Minamata Pietà
February 4 , 2010

W. Eugene Smith took a very famous photograph: 

Tomoko Uemura in her Bath, Minamata, Japan, 1972* 

I saw it for the first time when quite young and it moved me to tears. I wanted to write a poem about it, so I did, but it was never quite right. I fussed and fiddled incessantly for years—until one day I realized that it was never quite right because the photograph said everything that needed to be said. Beyond words, it needed no filtering of language. All understanding existed right there in that mother's face. 

Back in that day, before the realization, I had such faith in the power of words that I thought they could do anything, could describe all things, solve all problems. I still employ language because that's what I do, and there is great power in well-wrought words. Powerful fiction, speeches, essays, conversations can move us and convince us, open our minds to new possibilities. But I've come to believe that words cause as many problems as they solve. They are used to justify selfishness, greed, and corruption; for obscuring truth as often as enlightening; for bullying, berating, and terrifying.  

And some things are simply beyond words.  

Yes, you can use them to change hearts and minds, but words alone won't accomplish that change. It must have its own motion, already begun. Words can, at best, nudge the motion further along or crystallize some half-formed feeling that's already happening and seeking its justification and focus. Some things, like genuine change and unconditional love, exist only in the mystical realm of the human heart, which has a language all its own.  

And that language is no language at all. 

*You can read about the poisoning of Minamata here.

Copyright © 2010 P.J. Thompson