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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no bug books in her library (all those books are in a special section in the Ft Atkinson town library now)
insects are the subject
of entomology
etymology's concerned
with those little buggers
Hi, Shanna. I'm sure Catherine was trying to spice things up with a little (time-honored)humor. (Don't take my parenthesis the wrong way, Catherine, old jokes are welcome here. I will probably resort to them myself sometimes in my posts).
i mix these words up myself, which is why i wrote a little mnemonic song for them. :)
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