A word’s an act, and no one can recover it.
Sometimes the thing we name
suddenly becomes…what? A being, almost
human, that the very calling kills”
from Heather McHugh’s “The Magician” in To The Quick

-copied in one of my notebook, among my notes on the social geography and history of New Orleans.

This morning was cold. Cooler than it’s been in a while. Weather is not metaphor. But I make those connections anyway with trails and emotions that have cooled. Scent and heat (and their absence). The marked police car is back on the corner. (What are those expectations about? Yes, to the dangling preposition, my morning affirmation.) Am enjoying this measure of detachment that the cool calls up. And besides, I’m a winter birth. “We think by feeling. What is there to know?” Of course, we also feel by thinking. And to know requires that we somehow touch. Here, I picture Anne Bancroft spelling words (signing) in Patty Duke’s finally understanding palms. First water, then ground, then pump, tree, step.

I’m missing Richard Pryor right now, who could make you laugh through fire; listening to George Carlin; watching replays of Joe Wilson’s “You lie,” President O’s expression, Nancy Pelosi, open-mouthed, behind him; thinking about a cousin, an afternoon at this summer’s end, a bee sting, and anaphylaxis; remembering a wasp’s nest under a sliding bench on the porch of the double shotgun where we lived when I was a girl, the bright pink house across the street; thinking about a wake on an anniversary; buying more Ikea medium-brown bookshelves though I can’t afford a ticket home(?); reading—after George Oppen’s New Collected Poems, his Selected Prose, Daybooks and Papers.

Oppen, in an excerpt from “Daybook 1”:

“Words are a constant enemy: the thing seems to exist because the word does”
(a note that Stephen Cope, the book’s editor, rightly links to Oppen’s “A Language of New York”)

If we change the words, do we change the thing/s? My words here are some measure pretense/defense. What are they killing off? From what are they turning away?

from “A Language of New York”

To use
Words provided one treat them
As enemies.
Not enemies—Ghosts
Which have run mad
In the subways
And of course the institutions
And the banks. If one captures them
One by one proceeding

Carefully they will restore
I hope to meaning
And to sense.

When and where (and how) do words “restore…to meaning and to sense”? Must we capture the words “which have run mad/In the subways/And of course the institutions/And the banks,” along with the banks and institutions that the departed words haunt?

CITIZEN: How often has a display of disdain and disrespect by a member of Congress to the POTUS been met with such loud and celebratory applause and raucous autograph-signing (despite the House’s meager sanction)? To what end is an approximation (or rather description) of the language of contrition coupled with fist-pumping and indignation? To what meaning and to what sense?

PERSON: And how often does a bee sting kill a grown man? How do words (or statistics (for the mathematically inclined)) make sense of that? Description of how the venom travels from the stinger under the skin into the tissue and blood stream; description of the explosive reactions in skin, lungs, throat, nose, gastrointestinal tract. Description of the way all that a body depends on can shut down. (Why didn’t he move out of the bee’s way?) (Online speculation is that anaphylaxis is likely under-reported.) Description of how what can be counted as a couple of minutes expands into what feels like an unendurable amount of time. Description of the simultaneous contraction of those same minutes to a single, radiating point? What can/will/does description (those words captured “One by one proceeding/ /Carefully…”) re/store? And to whom? And how? And what meaning or sense is there?

In Oppen’s poem, is the breath the thing, the hint of matter that matters? The way breath is drawn out through breaks in line and sense that demand pause and expand (and contract) a temporal experience of meaning? How linked are emotional sense and reason?

And what about the links Oppen draws between language and finance?

INSOMINIAC: I’ve been watching (in parts) the Adam Curtis BBC documentary Century of the Self, which charts the evolution of a kind radical individualism alongside the development of modern public relations. The Committee on Public Information, CPI, was established by President Woodrow Wilson, Executive Order 2594, in order to influence public opinion about American intervention in World War I. Early on in the doc, there’s an interview of Edward Bernays. He’s an old man at that point. He sits sweatered at a table, eating and talking about his successes. He explains what he felt after accompanying the President to Paris, where the President was received by masses of the public as a hero: “I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. And propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it. So what I did was to try to find some other words. So we found the words: Council on Public Relations.”

Again, if we change the words, do we change the thing/s?

