Category: language



Standing at the fruit and veggies stand with Laura waiting for our sweet corn to be shucked and bagged up, I noticed the little cartons of fat, ripe blackberries just waiting for some lucky soul to eat them up. It made me think of one of my absolute favorite poems, “Blackberry Eating” by Galway Kinnell. I also stumbled across another poem just yesterday, this one by Seamus Heaney, called “Blackberry-Picking.” I wondered, there at the fruit stand, what the two poems would look like back-to-back. So, here they are:


for Philip Hobsbraum

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

~ ~ ~

Blackberry Eating

I love to go out in late September
among fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched or broughamed,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

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Indo-European Root of the Day: Wild


I’ve been seeing and hearing the word wild a lot lately. Lately in the news we’ve heard the story of Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old adventurer who attempted to sail solo around the world only to be caught in a storm in the south Indian Ocean and have her chances dashed. Her boat? Wild Eyes. The other day I watched Where the Wild Things Are, which I enjoyed immensely but not in the way I expected to. A while back I had my post on Ted Hughes’ “Wodwo,” wodwo being the wild-man. In music, this summer has brought the excellent album The Wild Hunt by The Tallest Man on Earth, which is itself a reference to an ancient pan-European myth, that of a group of ghost-soldiers on a hunt across the skies and earth. “The Wild Hunt” is also a recently finished story in the Hellboy comic, in which Hellboy is the object of the hunt.

In many retellings of the Wild Hunt myth, the charge is led by Norse/Germanic god Woden, essentially the Zeus of Northern European paganism, and whose name includes the rood wod meaning “violence” or “fury.” It may be just coincidence that the wodwo, or wild-man, and Woden, God of Fury, share the heteronym wod at their root, but then again it may be less then coincidental that ancient words for “wild” and “violence” have similar sounds and origins. By the way, we celebrate this ancient god every midweek, unwittingly, as we wake up, stretch our arms, and greet Woden’s day – Wednesday.

Anyway, with this collection of wild thoughts lurking around in my brain, I thought I’d take out my old Shipley book, The Origins of English Words, and have a look at where wild came from. The Indo-European root of wild is uelt, which means, perhaps a bit obviously, “open field.” OK, makes sense. Our wodwo is the man of the field. In Germanic the word is weald, which often is brought over to English as part of an ancient place-name, or by a fantasy writer looking for a bit of authenticity. To wilder is to lose one’s way, to become lost in the wild; to bewilder is to cause someone to do this. The noun wilder means a wild animal (with der coming from the root deor (deer) or dheu, meaning animal). Thus a wilderness is a place where wild animals live: wild + der + ness, with –ness coming from the same root as gather or together. Shipley also points out that the representative assembly of the Isle of Man in Great Britain is the Tygwald, the assembly of the field.

The word wild has come to have many subtle meanings, which we interpret variously as freedom, spontaneity, violence, revelry, fear, and an untamed nature which we sometimes cherish, sometimes revile. They all point back to this original root word, a simple expression of openness. At certain points in our lives we desire the wild life, salivate for it; we freak out and make for the woods (another word with wild at its root) to commune with our past. At other points we see wildness as something to be shunned, the opposite of civilization which we use to define civilization, as if we have completely forgotten where we came from.

Elizabeth Bishop, “Large Bad Picture”


Remembering the Strait of Belle Isle or
some northerly harbor of Labrador,
before he became a schoolteacher
a great-uncle painted a big picture.

Receding for miles on either side
into a flushed, still sky
are overhanging pale blue cliffs
hundreds of feet high,

their bases fretted by little arches,
the entrances to caves
running in along the level of a bay
masked by perfect waves.

On the middle of that quiet floor
sits a fleet of small black ships,
square-rigged, sails furled, motionless,
their spars like burnt match-sticks.

And high above them, over the tall cliffs’
semi-translucent ranks,
are scribbled hundreds of fine black birds
hanging n‘s in the banks.

One can hear their crying, crying,
the only sound there is
except for occasional sighing
as a large aquatic animal breathes.

