Root of Language

by Katrina Vandenberg

Like any poet, I think a lot about language. It’s a way to connect with the physical world, but also to lift out of it. It’s abstract, but its source is concrete — the letters of our alphabet are based on a set of pictograms, stylized pictures used for words. Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mayan glyphs, and cuneiform are all sets of pictograms. Our first words were drawings, visually imitating the physical world. As these languages influenced other written languages, most of them became extinct as they were replaced by alphabets that gradually became more abstract.

I am writing with the series of symbols known as the Latin alphabet, for example, but the series of pictograms in our alphabet’s most distant past is Cuneiform. Cuneiform symbols passed through half a dozen more writing systems to get to us, all of which, except for Greek, are now dead. There are ghosts of them in our alphabet: the fourth letter of the Phoenecian alphabet, the symbol daleth, means “door” and looks like one. By the time the symbol evolved into the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet, it was ∆, pronounced delta, a symbol we still use in science to mean “change.” In the Latin alphabet becomes, again, letter #4 or Dd. You don’t have to be a poet to see the symbol still vaguely resembles a door, and that a literal door can be abstracted into the concept of “change,” and the symbol from there can be further abstracted until the letter is nothing but d-ness.

The root-meanings of words are often literal, too, a kind of miniature picture in words. Take boulder, short for boulder stone, from the Middle English bulder ston. We know that a boulder is a “water-worn rounded stone.” Its etymology is obscure — the clues and shadings don’t quite add up — but my old OED makes “boulder” a word brought to our language by the Scandinavians, because it was likely physically brought to the island of England by Vikings invading over one thousand years ago. The word seems akin to the Swedish bullersten, large stone in a stream, from buller (noise: to roar, rumble, gurgle or bellow) and sten (stone). It’s the water making the noise, of course, but I like this bellowing stone. If that is the original sense, then, like a pithy phrase that becomes a worn cliché over the years, the word has lost its rawness. It needs new context for us to see it again.

I don’t know that poetry “makes” language new as much as it reminds us of the visceral, not intellectual, pleasure inherent in language. Poems make us look at old situations in new ways, not so much because the poet comes up with something completely original, but because she takes a new angle, or uses words we know in surprising way. Shakespeare is thought to have coined up to 1700 words and phrases in our language — gust, skim milk, lackluster, green-eyed monster, killing frost among them — but most of them weren’t wholly original. More often, he changed nouns into verbs and verbs into adjectives, yoked words together, or added prefixes and suffixes, so that we saw the words differently. It works the other way, too: whenever I’m writing and stuck, I look up the origins of the words I’m working with. Who knew (I didn’t until last week) that until about 1500 deer meant any wild animal, while cattle meant any domesticated beast? And that, according to my Webster’s, the word traces back to the Sanskrit he perishes? I feel, at those moments, as if the dictionary hands me metaphors.

The Lit Lyric

by Elizabeth Kirschner

Someone once said that writing a poem meant riding upon the pulse. It is a cataclysmic happening with all the synapses firing at once. In order to achieve the lyric poem, one must build a sky bridge, be connected to deep red earth and moody, bluesy stars. Create a cosmos and step into it. Get in, get out, get your pain over with, was Raymond Carver’s advice and it has stayed with me for decades.

With the lyric poem, there’s no stretching out on the backbone of narrative. The poet must fall up, not down, way up, let each line be a tree limb veined with bronze honey. Some limbs snap under the freight and weight of too many blossoms. Likewise the line—if it’s too ornate it will break. The violence of the mind, its maelstrom, can also destroy it. We are our own best enemies of the poet.

And in all that bronze honey, a flow of music, vast, celestial or a dirge, lament, elegy. The lyric poet must make music out of rough tools, be it a tin drum or the lyre in the sky amid winged migrations. Each word a bird in formation. It is this music that rules the form of formal formation in lyrical verse most of all.

I think: storm surge and purge. I think: poem as a tiny trauma. There’s some sort of act of survival involved. A drama, then, an inward explosion that sets off sparks that light up the lit lyric. Media res at the beginning, then leap, leap, leap line by line wherein language is always under the pressure of time and space. Perhaps creation is always in crisis. A risky business at best, a willingness to be flailed by failure. At least for me.

Always and evermore, the tension between first breath, last breath. Endings do come, sometimes swiftly like the lash of a whip. Other times, it’s more like a swan song in a destitute denouement. I’m often done in by getting it done. At the other extreme—ecstatic revelations. Or, the final end stop as a stab in the heart caused by a stab in the dark. I want to be beautifully demolished by the poems I write, to be impoverished by the riches I must bear. I end with this—the end of the poem is a crucifixion of the poet by which the reader is resurrected. A paradigm of paradox in a paradise lost, but finally, hopefully regained.