Originally Published: September 19th, 2009

Tonya M. Foster was born in Bloomington, Illinois, and raised in New Orleans. She earned a BA from Newcomb College, Tulane University, and an MFA from the University of Houston. Foster is the author of the poetry collection A Swarm of Bees in High Court (Belladonna*, 2015) and coedited the book Third Mind:...

  1. September 19, 2009

    This is good stuff, Tonya Foster, and a treat to read. Got caught up immediately. It put me in mind of an Antonin Artaud poem I would have first read in the early seventies. It is called "Here Where I Stand" and it starts this way:\r

    "Here where I myself stand / a man\r
    I stand\r
    what I myself do / a man\r
    I do\r
    there is nothing more\r
    there will never be anything more\r
    than that.\r
    There is no science, no wisdom,\r
    life has been lost from the day one single thing\r
    became known.\r
    I am not of your world,\r
    mine is on the other side of all that is, known itself, is\r
    conscious, desires and acts.\r
    Its entirely another thing.\r
    There science, knowledge,\r
    envy, desire and its attractions are unknown."\r

    I am enjoying your blogs.\r


  2. September 19, 2009

    Hi Terreson,\r
    Thank you. for both your interest and your comments. This is the first part of a post I wrote, and then realized was far too long for a blog post. So I've broken it into several parts. In the second or third part (because it continues to morph), I respond more directly to your reflections on place (New Orleans/Deep Souths) and violence. Am enjoying your responses!

  3. September 19, 2009

    Oh good. A series of blogs thematically related. This I look forward to.\r


  4. September 19, 2009
     Wendy S.

    Very interesting post which made me wonder:\r

    1. What if emotional sense is a kind of reason? Then meaning is inevitably temporal, which could be seen as some consolation when words fail us.\r

    2. Does meaning have to make "sense." Is that too much responsibility for the word, which in the end is only a graphic representation of an utterance? Hmmn. I dunno.\r

    3. I am not sure words are the enemy to anyone except the writer, and that is only when we need them to convey/express more directly than we can through another sensation. I find that I fail to know exactly what I am saying just as often (more frequently than) the words fail to convey what I mean. Is this because meaning is, in fact, temporal? Or is it because it is so fixed that I can't ever really get a handle on it?\r


  5. September 21, 2009

    t, yes and no, in answer to the question you conclude with. (and yes, to the preposition, which can indeed handle the responsibility of nailing down the sentence!) the use of "collateral damage" as a euphemistic term for civilian casualties in a war hasn't changed the fact that *people* who are not soldiers get killed by even the smartest bombs (or maybe the smartest ones malfunction and don't go off?). but it has changed how the public thinks about such deaths. "unavoidable" (collateral --> goes along with). "unintended" (collateral --> secondary). the term characterizes the deaths, dehumanizing them to say the very least. just for example.\r

    btw: helen keller, not patty duke; but i totally take your point. touché? : )

  6. September 21, 2009

    Patty Duke as Helen Keller in the Miracle Worker, right?

  7. September 21, 2009

    ah... of course, the movie. : )

  8. September 21, 2009

    Clinton Poetics of Triangulation=You don't change the word, you change the definition. That changes the thing.

  9. September 22, 2009

    Makes me think of the John Cage quote "language controls our thinking; and if we change our language, it is conceivable that our thinking would change." This is the kind of utopian thinking I can get behind. Less positively, Cage's observation on the power of words/syntax must also have been understood by the govt. when the Department of War was renamed the Department of Defense in 1947. Or when it was decided that individual soldiers were to be referred to as "troops" (more generic/anonymous somehow). So yes, changing the words changes things/thinking. Somehow it's easier to find military examples (as Evie mentions) than Cagean examples...anyone have some of the latter?

  10. September 23, 2009
     Stephen Cope

    Let's not forget that the passage Tonya quotes from Oppen is haunted by Pound's conflation of aesthetics/economics: the word abstracted (like data) in a bank is essentially a word the meaning of which one takes on 'credit.' The disastrous consequences of Pound's belief are well known. And frankly 'unspeakable.'\r

    Oppen chose to omit that section of "A Language of New York" from "Of Being Numerous." It's possible that he did so with Pound's politics in mind. And the politics of language in mind. And the politics of credit in mind. \r

    This puts a refurbished damper on comparisons of the present American circumstance to the last big (American) crash. Whether the next big (American) crush is affected remains to be seen.\r

    Dear poets: is it possible that America doesn't really matter that much anymore?