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If you live in or around New York City, you know that it was in chaos yesterday after torrents brought three inches of rain in one hour down on its delicate mechanism, a nouveau riche’s Philippe Patek accidentally submerged. A tornado (tourbillon) even touched down in Brooklyn. When a waterspout on the Hudson moved in and shredded trees like a peppermill last year, it was only days after I gave birth in Sleepy Hollow (where it came ashore), and of course to my addled brain it seemed like an augur. A few weeks after that, a manatee was spotted, in the waters off our town where freshwater meets the saltwater Hudson, thousands of miles north of its natural habitat.
Sometimes a single word leaps out of a poem, seemingly thousands of miles from its natural habitat. Unexpectedly, William Carlos Williams interjects “Recreant!” in “Burning the Christmas Greens,” where flames “roared to life” and boughs caught fire. One sees immediately that “recreant” was an inspired choice, because while it denotes a villain (the fire), the eye quickly parses the word into re and creant, re-believing, re-creating, re-crescent. So, the villain is also the renewer. I doubt that such felicities can be planned. They leap out of the brain like solar flares.
Other times, it is merely the exact word for a thing that sticks in the mind: instead of using the word “centerpiece,” one might say “epergne.” And henceforth that particular poet “owns” that particular word, having given it new life—recreant!
So what prompted these thoughts? Thinking of the city stopped under its deluge, of the tornado in Brooklyn, I recollected “tourbillon.” And I was sure I got it from Barbara Guest’s “The Türler Losses”—a long poem about losing time in usual and unusual ways. So I went back to the poem to find the word, and see how she placed it—it would be a hard word to place just so—and lo—it is nowhere to be found. And somehow it’s a relief. It is just one of those delicate, palatinized romance words that seem so inviting to use in a poem, and, once placed, sink the vessel. Recreant!