Tuesday, February 16, 2010

.the dream of a common language.

I walked to CPL today to renew my library card. It was sunny when I was indoors getting ready, but by the time I made it out the sky had grayed. I'm still tired from the weekend, so while I walked, I retreated into my head in a not-so-mindful swarm of thoughts. Though scattered, some of them revolved around a theme: language, words and writing. I've had this on my mind for awhile and wanted to write about it, but I seem to be bad at composing a linear entry regarding the subject. So I decided to allow this to be a choppy entry and the ideas to fall where they may, subdivided by asterisks. One day, perhaps I'll learn to thread my thoughts together into a more purposeful blog, but for now I am still the queen of the non sequitur.

* * *
I finally finished reading Ariel Schrag's Likewise. I really enjoyed Potential, but this one was harder for me to get through – especially for a graphic novel. I also re-read Tom Robbin's Even Cowgirls Get The Blues for the first time since high school. On the one hand, it reminded me of the way that Robbins makes me feel about language – kind of buzzed on words, the way image-heavy poetry can make me feel. Almost dizzy. Among his more eloquent insights, a few gems: “Middays, the city felt like the inside of a napalmed watermelon.” Or: “the word tinkled in her head with a supernatural echo, frozen in mystery, causing her to stir and rustle the funny papers so that she failed to hear the conclusion...” And: “You do not merely stretch rhino leather over your own fair skin, for that would deflect pleasure as well as pain and you do not permit your being to turn stinking inside a shell, but what you do is swirl yourself in the toughness of dreams.”

On the other hand, I realized this time around that sometimes, in playing with words, he can sometimes go a little overboard and veer less toward poetic or quirky and more toward just trying too hard to be unique. The result is often something that doesn't quite make sense and it made it a little difficult to plug through.

Side note time: My copy of Even Cowgirls Get The Blues is a musty, yellowed used book that someone inscribed with the following: :To Billy, from your first mate on the ship of life. Hahahohoheehee.” This is why I love old books sometimes – because of their past lives.

* * *
When I think a lot about language, I find myself contemplating dialect and my southern heritage. I believe it irresponsible to disregard the way my father spoke simply because he was an under-educated man and it happened to show in his personal vernacular. I think that the meat of a language, its color, resides in the dialects of the regions that speak it. And yes, sometimes when they do so improperly. I also don't believe that improper English is necessarily a sign of ignorance. One may know perfectly well that double negatives are incorrect, but in the South, when we're relaxed, it's like our jaws slacken and we slip into that slanted speech. By this I mean that our country drawls come out and “ain't no way” might become a chant of disapproval in referring to town gossip. I like the way southerners speak. I like the way I can speak when I am down in the country – lazy, yes, but understood. Many a classic author (Steinbeck, Cather, etc.) has captured that speech well enough without making it a judgment of his or her characters' intellect.

My father used outdated terms like “nary” and occasionally, his hillbilly accent could change a word so completely as to render it incomprehensible. My sister and I, for instance, amuse ourselves with the story of how he pronounced a kind of potato. For years, we assumed that he was referring to these small, white potatoes as “ice” potatoes. We thought nothing of it – it seemed as reasonable a name for the starchy plant as any. But a year or so after he died, my sister was browsing the produce and came across the same potatoes labeled as “Irish potatoes.” This was, we discovered, what our father had been saying all along. I'm sure that in all the time we were growing up around him, we must have heard him say “Irish” in a different context. We had never put two and two together, so to speak.

* * *
In regards to language, to words: I like the concrete. I like specific names for things, especially when they're interesting. I like that my toothpaste was made in a place called Moon Township, Pennsylvania and that there is a brand of wine called Ménage à trois (which translates to “household to three”). This is all very disjointed, but I am getting to a “sort of”point, which is this: It is possible to forget about passion. What books do for me is remind me – they keep me aware and alive. Sometimes the way something is said in a paragraph or poem can leave me strolling about in a blissed-out daze. I need to remember that. It is possible to forget the thing that makes you happy. You can get so overwhelmed that you become disconnected from the thing you love so much it makes your heart race. Like Dar Williams sings, “What do you love more than love?”

Though sometimes I have to be virtually smacked in the face with it, the answer to that question for me is clear.

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