Thursday, November 19, 2009

In the Beginning was the Word

She-ite! Quite the word. I sit with a mouthful of food and the person opposite me says it again. Carefully, I swallow. It is out of reverence for the symbolic that I usually am so considerate of the literal, but all around there are catch-phrases spat out or tongued over without much thought for their taste. We see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and feel words, I tell my students. It’s like the Cohen song: There’s a blaze of light in every word. Yet still, we’re going to kill this puppy, another will say, talking of something else entirely.

The impeccability of thought, language, choice, drives the sensibilities ~ yet we are inured to the casually idiomatic, as little fired up by common phrases as perhaps shooting that proverbial fish in the barrel. And culturally we give words a certain coolness, a certain wickedness, a certain radical-ness, and drop them from our mouths to be picked up by borrowed ears without much regard for whether or not they get back to us.

Come see the monkey in the barrel, the sign read. It was circa 1983. I followed the signs down a side-street in Chemainus, British Columbia, Canada. Rage chattered at my insides. My English grandmother started the Ndola Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, back in Northern Rhodesia in the 1950’s, and as a fellow from Africa I was not about to let that monkey be abused. So I strode angrily upon sign after beckoning sign until there, at the end of the alley, was indeed a large rain barrel with a lid on it, and not so much as a window or air hole to show. A little wood-box on a post near the barrel sported a card that read: “Monkey in the Barrel, 25c, See yourself!” So I fished in my pocket, snared a coin, slid it through the slot, and advanced angrily upon the barrel. With a careful motion, so as not to scare the monkey, I peeled back the dustbin-like lid, and peeked inside. Nothing. No sound. Nothing. So I let more light enter the barrel, but still, nothing. Had it escaped? And then I leaned over and looked inside, and saw my face in the mirror, staring stupefied back at me. Ha! Who’s the monkey now?

Words lead. Words clarify. Words mislead. So, let’s kill this puppy. Well, that is what another person said, just today. And I go back to a time when I was definitely four, or maybe even three years old, and I hear my other grandmother, my Ouma tell me that I’m the one to blame for the dog having puppies since I was supposed to keep her on a leash and not let her run out of the yard, and now we’re going to have to kill the puppies. So I have this dark memory of myself with the bread knife approaching the puppies in the bag, and I’m under the giant pomegranate tree with the blood-red seeds spilled and squashed from the rotten fruit lying about, and I look down at the squirming bag. And in the instant I know I cannot, will not do it. Then someone (I think my mother or my aunt) comes out and yells and plucks at my ear and wallops me and then… the memory fades. But red pomegranate seeds in a salad still bring on meteorological memories. Holonic, isn’t it?

Words are immediate. They evoke recollection. They provoke. Words tripped out of the mouth without thought for their symbolism are words to which we become desensitized; the list of the in-appropriate appears ugly, rude, crude, lewd; yet any one of them can be marvellously useful too! Crikey! Come to think of it, I hope you weren’t eating when I began with 'that' word, and therewithal took up your time. Then again, as the ugly saying goes, who gives a ...! Sorry! Made you feel, say, think, taste, see, smell it?

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