By Michael Schmeltzer, Assistant Poetry Editor
The words reject and rejection have their origins in Latin–something I can’t pronounce meaning “to throw back” or “a throwing back.”
We take rejection, and its birth for granted; we assume it’s negative and yet, buried in the word itself a beautiful image—a throwing back, as if something simple like a ball, as if two boys at a park engaged in play. It isn’t terrible, or negative at all.
A writer. An editor. Words submitted, then returned, one smooth motion. Back and forth, give and take, a father and daughter joking in the yard, tossing a ball, rejections a ritual between them.
For a long time I was mistaken; I believed rejection was a passive experience, a sort of absence or negation. I thought it was silence, not sound, the footprint, not the foot, not the hard won hard step into soft ground.
But rejection isn’t passive. It’s reactive, spherical. We throw our voice into the world, and whether the world returns it doesn’t matter.
The father and daughter, the two boys at the park. The toddler who learns to throw an orange ball into the air and catch it, playing with no one but willing to play with anyone, daring enough to catch fire with bare hands.
If I’ve come so far as to say rejection isn’t passive let me go further. Let me state rejection is a continual and dynamic exploration of futures. Which is to say we spend our lives with each rejection like a heavy rain. We either choose shelter under a bumbershoot or we choose to accept it, let it soak and carve us, slowly, into a canyon where our voices will echo.
Rejection isn’t life or death, but often it threatens, bares its teeth. And in that aggression we may reject our own voice and find solace in silence, the very rejection of our unique music
Writers move toward and away from silence, toward and away from echoes. What I mean is we spend our lives carving our unique voice from previous voices. We spend our lives rejecting and accepting the authors of the past.
An echo, too, is a rejection of sound, a throwing back.
Echo–from the Greek myth, the nymph who fell in love with Narcissus, the nymph whose flesh faded from rejection until there was nothing left.
We are her in so many ways: the voice-thief, the imitator, the one who fell in love but could do nothing but repeat what was heard before.
What I mean is authors throw their voice out into the world, and sometimes the world throws it back. What I mean is rejection helps us fade from ourselves into pure voice and steers us clear of narcissism.
Listen to the echo between “reject” and “protect.” It isn’t simply sound that connects the words.
Follow me to the body for signs of healthy rejection. The stomach, for instance, rejects what is rotten. It throws back, throws up what we ingested, what we may have craved. Our tongue, what we call bitterness, warns against that which may in fact be poisonous. Protection is found in each bitter-sensing cell and the surface proteins meant to detect toxins.
Or our skin against the elements: wind, rain, the bright sun we so often seek in the long gloom of winter.
If I look to the body for signs of healthy rejections then it is the mind and the spirit I look to for signs of unhealthy ones.
The story of St. Peter who rejected his savior three times, his body in that instant more important than his soul. The boy from back in my childhood who shot himself. His body in that instant worth nothing to the mind; his suicide, like all suicides, a terrible story of absolute rejection.
So yes, despite what I said, rejection is life or death.
I didn’t want to admit this. Even in the body, the way it can throw back a life-saving transplant. Even in the mind, the way it can throw back everything imaginable until nothing is possible.
Sometimes I throw away the truth because it’s the only way through a poem. I move at an angle, at a slant, slightly bent, which is the only way to get through some days. I lace every line with a lie because poetry should be an acceptance of and a rage against everything we know to be true. Because the truth, like rejection, too often is more than our bodies can bear.
And yet there is still our voice, that insistent, beautiful, off-key hum in our head. Still there are the boys playing catch in the park until the sky tucks itself in black. Don’t stop playing. Don’t stop throwing back. Open your palm like Prometheus. Take the fire and speak.
Image: John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons