Sunday, April 30, 2006


army of one

I hope I will eventually find in print (or someone could point me toward) definite proof that Lorine Niedecker had a strong interest in etymology. For I think it's a buried meaning based on word-history that would give the striking, perplexing--arresting, as it were--conclusion of the following lines a truly satisfying and powerful significance. (This is not a complete poem, but the final section of a three-part poem called "Depression years").

A working man appeared in the street
in soldiers suit, no work, no peace.
What'r you doing in that dress,
a policeman said, where's the fight?
And after they took him for a ride
in the ambulance, they made arrest
for failure to molest.

(Niedecker, Collected Works, p. 115

Now what is "failure to molest"???

Does it mean that the man who was detained, and interrogated, and put in an ambulance (for a test at a mental hospital, I suppose) kept his cool all the while, and the police used their power to arrest out of frustration that they could not bother ("molest")him? Maybe. But can we imagine this man, interrupted in his intense solo rally declaring "no peace", singularly calm in custody?

And anyway, maybe we should follow the lead of ordinary speech at this point, and assume that if we are told that our hero was arrested "for" something, the following word(s) should indicate what he himself has done or is accused of doing.

So could "failure to molest" mean that the disillusioned ex-soldier hadn't bothered the Officers quite enough? If only he had somehow managed to make a stronger impression on them, to further shake them up and further prick their consciences, this would have overruled their sense of a Breach Of The Peace, and they would have let him go.

So maybe this is the meaning. But the policemen had surely been very disturbed ("molested") by the man if they thought his clothing and words merited him a ride in an ambulance, so one might say that further "molestation" might not be the answer, that these cops needed to be touched and illuminated as well as shaken.

Now we come to my explication based on etymology.

The word "molest" comes from the Latin molestare, to irk, derived from molestus, irksome; cf moles, mass, burden, trouble.

If we indeed "cf" (consult, compare) molestus and moles, it would seem that the Latin idea of irksomeness is entwined with the idea of a mass that you have to lift or carry, or that presses upon you.

I presume that the Latin word moles did not have any glimmer of the modern social notion of The Masses. But Niedecker might have known of this etymology for "molest" and thought of how annoying/maddening/self-defeating it is when a person acts with all the reflexes of a conformist Mass.

So we can think of these lines as presenting a man who does not exhibit typical resignation. He doesn't make a typical protest gesture either; he thinks of something unusual, though, paradoxically, his protest involves donning the "dress" he wore when he was part of a compact mass machine--one of our nation's Armed Forces.

Niedecker's use of the word "dress" here, though it can be used for anything one places upon one body, is of course droll.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006


sundials & lilacs

I had mentioned wanting to speak of Mayer's sundial epigram. It sounds very Classical as well as brain-teasing, does it not?:

i know a sundial has no moving parts
some lilacs don't bloom either

(Scarlet Tanager, p. 11)

One wonders, at first, how each and every sundial can be considered a failure like a lilac that does not bloom.

But then you can consider that the blooming of a lilac, or any other flower, is a dynamic action that is a fitting response to the Earth's revolution that brings a hemisphere thereof Spring when that hemisphere is closer to the energizing Sun and its (apparent) invigorating motion.

The thought of this epigram is that human time is most properly tracked by an instrument that in some way moves, because our world of time is based on the sweeping arc of the sun we experience.

If this is so, this poem complicates any sense we may have that it is always the latest inventions that alienate us most from the Cosmos.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006


The epigrams that ought to be The Talk of The Town

The epigrams that ought to be The Talk of The Town are not those of provacateur Kent Johnson, but rather those of Bernadette Mayer.

It's wonderful the way she can combine forthrightness & mystery in these short pieces. Take the 2nd of her "wal-mart epigrams" as found on page 10 of Scarlet Tanager:

phil and i went to one of the marts
and bought a rug like we're supposed to
only thing is
it's purple, we're not married,
the rug is the wrong size
and my name is bernadette

It's charming how the phrase "only thing is" refers to a list of four things that are inappropriate, but which coalesce into a single feeling of un-ease. A single queasiness combining disturbance about characteristics of the rug, and about how buying what you're "supposed to" mixes with not doing what you're "supposed to" (getting married if you live together).

The great puzzle, of course, is the final line. Almost anyone might wonder how the statement about being named Bernadette fits here. Still it's a ringing conclusion, and one senses that there's something, or a lot, right about it.

Over a period of many months in which this epigram has been one of The Thousand Things on my mind, I've thought of various interpretations for this final line. The latest interpretation that has occured to me--involving the etymology of the names "Bernadette" and "Phil"--just popped into my head a few days ago. This interpretation (which will be #4 in the list that follows) is the most satisfying signifigance I've yet arrived at. Still I like to think of the epigram's mysterious conclusion in terms of all the meanings that have suggested themselves to me, excluding those that are really stupid.

OK--(hopefully non-stupid) interpretations of "and my name is bernadette":

(1) One could imagine a narrative in which the store has mangled the name "Bernadette" in their oral or written dealings with her concerning the rug, maybe calling her "Bernadine" or something.

(2) Mayer may be invoking the visionary nature of her namesake, the 19th Century French shepherd Bernadette who had visions of the Virgin Mary and is said to have discovered the fountain at Lourdes, and thereby proposing herself as above this rug-your-supposed-to-have crapola that she had a momentary weakness for at the Mart.

(3) There may be puns hidden in the name Bernadette at play. "Burn" signifying the fire of a soul that is, once again, "above" trifling with this lousy rug. And "debt": well that would be a tricky pun. One could read it like this: "I'm a person who knows what a true debt--to one's friends, lovers, influences, etc.--is, not someone who wants to go into debt to finance all the things a USAmerican is "supposed to have".

(4) Finally etymology: "Bernadette", like "Bernard", is derived from "bern" (bear) and "hard" (hardy, brave).

"Phil(l)ip", from "philo" (love) and "hippos" (horse), means "lover of horses", but when shortened to "Phil" you can focus only on the component of loving/liking, and leave out the horses.

Indeed in Issue #1 of the magazine apex of the M (Spring 1994), Mayer published an eight-page poem, "The Phil-Words", that is a gathering of Greek words for loving various things. Here are the first four lines of the main section of that poem:

philabros, loving delicacy or refinement
philagathos, loving goodness
philaglaos, loving splendor
philagretis, loving the chase, the huntress

(In this poem, most of the definitions of the "phil-words" being with the word "loving", but some begin with "fond of", such as "philochlainos, fond of a cloak").

In the "wal-mart epigram" Mayer may be proposing that "phil", as is his inherent in his name, too easily likes things, including the dreck that the Mart tries to convince everyone that they're "supposed" to have, whereas she, as is inherent in her name, is a fierce bear who knows what things have to be hated, even if she is momentarily talked into acquiring them.

Whew! I've said what I have to say about that epigram. I was going to tack on a short discussion about Mayer's quite different "sundial" epigram, but I think that this initial post has become long enough.

Let me just say that pages 2 to 24 of Mayer's Scarlet Tanager (2005), a New Directions book, consist of epigrams, and there are also a lot of them in Indigo Bunting (2004), a sort of companion volume from Zasterle Press--but I don't know if you can still get that one.

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