In the pink light
the small red sun goes rolling, rolling,
round and round and round at the same height
in perpetual sunset, comprehensive, consoling,

while the ships consider it.
Apparently they have reached their destination.
It would be hard to say what brought them here,
commerce or contemplation.

~ ~ ~

I recently picked up a copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems, and it has been an incredible read so far. What I especially love about her work is her use of rhyme. She doesn’t draw attention to it the way old poets used to, constructing elaborate mechanisms to build rhyme structures into their poems. Bishop uses her rhymes casually but deliberately, like the way you might crack an egg into a frying pan. Rhyme in this fashion adds another level to the wordplay of the poem, amplifying meaning across words and lines, without erecting an artificial structure to hold the thing up. This is exactly why rhyme is used in poetry and why it is so important, a reason often lost on poets across generations.

Ted Hughes, “Wodwo”


What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air? Why do I find
this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
interior and make it my own? Do these weeds
know me and name me to each other have they
seen me before do I fit in their world? I seem
separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped
out of nothing casually I’ve no threads
fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
I seem to have been given the freedom
of this place what am I then? And picking
bits of bark off this rotten stump gives me
no pleasure and it’s no use so why do I do it
me and doing that have coincided very queerly
But what shall I be called am I the first
have I an owner what shape am I what
shape am I am I huge if I go
to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
till I get tired that’s touching one wall of me
for the moment if I sit still how everything
stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
but there’s all this what is it roots
roots roots roots and here’s the water
again very queer but I’ll go on looking

* * *

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I Literally Feel a Rant Coming On


People. Stop using the word “literally” all the time. Just stop. It literally makes me want to hit my head with a brick. If you can’t be trusted to use the word properly then I, as a duly appointed English Major and Protector of the Language, do hereby revoke all privileges to the word.

There is really only one way to use the word, which is in making a verb and its subject less ambiguous. “When I said misuse of the word ‘literally’ makes me want to hit my head with a brick, I meant it literally.” See? Defining the meaning of an uncertain action. I will, on occasion, accept the ironic meaning of the word: “I will literally kill the next person who says ‘literally’ to me.”

But now the word is used to describe actions that are certain, apparently as a form of exaggeration, which makes no sense, since the word itself affirms the action, it doesn’t emphasize or heighten the description. “On my roadtrip I literally drove all the way to California.” Did you in fact drive to California as you stated? You did? Then you don’t need to say “literally.” It means nothing. If you want to put some descriptive muscle in your story, use words that are descriptive and make sense. “I drove to California on my roadtrip, it took 72 hours and I was stuck in a snowstorm in Colorado where I almost died. What an incredible drive.” Or something.

Rant over, Jackson out.

John Ashbery, “Variant”


Sometimes a word will start it, like
Hands and feet, sun and gloves. The way
Is fraught with danger, you say, and I
Notice the word “fraught” as you are telling
Me about huge secret valleys some distance from
The mired fighting – “but always, lightly wooded
As they are, more deeply involved with the outcome
That will someday paste a black, bleeding label
In the sky, but until then
The echo, flowering freely in corridors, alleys,
And tame, surprised places far from anywhere,
Will be automatically locked out – vox
– do you see? End of tomorrow.
Don’t try to start the car or look deeper
Into the eternal wimpling of the sky: luster
On luster, transparency floated onto the topmost layer
Until the whole thing overflows like a silver
Wedding cake or Christmas tree, in a cascade of tears.”

* * *

Whew! I’m exhausted reading that. Don’t ask me what it means just yet but man this thing is chock full of some incredible language. “Fraught,” of course, but also “vox clamans” – the voice of one crying out (how beautiful!), “wimpling,” “luster on luster,” “cascade.” This is poetry right here.

Time and Timelessness: Reading Proust from Start to Finish, #1


After staring down Anna Karenina last year I crested a daunting hill and looked down into the valley on the far side. The summit was the overbearing weight and patience needed to tackle the long novel. The valley below was the relief I felt that not only is reading a 700-800-plus page novel not difficult (considering the reader agrees with the author’s subject, pace, style, etc.) it is relaxing, in its own certain way, and it soon becomes familiar – spend so many nights with the same few people and they soon become like family – and therefore a joy to read rather than a burden.

