blackbirdonline journalSpring 2009  Vol. 8  No. 1


From Murderously To Mussel

I’ve been leaving my unabridged dictionary on the floor these days. I’ve never managed to get my hands on one of those nifty, blond wood swiveling podiums that inhabited the classrooms of my childhood, the ones that always made me feel ecclesiastical as I approached the massive book to look up words like pontificate and chaos. Now, when I want to look up a word, I drop to my knees. I have to bend even lower to read the type, and I always get that characteristically yeasty whiff from the whey-colored paper. In such a pose, I probably appear to be on the verge of either invoking Allah or laying my head between those two bosomy swells of page like an overtired toddler.


I love how resolutely unhip and square the dictionary is. Unlike hiking guides, where meticulous descriptions of trails are enlivened by the idiosyncratic fillips of their authors, [1] dictionary definitions usually strive to be as discreet as possible. Yet despite this discretion, the dictionary is often where I go when I’m struggling to begin or stalled in the middle of writing a poem, when either the moment or the momentum fails me; I always manage to find bursts of stimuli in those orderly columns of words.


1  Tracy Salcedo’s Best Easy Day Hikes: Denver describes Evergreen Mountain as “a well-treed nubbin of a foothill,” but “a nubbin well-worth exploring” nonetheless.

In the same recto and verso territory where I find the word muse—page 942 and 943, from murderously to mussel—I also find mu•ri•cate, a botanical adjective which means “covered with short, sharp points.” Mu•sique con•crète, I learn, is “tape-recorded (!) musical and natural sounds, often electronically distorted, arranged in planned combinations, sequences, and rhythmic patterns to create an artistic work.” I can already hear the conversation: “Oh, I don’t care for that rap music.” “But dar-ling! It’s musique concrète!” Without a hint of irony, the dictionary informs me that a mus•cle beach is “a beach where scantily clad young men display their muscles, engage in calisthenics, etc.” So much unsaid in that “etc.”


But what, you may ask, is the real lure of this dictionary-diving, beyond momentary novelty? Is it the sheer physicality of the words, the hugeness of the repository by which I can refresh my own lexicon? Yes, but more than that, it’s something to do with the utility of language made manifest. If a word exists, it is because it evolved to fulfill a specific communicative purpose, for better or for worse. A dictionary is a source of our cultural DNA, the record of what we have selected or discarded [2] in the name of the conveying of our sense(s) of reality. In front of the dictionary, I feel less like an artist and more like a scientist looking to recombine these raw materials, or else immerse them in new contexts, and observe the effects of my experimentation. And herein lies the comfort: whatever doubts I may have about my own abilities as a writer, I can always trust in the infinite potential of language to surprise, shock, and delight me. It is the wellspring of poetry’s own musique concrète.

2  I’m trying to bring back scram, myself.
Writers, in trying to explain how their bizarre creatures of text come to exist, will often speak of “process” and “the muse,” [3] and yet these are mutually exclusive terms, aren’t they? It seems that we are always looking for one to outwit the other: “the muse” keeps us from getting bogged down in the predictability of process, and “process” keeps us from being too much at the mercy of the caprices and vicissitudes of the muse. This is why I return to the dictionary again and again—it’s a perfect marriage of process and muse, my I Ching: the words and their definitions never change, [4] but what I’m likely to divine from them always does.  end



3  I get rather squirrelly at the mention of “inspiration,” mostly because the word evokes images of motivational posters of sailboats in cinematic swells or wild horses in mid-gallop across tundra.

4  Not, at least, in the 1973 unabridged edition of The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, edited by Jess Stein and Laurence Urdang, which is the size of a small throw pillow and weighs, according to my digital kitchen scale, ten pounds and three-eighths of an ounce.

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