Saturday, June 16, 2007

Lord Jim, a Mother Lode and my Mother Tongue

It's amazing how one thing leads to another. A couple of weeks ago, from a box in a closet, looking for something else, I retrieved my high school paperback copy of Lord Jim and started rereading it. The reason this particular book drew me in now is a topic for another time. But something startled me as I thumbed through it. In the margins and on top of many pages, I'd scrawled words I was learning as I read.

In my still-childish hand, on the browning pages are: prescience, torpid, furtive, truculent,alacrity, lugubrious. All words I have loved my whole life. Is it possible Conrad's lushly styled prose is the lode from which I originally mined these words for my vocabulary? The habit of words, the hunger for them, springs from a deep well.

When I left my first husband and moved to Sylvester Manor, a granite pile in downtown Flint filled with a lot of other weepy and disappointed women, one of the first things I did was put a list of my favorite words on the door of the fridge. Along with unearthing Lord Jim, I just found it, tucked in a journal from that time: aileron, catalyst, springerle, baleen, ephemeral, mango, jettison, meander, suffused, inexorably, vituperative, sobriquet. These words comforted me because I loved them -- loved knowing them, loved the way it felt to say them, the way my mouth moved around them, loved their precise complexities. They offered order and continuity when all else was chaos.

And while looking for that list, I came across a third artifact -- a little brown leather ring binder notebook of my mother's, in which she kept lists of words. Like Lord Jim, this was another lode -- a Mother Lode of deeply emotional significance.

It's roughly in alphabetical order, with definitions. I see some of my words are also hers: "catalyst" and "ephemeral" jump out. For some reason, the "e" and "p" pages have been lifted out, so the first thing I see when I open the little book is this: "escargot - snails" and "epicurean - refers to Gr. philosopher who was fond of luxury & sensuous pleasures." Each word and definition adorns the lines in her neatly curved handwriting, as distinct to me as her voice but easier now to enjoy, preserved in many old letters and her prolific notes to herself.

It interests me that it is not so much the words in sentences; my mother collected individual words -- protean, pizzazz, platitude. On the page, they are like bouquets where no two flowers are the same, a cornucopia of words in which each one registers on the mind like an individual gourd, bright and textured -- catatonic, cowl, curmudgeon.

My mother kept her cache secret. I never saw this little notebook until after she died. It was in a drawer in her desk. She didn't write where she found the words or why she liked them, just list after list, in her own hand, crisp and quaint: "dichotomy -- a division into two subordinate parts -- hence a cutting in two," "debacle -- an overthrow, rout or sudden disaster," "drivel - foolish talk."

I think she kept these words simply for herself, for her own pleasure, or like me, for reassurance, like a stash of kruggerands in a vault. Or like dozens of idiosyncratic buttons in a tin, which I also found among her effects. I knew that she loved words -- she used them playfully in conversation, insisting that we pay attention. But I wish we'd talked about all these individual choices; I would have asked her why she liked them. There's also sadness in it -- that she saved these words in solitude, for what? for when? Did she whisper them to herself in a dark night? Did she leaf through the pages for tonic when she was down? Did she review them as she aged to remind herself that, in fact, she had used her sharply observant and cataloguing brain?

Here's the way Lord Jim and my mother juxtapose. As I riffled through the novel, I realized with a start that not all the words at the top were in my hand. Some, I see, are in hers. She must have picked up the book after I left and pulled out her own: rancor, moribund, fecund. We pursued our lexicons out of the same book, but at different times. What was she thinking when she picked up my habit? Why this book? What did she think about Marlowe's story and the fate of the poor Muslim pilgrims aboard the Patna? Of course I'll never know. What I do know, though, is that her hunger for words continued long after her children left home, driving her into the small and tattered libraries we left behind.

Robert Pinsky is fond of saying that the art closest to poetry is dance -- the body is so intimately involved in both -- poems literally come from the poet's breath. Touching my mother's notebook, holding it in my hand, I realize my poetry began even earlier -- from the person who gave me breath. My mother conveyed to me a visceral love of the way words work in the body, in the mind, and in the heart. They come from hunger, sometimes a secret hunger. And they live after we die. So this is to celebrate Joseph Conrad and Carol Worth, beloved progenitors of my mother tongue.

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