Having made the summit it disappeared and I was left on a flat plain, where the 800-page, multi-volume novel was as accessible as the 80-page novella, and each had its share of worthy merits. I made it my mission to tackle another long-form novel this winter. Keep with Tolstoy and move on to War and Peace? (By the way, if you plan on reading either this or Karenina, go with the recent Pevear/Volokhonsky versions – they’re excellent). Move to the Americas and Moby-Dick? But in the back of my mind there was only one possibility, which was to go for the mother of them all, À la recherche du temps perdu, or, In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust. The name “Proust” is enough to make even the most hardened literary souls quiver. For many his novel represents the highest and hardest task available to any avid reader, and more often than not, judging by anecdotes and reviews, most flounder and drown in Proust’s verbosity, usually finishing only the first volume, Swann’s Way.

Perhaps with good reason: In Search of Lost Time holds the Guinness World Record for Longest Novel with 1.5 million words. Though now, with the internet being what it is – an equalizer of things and a destroyer of all sorts of records – Proust’s distinction is now no longer true, not technically. For example, Artamène, or Cyrus the Great, by Madeline and Georges de Scudery, is 2.1 million words (what’s with these French guys?), but is only available online, in French. The internets reveal all sorts of other astoundingly long novels:

  • The Story of the Vivian Girls, by Harvey Darger, 9 million words
  • The Blah Story, by Nigel Tomm, 11.3 million words
  • Marienbad My Love, by Mark Leach, 17 million words (!?)

These books’ extraordinary lengths hold a few caveats, however. Vivian Girls exists (as far as I know) in handwritten manuscript form only, and The Blah Story just seems to clever and artsy to actually be readable (most of the book’s 11.3 million words are actually one word: “blah.” As in: “In a blah she was blah blah blah down a blah between blah roses blah blah blah, her blah blah hair blah blah gently the blah blah trees, most blah blah blah, she thought, as blah blah he blah the nice blah blah she blah…” Seriously.). Marienbad is published online only, and is an extreme version of the cut-up style of writing, which leads one to wonder whether it is in fact a novel or some other kind of text (which is not to be dismissive of the work, in fact it sounds pretty cool). The title, by the way, of Marienbad includes a rather lengthy subtitle of 6,931 words. And this doesn’t even cover some of the immensely long Japanese and Korean books out there, or the multi-novel epics like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

So then, what we have in Proust is, ahem, the Longest Single Novel Written in the Latin Alphabet and Published in Book Form, and Doesn’t Use the Word “Blah” Millions of Times. There. See, now reading In Search of Lost Time doesn’t seem so bad anymore, does it? Proust is long, but not that long by comparison.

Getting back to the actual reading, the novel begins with the first volume Swann’s Way, which consists for the most part of the narrator’s recollections of his childhood in the fictional country town of Combray, France. The story begins with a dozen or so pages about the act of falling asleep, which is perhaps an ironic and funny way (looked at with postmodern eyes) to start a lengthy tome, but is in fact key to Proust’s thematic development of the formation and use of memory, time, and epiphany. This book was written just after the turn of the century, from 1913-1922, a time when psychoanalysis was just beginning, Europe experienced a major and scarring war, and the physicists began dismantling and recreating the ideas of time and the universe as we knew them. This is the bewildering world into which Modernism was born, and many consider In Search of Lost Time to be the greatest of all Modernist novels.

After Swann’s Way the book continues on for another six volumes, charting a course through the narrator’s life and loves as he navigates the daunting paths of aristocratic France and his own mind. Over a series of posts I hope to cover my impressions on the novel itself as I’m reading it, its joys and difficulties, and talk some about Proust and critical aspects of the novel as I learn more about both, all while keeping it light and inviting and without getting too literary criticism-y.