With This Feast, We Could…Go…All…the…Way

by Bernadette James

Knee-deep in football season and cool weather, and I’m ready to tackle cooking some hearty and homemade junk food. But with so many options, where’s a girl start? Chili? Nachos? Chips and dip? Potato skins? Quesadillas? And that doesn’t even begin to touch on tailgate-food like ribs and burgers and sausages and… All right. This is where I have to pause before I get too overwhelmed with deliciousness. This past Sunday, I finally decided to make the stereotypical hot wings, along with the not-so-stereotypical garlic knots and poutine.

Everyone knows the go-to hot wing recipe, right? Fried chicken wings, floating in a delicious hot sauce and melted butter heaven. After battling the crowd at the grocery store, I went home and had a huge struggle separating the wings with a dull knife, so I decided to bypass the serious business of frying and just threw them on a sheetpan and into the oven (after a quick call to Mom, to find out what temperature and how long to cook them). So simple. And in a small effort to try and be healthy, I substituted soy milk for butter and mixed that with the hot sauce instead.

Okay, truthfully, I’m ashamed to admit that we didn’t have any butter in the house. But the soy milk worked just fine, and none of the guys even noticed. Joke’s on them.

Now garlic knots is something I’m not too familiar with, that I’ve had only once before in Albany, a delicious twist of dough covered in melted butter and tangy with garlic. Staying on the safe side, I just bought already made bread dough, cut it into strips, twisted them into knots, and threw those on a sheetpan too. I’d rather not bring this up again, but because of the lack of butter, I brushed them with olive oil and then sprinkled some with garlic powder and others with fresh minced garlic. Popped those into the oven, and done.

My grandmother was raised in Montreal, and I grew up in New Hampshire only a few hours from the city, so I spent a lot of time in Canada as a kid. Poutine, if you’ve never heard of it, is a ridiculously simple and yet absolutely blissful Canadian ‘peasant’ dish that’s only French fries covered in gravy and melted cheese. That’s it. And before you scoff, let me tell you that with the right ingredients, I swear you’ll die of happiness: homemade French fries doused in thick gravy and all stringy with melted curd cheese (that’s important – it has to be cheddar cheese in curd form or it’s not as good). During road trips to Montreal, it was tradition to stop at the first St. Hubert’s restaurant across the border and eat fresh poutine in the car for the rest of the trip.

For my Sunday spread, I wanted to try and improve those three ingredients. I sliced and baked my own sweet potato fries, then used packaged chicken gravy, and because I couldn’t find the elusive curd cheese, bought mozzarella cheese instead (I’m sure though you can find it at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s if you have more time than me). Into the oven for the cheese to melt and I’m ready for some football. I didn’t use one recipe, barely dirtied any dishes, and all I had to do was throw a few pans in the oven and everyone was happy!

I have to be honest though, and say that my garlic knots burned and I ate the safe ones myself while waiting for my poutine cheese to melt. And the sweet potatoes were a little too sweet for the poutine, with the gravy and the cheese. I called my grandmother to admit the small defeats from my football feast and she reassured me that all I had to do was set out some extra beer and no one would notice my mistakes. I think I’ll take that advice with every meal I make.

Buon appetito!

Ernie Types a Poem

The Gift

I am the bee who clings with dew-

tipped legs to the soft crowns of purple

clover, the stupid happiness inside

the blasted bud, an entanglement of clouds

smitten with love-stricken light that is

here, there, everywhere. Sun’s gold load,

the dance inside the perfectly still great

blue heron and the prostration of rain-

battered grasses. I am the spiritual essence

caught in sails peached by twilight,

the candles on the green plates of lily pads,

the hummingbird winging through summer

and the drop of syrup she labors for

is what marries her to the ecstatic motions

of divine revelation. Shabby sheik sheep

slowly munching on bunch grass, the sea’s

gorgeous, gutsy waves and the firefly dying

to be born inside the hieroglyphs of fireworks.

I am the gift the giver gave me and you are the gift

the giver gave you and we are broken,

broken like thunderbolts in such massive

glory, God breaks down and sweetly weeps

till peace steals over the heaven crying

inside the swan song we call a lifetime.

~~from Elizabeth to you

on her 54th birthday


by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I keep returning to that moment, that first Tuesday afternoon, the door with its frosted pane. It swings open suddenly, pulled back into the dusky hallway, and Denise sails in, salt and pepper curls wind-tossed. It reminds me of the course my life is about to take, a change from the routine academia I had set as my goal; it brings back those conversations that pointed me in a different direction.

