantly speaking to prove that I’m deliberating, or engaged. The stereotype is harmful. It boxes you in. By the same token, it also prevents you from remaining silent. It’s a lose-lose situation. I was trying to do away with that perception. The duality should exist for everyone. No individual can be expected to know what to say all of the time.”

“Does the sky not blanket you, whether or not you call it?” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM X-T4 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR

Communicated in seemingly insignificant acts of provision, the domestic imagery of Alexandra’s poem is a simple reflection of commonplace occurrences. Laundry, food preparation, photogenic grins – the depth of these superficially trivial acts often goes unacknowledged, but here, their cumulative effect reverberates with emotion.

“It’s the small factors that add up. I’m taking a psychology class, and one of the objectives is to bring wonder to the everyday. That’s a primary function of this poem,” she describes. “I illuminated what I took for granted as a kid. With hindsight, I underestimated how much thought went into something as straightforward as cutting up fruit. My mother will wash it, cut it, put in a cup, label it with my name… text me that it’s in the fridge. On average, the action itself probably takes no more than five to ten minutes, but so many decisions are made along the way, with me in mind. I wanted to celebrate that.”

Tracing the topic back to childhood, Alexandra considers the roots of her subject. Raised as the middle child of four, she was afforded an ability to fly under the radar and lead an imaginative internal life. Stillness was a constant companion. It helped reinforce creativity.

“Does the sky not blanket you, whether or not you call it?” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM X-T4 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR

“I am quiet because I am thinking.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM X-T4 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR

“I am quiet because I am thinking.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM X-T4 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR

“While my parents were focusing on the house and working around the clock, I spent a lot of time alone with my mind. I loved reading, making inventions. I recall wanting to create as many items as I could out of paper. Masks, airplanes… even a bouncy ball, which is obviously impossible,” she chuckles.

“That behavior encapsulates my creative drive. I had this vivid existence on the interior, but on the outside, I was very shy. I had social anxiety growing up, crying whenever I was introduced to new scenarios. I didn’t sense that I was unsafe, it was just this natural reaction. It wasn’t my parents – they did a wonderful job of fostering my identity. They’ve shielded me, and I often take that for granted.”

Saturating her verses with a richness of figurative references, this impression of protection becomes an expanded metaphor throughout her piece – even when defining the wider world.

“I stressed comfort and warmth. When I inspect the sky, I forget we’re enveloped by an atmosphere that’s keeping us safe. A blanket, of sorts. It was also about paying gratitude to the earth. It doesn’t only regard family. The universe itself has these mechanisms which keep us safe, too.”

As the years went by, a passion for prose began to materialize. Poetry wasn’t only a pastime – it was a form of escapism, and a core component of Alexandra’s life.

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR

“My relationship with writing has evolved a lot. Whenever I was searching for consolation, some part of me knew what I needed to hear, and I kept expecting people in my close circle to give me that, even when I knew they ultimately couldn’t,” she explains. “As I got older, I could go to a blank page and pour those emotions out. It was a lot easier to parse through the scraps. That helped me garner a better understanding of how I was feeling. It gave me a support system that I’m incredibly grateful for. I wouldn’t be who I am today without it.”

Conscious of creativity’s restorative effects, Alexandra has learnt to appreciate the process as a voluntary act, as opposed to that which must be relied upon.

“I want my work to give me life, instead of draining my energy. The impulse to constantly churn out content – that’s when it starts to become inauthentic, and a little performative. I don’t want to live my life in that way. I’ve been trying to balance and not rush myself.”

And then, there’s a lull.

“Silence is possibility. It’s a space with unlimited potential. At any moment, you can interject. Having that choice actually creates a fertile ground for forming who you are. You need to make room for it in your life. It really is a beautiful thing.”

 

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Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR