For Lack of Better Words

[Image: “Zip Your Lips,” from A New Me’s photostream at Flickr]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):

The Peninsula

When you have nothing more to say, just drive
For a day all around the peninsula
The sky is tall as over a runway,
The land without marks, so you will not arrive

But pass through, though always skirting landfall.
At dusk, horizons drink down sea and hill,
The ploughed field swallows the whitewashed gable
And you’re in the dark again. Now recall

The glazed foreshore and silhouetted log.
That rock where breakers shredded into rags,
The leggy birds stilted on their own legs,
Islands riding themselves out into the fog.

And then drive back home, still with nothing to say
Except that now you will uncode all landscapes
By this; things founded clean on their own shapes
Water and ground in their extremity.

(Seamus Heaney [source])


It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many.

(Margaret Atwood, from The Handmaid’s Tale [source])

Not from whiskey river:

When Milton was going to visit Italy in the 1630s, Sir Henry Wootton, who had been ambassador to Venice, told him his motto should be “i pensieri stretti & il viso sciolto.” Closed thoughts and an open face. Smile at everyone, and don’t tell them what you’re thinking…

When people are bad at math, they know it, because they get the wrong answers on tests. But when people are bad at open-mindedness they don’t know it. In fact they tend to think the opposite. Remember, it’s the nature of fashion to be invisible. It wouldn’t work otherwise. Fashion doesn’t seem like fashion to someone in the grip of it. It just seems like the right thing to do. It’s only by looking from a distance that we see oscillations in people’s idea of the right thing to do, and can identify them as fashions.

Time gives us such distance for free. Indeed, the arrival of new fashions makes old fashions easy to see, because they seem so ridiculous by contrast. From one end of a pendulum’s swing, the other end seems especially far away.

(Paul Graham [source])


Our Masterpiece Is the Private Life

For Jules


Is there something down by the water keeping itself
from us,
Some shy event, some secret of the light that falls upon
the deep,
Some source of sorrow that does not wish to be
discovered yet?

Why should we care? Doesn’t desire cast its
rainbows over the coarse porcelain
Of the world’s skin and with its measures fill the
air? Why look for more?


And now, while the advocates of awfulness and sorrow
Push their dripping barge up and down the beach, let’s eat
Our brill, and sip this beautiful white Beaune.

True, the light is artificial, and we are not well-dressed.
So what. We like it here. We like the bullocks in the field
next door,
We like the sound of wind passing over grass. The way
you speak,

In that low voice, our late night disclosures… why live
For anything else? Our masterpiece is the private life.


Standing on the quay between the Roving Swan and the
Star Immaculate,
Breathing the night air as the moment of pleasure taken
In pleasure vanishing seems to grow, its self-soiling

Beauty, which can only be what it was, sustaining itself
A little longer in its going, I think of our own
smooth passage
Through the graded partitions, the crises that bleed

Into the ordinary, leaving us a little more tired each time,
A little more distant from the experiences, which, in the
old days,
Held us captive for hours. The drive along the winding road

Back to the house, the sea pounding against the cliffs,
The glass of whiskey on the table, the open book,
the questions,
All the day’s rewards waiting at the doors of sleep…

(Mark Strand [source])

The narrator of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Did She Mention My Name?” oscillates between pretending not to care very much and, whoops!, leaking the information that he cares quite a bit. At the end, he even nervily asks his listener to follow his example: Please say this. Only don’t, y’know, say it. (All the while, in the background, lurks the object of his desire: not really the “she” of the title, but what she may or may not be saying.)

Lightfoot here precedes “Did She Mention…?” with a quite different song, “For Lovin’ Me.” Together, they tell a story of what you once thought you had to say, and what you can’t now quite bring yourself to.

Update: A note on the lyrics… In this particular mashup-like version of the two songs, a couple of stanzas got dropped from “Did She Mention My Name” — and bits of one stanza otherwise dropped are blended into the final stanza. I tried to think of some way of representing all this, while including the complete original song, but it just didn’t work. I opted to include the complete lyrics.

For Lovin’ Me/Did She Mention My Name?
(Gordon Lightfoot)

That’s what you get for lovin’ me
That’s what you get for lovin’ me
Everything you have is gone, as you can see
That’s what you get for lovin’ me

I ain’t the kind to hang around
With any new love that I’ve found
Since movin’ is my stock in trade, I’m moving on
I won’t think of you when I’m gone

So don’t you shed a tear for me
‘Cause I ain’t the love you thought I’d be
I’ve got a hundred more like you, so don’t be blue
I’ll have a thousand ‘fore I’m through

That’s what you get for lovin’ me
That’s what you get for lovin’ me
Everything you have is gone, as you can see
That’s what you get for lovin’ me

It’s so nice to meet an old friend and pass the time of day
And talk about the home town a million miles away
Is the ice still in the river, are the old folks still the same
And by the way, did she mention my name

Did she mention my name just in passing
And when the morning came,
do you remember if she dropped a name or two
Is the home team still on fire, do they still win all
the games
And by the way, did she mention my name

Is the landlord still a loser, do his signs hang in the hall
Are the young girls still as pretty in the city in the fall
Does the laughter on their faces still put the sun to shame
And by the way, did she mention my name

Did she mention my name just in passing
And when the talk ran high,
did the look in her eye seem far away
Is the old roof still leaking when the late snow turns to rain
And by the way, did she mention my name

Did she mention my name just in passing
And looking at the rain,
do you remember if she dropped a name or two
Won’t you say hello from someone, there’ll be no need
to explain
And by the way, did she mention my name

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  1. Re the Atwood, for most of my teens and through my twenties I used to often have a horrible feeling that I hadn’t covered what I wanted to say. That I had left some crucial part of my words unsaid. That it hadn’t made full sense and that the listener couldn’t understand the detail of my communication. It used to make me feel a little sick as I walked away from conversations. I used to sometime go back to say one more thing but that after the initial relief almost always made the feeling worse. I would lie sleepless over things said wrong.
    I had half forgotten this til I read your clipping here. I still do this occasionally but it pains me less, maybe I am better content with being misunderstood or I am to tired and fall asleep. Much of the anxiousness and pain has fallen out of it.
    Maybe I am a bit slovenly these days. I suppose I am older, less earnest (if you can believe it) and hopeful?

  2. I believe if you love words as much as so many of your contributors do (and you as well, JES), you always wonder, did I say what I meant? Did they GET it? Either saying it out loud or writing it down. Isn’t that the essence of worrying about your writing–whether anyone will get it?

    I really liked that “mash-up”. I received an e-mail from someone I knew in high school the other day and thought about the old boyfriend that this person was friends with and wondered exactly that…”did he mention my name” after all these years? And how would I bring that up in conversation??

  3. ” From one end of a pendulum’s swing, the other end seems especially far away.”

    Since so much, from hairdos to “my type” of men and even to large chunks of my personality, appear in retrospect to have been the fashion of a period, I wonder sometimes if I will look back on my entire life and see that it was always that way…even when I thought I’d outgrown fashion.

    Well, damned if I’ll let that happen, I think. Only to remember that it is the fashion in one’s dotage to throw over all things fashionable.

  4. “Time gives us this distance for free”… what a lovely lovely way to look at the fact that I’ve lived a long time. The impossibility “of saying a thing exactly” is what kept me from writing anything at all until recently. Gordon Lightfoot’s bathos didn’t even seem that treacly (sorry, JES…..) by the time I got down to it.

    Do you really think we go through life so alone?

    Reading your posts is like having my own private librarian, someone who collects the most interesting ways of examining a topic and then presents them to me with links in case I want to delve more deeply. I am so glad I found you!!

  5. By one of those strange, strange coincidences, I was just recently introduced to Mark Strand by my literary correspondent ‘The Weeble’, who sent me a link to this article by him in a literary magazine called Blackbird.

    Another wondrous selection, John. They’re going through a bit of a Heaney phase on whiskey river, are they?

  6. fg: Good to see you again!

    I had a similar problem when younger — not quite identical, but very much like it. The best way to describe it is to describe the practical joke a brother-in-law used to play with me from time to time: I’d describe some situation or dilemma which I thought particularly important, and he would look at me without speaking (or just do make one of those noncommittal Mmm-hmm… noises). Convinced that I hadn’t made my point, I’d elaborate, and he’d respond as before.

    I never did catch onto this until he told me about it. “You will just go to the most incredible lengths to explain yourself!” he said, or something like it.

    cynth: I’ve seen some people (try to) get around the problem of asking, explicitly, Did s/he mention my name? by trying to bait their listener into volunteering the information. A particularly clumsy form of this goes something like, “What was the name of the girl/guy I went out with a few times — black/brown/red/gray hair, about so high…?”

    Not that I’ve ever done this myself.

    Nance: To my way of thinking, nothing seems so fashionable and well-styled as someone who wears their years and foibles, their satisfactions and dissatisfactions like a classy, sui generis jacket without a designer label on the pocket. I believe you’ve struck the right balance.

    a/b: “Treacly”?! “TREACLY”?!? Do you have any idea how many times I’ve comforted myself with over-and-over replays of GL’s music?!?

    Kidding. (Well, sort of.)

    But Lightfoot, as I said, didn’t in my opinion really take seriously the “treacliness” — the hopeless (and hopelessly self-centered) romanticism of his narrator.

    There’s a Dylan song, “If You See Her, Say Hello,” which is almost identical to Lightfoot’s in its storyline; I used to think it crushingly “true.” As lovely as it is musically, though, it’s become very difficult for me to listen to very often: the narrator is just about the most pathetically self-unaware emotional child you (well, I) can imagine. He… he embarrasses me. (If that makes sense.)

    Thank you for what you said about my posts. It sure helps to have thoughtful commenters, I’ll tell you that much!

    Froog: Loved that Strand piece. What did you think of it?

    whiskey river gets a lot of its quotations from a regular stable of other blogs. Just as you say, though, I think the balance come from the recent reading of Mr. or Ms. W. River, and the effect is that for a few weeks in a row they’ll cite bits from a given author to complement the ones from elsewhere.

  7. Every single day I’m sure I haven’t said what I meant.

    But what has stayed with these last couple of days as I’ve thought about these poems & quotes, and I’ve wondered how to reply. I still don’t know, but what has stayed with me is that bit about being bad at open-mindedness.

    Do you remember that scene in When Harry Met Sally where Carrie Fisher’s character says to her husband something about everyone thinking they have good taste, but they couldn’t all possibly have good taste? (In reference to a wagon wheel coffee table which looked like an exact replica of the wagon wheel coffee table my father had in our living room.)

    I think an open-mind is often like that. Everyone thinks they have one.

    And I wonder what I do to keep my mind open.

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