A few words on David James Duncan


Today I finished the third book in the trilogy of David James Duncan’s major works: River Teeth. The other two books are The River Why and The Brothers K, both of which I cannot possibly recommend highly enough. I recommend the third book just as highly, however I would read the two novels first before wading (har har) into River Teeth, which is a book of short stories and autobiographical pieces about transformation; sort of a book of Ovid for the 90s. While the book is certainly the equal of the other two it pays to have DJD’s sense of timing and narrative already firmly planted in your mind before reading; plus the book features a last glance at Evertt Chance, one of the brothers in The Brothers K, and is truly a joy to read after learning about his trials and tribulations in K.

Duncan, in these three books is focused on – obsessed with, haunted by, devoted to – water and transformation, and the play between the two. His characters are, in essence, baptized – reborn, transformed – by the lakes, rivers, creeks, oceans, and irrigation ditches of the Pacific Northwest. His characters seek out answers constantly, in books and from friends – Why is littered with choice quotes from The Compleat Angler to the Koran – and from that ultimate source, nature. The final truth of these books is that people can and will change, if they open their minds up wide enough. Thus Duncan’s protagonists drop the tops of the convertibles of their minds and let the wind blow Truth through their hair, although sometimes not without a bit of forcefulness. Gus, our hero of The River Why, takes painfully long to figure things out. Even being chased down by a beautiful girl, haunted by quotes tossed at him by his hippie bodhisattva friend, and facing the utter torment and sadness of his lonely life, he refuses to change, a refusal that is all the more painful for the reader because he or she surely recognizes this stubbornness in him/herself, and is no doubt embarrassed and hurt by it. I don’t want to spoil the ending but in the end what saves him is a fish, not a pretty girl or a fancy quote. In a flash of epiphany and ecstasy his world is switched on and he, and we, are allowed to move forward. Our joy as readers is tempered only by our lingering jealousy that he gets to change and we do not.

In The Brothers K, each brother takes his own path out of darkness, and all are not equally successful. Although each has his point of ecstasy and epiphany, for some of them the magic is fleeting – they climb just to the top of the canyon wall, only to stumble and fall back in just as they peek their heads over the horizon and see what could be. Although some of the clan does get to the top, the book is ultimately a tragedy, with joy again holding hands with sorrow.

River Teeth is a series of vignettes, some fiction, some more memoir-like snippets from Duncan’s own life. Again each is a tale of transformation, a peek into the clockwork machinery of the world and the return from that. As I finished this book today, over and over in my head I heard the word “ecstasy,” just the word flipping and sloshing around in my brain like a trout in one of Duncan’s Oregon rivers. The word, as far as I can tell, is never used in this book, however each story includes an ecstatic moment. In my mind (word geek that I am) I’m thinking of an older definition of the word “ecstasy;” today we use the word as a synonym of joy or happiness, but the word’s more archaic meaning is “an emotional or religious frenzy or trancelike state, originally one involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.” The word comes from Greek, ekstasis, “standing outside oneself.” To me this is the precise word to describe Duncan’s work, filled with characters succumbing to experiences of mystic self-transcendence. Gus’ transcendence comes not from a girl or a book or a shaman; it comes at night, alone with a fishing pole. Peter Chance, one of the brothers, chases transcendence through the words of every hold man he can possibly find, finally making a pilgrimage to India where he is transformed not by a yogi or a priest or an volume of Vedic literature, but by a robbery gone wrong, after which he is left alone and naked – literally. Everett Chance too takes the route of the lonely to find his way to transcendence, bathed for an entire winter in the slogging rains of Vancouver Island.

Beautifully written and wholly inspirational, I found each book infinitely rewarding, and I feel that subsequent readings will reveal even more. Sometimes a book – or in this case a trio of books – come along right when you need them, and when you read them you feel as if the writer is talking just to you and you alone, as if he is there to help you and guide you along. Sometimes a book gives you exactly what you need, nothing more or less, and you feel elevated, enlightened. The irony of these books and that feeling of enlightenment is that in Duncan’s books, as we’ve seen, words are useless. They can lead you down the path but it’s up to you and you alone to find the rest of the way. Transformation and ecstasy is left solely up to you. I hope for myself that I can someday finish what these books have helped me start.

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