Saturday, January 1, 2011

Word Magic, or Vowels To Live By

I spilled my banana
, our three year old visitor kept telling me. When I parse this wonderful mistake, I find that "spill" shares its consonants with the expected word, "peel." From "peel" to "spill" is not far to go in vowel sounds, even if it represents a huge conceptual leap, one that liquifies the banana in question. For more on such errors, please go back to this post from February.

We spent last night with family, which now includes a teenager from Lebanon, he who yelled the word "AWESOME" several dozen times during the evening of pops and bangs and celebratory explosions. When I asked him and his friend from Yemen--a young man who asked to be called Braddah Eez, after Braddah Iz (short, one notes with irony, for Israel)--to explain Arabic poetic forms, he wrote a verse for me. Then, underneath it, he made a pattern of zeros and short slashes to denote the vowels. He told me that each verse that followed had to contain the same vowel pattern. Hence, each line after the one in which little Jonathan "spilled his banana" would require the same pattern of vowels: i i a a a (with two different sounds for "a"). In that way, the mistake involved in transposing spilled for peeled might itself become a form.

I just finished David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous, a book whose argument I don't always "buy" (in that awful way consumerist language applies to ideas), but admire greatly for its persistence, its insistence that we attend to the world before us, its "ordinary affects," as Kathleen Stewart calls them. But, while Stewart looks for her affects in diners and stores, Abram looks for his in the natural world. He argues that the move from oral indigenous cultures to western literate ones, a move characterized by a shift from sound to picture to alphabet, has removed us from the magic that resides in nature, and created a space of utter abstraction. Call that space-that-is-not-a-space heaven, or idea, or technology, it comes out of the letters that we write, marks that have no relationship to the world they attempt to describe, let alone breathe within. (It's to Abram's credit, I think, that he looks for a way back through the very tradition he's critiquing, using phenomenology as his guide to a more sensuous perception of the world as present, not removed into past or future tenses.) Part of his story is about how vowels appeared in writing. For Abram, Hebrew/Semitic writing, which is all consonants until the reader supplies the vowels, is closer to the oral tradition than are those languages (like the one I'm using now) where vowels are pre-installed for easy reader access. I don't have to use my imagination to re-read my words here, nor employ my breath as a part of my imagining.

So there we sat last night, our friend carefully charting the vowels below his verse, explaining that the key to this Arabic poetic form was in the reproduction of these vowels. It goes like this, the verse first and then the vowel sounds below (as I gather):

فوددت تقبيل السيوف لأنها لمعت كبــارق ثغرك المتبسم

o//o/// o//o/// o//o/// o//o/// o//o/o/ o//o///
متفاعلن مستفعلن متفاعل متفاعلن متفاعلن متفاعلن

البحر: الكامل

عنترة بن شداد

With Aardvark wishes,

To reproduce vowels is not to reproduce meaning, only the possibility of it. Jonathan's "spill" could migrate into "pill" or "till" or any other word with the short i sound. Christian Bok's Eunoia comes to mind as a place where such wordplay occurs outside this ancient form, or what our friend in his second language English called "what old people use." (His compulsive declarations of "awesomeness" in everything mark the extent to which he has become local in his language use, however.) And there's hiphop, where lyrics are written, but then performed orally, in a kind of DMZ between the oral and literate traditions. Or there's Wordsworth, reputed to have composed his very literate poetry orally on long walks through the countryside. Perhaps that rural dream is just an urban legend, don't know.

Meaning's creation, then, often depends on the transposition of vowels, on those letters that Abram points out are breathed, rather than on those that seem more fixed. Projective verse may be written down, but it aspires to orality. The mind turns to poetry, which thrives on transposition, where there are no mistakes because something inevitably come of and from them. Abram, too, thinks of poetry in these terms. In a recent interview he notes that he chose not to write The Spell of the Sensuous in poetry, because poetry is not taken seriously in our culture. (It's just that important!) Abram:

Well, it was very important to me to write a book that would speak to the so-called "experts," to write a book that couldn't be shrugged off as fiction, or as "mere" poetry. Not that I believe there is anything "mere" about poetry, but so many people in our culture do — they tend to think of poetry as a kind of secondary use of language. We don't realize that language originates in poetry and in poetics, and ends up there.

In this way, poetry is like magic; where Abram locates magic in the ordinary lives of indigenous people (in their medicine, for example), he finds western magic only in places like Las Vegas, where it becomes entertainment. The extra-ordinary is less interesting to him than is the ordinary. One of many ironies is that in order to communicate with a larger community--he sees this community as one of scholars, which I find lovely and odd--Abram uses the languages of philosophy and memoir. Their languages are less creative than is poetry's lingo franca (sic); any of the mistakes I've mentioned above would be considered typos by his editors. So, even though he tells his interviewer that he "wanted to do an animistic analysis of rationality and the Western intellect, and to show that our Western, civilized ways of thinking are themselves a form of magic," his book de-creates the magic that he wants us to return to. Audiences, in his view, are not magical, but must be told to look for magic in ways that lack its sleight of hand. See me fooling you, he seems to say, and only then can you find the real magic in the natural world, a magic that does not fool, but sustains you.

Slight of hand.
Sleigh of hand.
Slay of hand.
Slew of hand.
Slow hand.

And so on.


I suggested to our Lebanese friend that he read poetry in English; he shook his head no.

Another member of our party (one of whom I am especially fond) said, "thank goodness not all poetry is like yours, Susan."

Years ago, I would have minded these moments horribly, nursed them over many days. I used to internalize others' fear of poetry as an aggression against me. I see poetry fear now as a fear of magic, terror that meaning will be thrown up in the air, juggled, and then spilled on the floor like balls, or like bananas. Code orange for the poetry terror level. But last night ended with a happy alphabetic romp, one that assures me there was poetry at play, even if none called it that. I suggested that our friend replace his "awesome" tic with another word, like "aardvark," adding that aardvark was a word famous less for representing an odd animal than for coming first in the dictionary.

I return to the notion that Jonathan's spilled banana could generate a new pattern, were it introduced into the Arabic verse form our friend explained to me. For at that point, as awesome morphed into aardvark, the alphabet itself became magical. The old year was becoming new, history turning back to myth.

Happy new year! Hope it's incredibly aardvark!

1 comment:

Bilal said...

This is aardvarktacly awesome