For it is Denise who suggests that I put my life where my poems are. It is she who travels to my city for a benefit reading a year later, which raises seed money for the arts program for homeless women I’ll join when I leave Stanford.

Denise will lead me to Dorothy the security guard (evicted from her apartment, forced to sleep in her car, then eventually out on the streets), who kept a pair of handcuffs clipped to her belt and painted the fierce self-portrait I have hanging now on my study wall: an “inner warrior” in black and red. Dorothy leads me to Sheila, who heard voices and translated them brilliantly into poems that held us all spellbound when she read them aloud at our weekly workshops; written in a phonetic, ungrammatical code, they defied any typewritten page. Sheila leads me to Joyce, to paintings as full of genius in their way as any van Gogh—canvases filled with strange forests, sleeping goddesses, wide awake third eyes. I see again the bread bags Joyce tucked into the stoma of her colostomy when the benefits ran out, and I see myself linking hands with family and friends around her coffin a few years later, singing “Amazing Grace,” and feeling it—feeling her grace fill up the room.

I commute to Stanford, the Stegner program where I am a fellow. I usually drive down and back twice a week, but tonight I stay overnight with Denise in her tiny apartment on campus. I sleep on the couch but drowse with difficulty. After all, Denise has just read me the riot act about sending poems to magazines too soon, before I know what they’re really about. (I might argue with her now, older more confident in my belief that we rarely ever know what our own poems mean, even to ourselves.) There’s a draft sticking up from the roller of her old black typewriter. It’s 1990 and computers are marching around the continent and the world, but not here. Here the typewriter keys sound more like tap dancers. Denise isn’t ready to send the poem anywhere, though it reads marvelously to me. “No aha! yet,” she says.

I try to remember the look and feel of Denise’s apartment. There’s a dumbcane plant on the windowsill above a radiator, some yellow throw pillows. And the table with the typewriter? Cherrywood, with claw feet. A few books piled in one corner, a telephone. It rings only once that night.

I hope Denise won’t mind that I’m making some of these details up. If she is peering in at me through some chink in the universe (able now to be everywhere at once, free of time and its Newtonian chains), I hope she understands my need to invent, the urgency of even this small claim upon the past.

Did we talk about ahimsa that night? About the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jainist philosophy of revering all life and refraining from harm to any living thing? I’m going to say yes, because if a life in poetry is anything at all, it is about reverence, about the harms of harm, personal, political, and in nature.

In the end I’m “crystal” (as Jack Nicholson says in A Few Good Men) on two things: Denise scared me. She made me realize I needed to do more to earn my own words—that I had veered toward security in some ways, rather than risk. She scared me because, there I was with my revered poet—wrapped in a borrowed blanket full of her atoms and oils—

camped out with the famous author of books I’d read by lamplight when the idea of writing my own poetry had seemed very far away and quite beyond me.

I gave her a thank-you gift that night—a ceramic creamer in the shape of a little dog with a curly tail. I remember how cream spilled through his doggy smile into our cups. I bought two that day in March at Cost Plus, one for Denise, one for myself. Hers has gone the way of all things, no doubt, but its twin is wearing an eager open-mouthed smile on my kitchen counter. It wears the memory of her touch-marks too, from that shared night when I set them out together on her table and we laughed.

The Teacher’s Guide To Fuzzphraseology

by John Samuel Tieman

At some point during the academic year, educators and administrators at all levels will be called upon for their quarterly cognitive meta- paradigm projection. Such folks will need all manner of fuzzphrase.

“The Teacher’s Guide” transitionalizes this problematic function by facilitating the following referentials. Choose any three numbers between 0 and 9, say 3-8-5. From the three columns below, choose word 3 from the first column, word 8 from the second, 5 from column three. Thusly does 3-8-5 yield “periodic rhetorical predisposition”. Think of it: 7-3-8, a “targeted comprehensive normative”, could almost be something.

The prefix “meta-“ is to be added anywhere on an as-needed basis, as in 9-2-3, “modulated transitional meta-entity”.

0. reciprocal 0. administrative 0. projection

1. cognitive 1. substantive 1. portfolio

2. informal 2. transitional 3. download

3. periodic 3. comprehensive 3. entity

4. mainstream 4. imaging 4. determination

5. certificated 5. motivational 5. predisposition

6. retrogressive 6. conceptual 6. function

7. targeted 7. referential 7. schedule

8. group 8. rhetorical 8. normative

9. modulated 9. paradigm 9. involvement