From Hand to Mouth
by Anita Sullivan
For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thenke may… .
So Chaucer says, midway through his poem “Parliament of Fowls,” as he launches into a kind of naming frenzy, or catalogue of all the birds who have come together to choose their “makes” (mates). The last line has been translated as “all kinds that have a name that men can say,” and also “of every species that men know, I say.” In any case – and looking back to the original above – it seems to me the words contain a tantalizing ambivalence, an implication that naming is a limited power. Which could imply that there is more to language than just an endless telling of names.
Here, in my final essay, I want to return to the original conclusions I allowed myself to jump to after reacting so strongly to a few lines from the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: 1) The reaction that words sometimes evoke in a person is the same as if that person had been touched, struck, punched, lightly stroked, etc. 2) That language can, will, and should routinely have such a direct, hands-on power is knowledge that humans once shared, but lost somewhere in either history or pre-history.
Let me address these issues again with a final question: When do words become a new
experience, instead of simply evoking, narrating, describing a previous one?
For such an experience to happen I believe the timing needs to be exactly right. A crack needs to open between what is spoken and what is understood. This, of course, happens almost every time people talk to each other, but mostly we shrug it off because we assume language will smooth over the cracks. Now and then, though, we need to notice that crack just at the moment it’s closing, and to be puzzled enough to keep it open just a fraction of a second longer than usual.
During that brief time two possible outcomes tremble in the balance: We relax and figure, oh well, once again we’ve misunderstood (I thought you said “a searing man,” when of course you must have said “a seated man”); or we recognize that a new arrangement of events has just occurred (“Yes, my ex-husband did have a certain kind of vigor, come to think of it”) and seize a rare opportunity to expand our precious cache of experiential knowledge.
This can be painful, like getting a shot or even a blood transfusion.
If you think about it, how often do you actually learn something that doesn’t involve simply connecting another link to what you already know? Once a person grows into adulthood, the “tacking-on” way of learning has become so ingrained that we easily fall in with it, not realizing that it carries as a side effect, a kind of numbness.
Hearing the opening lines of Chaucer’s “Prologue” allowed me to re-experience an initial connection with the world. I felt as if I were being offered a gift, neither despite nor because of how I had led my life. I heard these words as the first way that something essential would be spoken. The words filled the crack like a physical continuation of what they were speaking about, and I could fully take it in. It was like a beautiful embrace; no, it was a beautiful embrace.
Well, of course there is no way to experience something for the first time more than once! To realize, even briefly, an original physicality to words after so many centuries of developing a more distant relationship, must involve the prefix “re-” (as in “remember,” “renew,” “redundant,” “repeat”). But blessedly, since the “we” that each individual person embodies, since that “we” is historically prone to spells of communal forgetting, I believe humans have lived for centuries in a chronic state of depletion – call it spiritual, imaginal, visionary, all of the above – without realizing it. Almost as if we grew up too fast, or came out of the garden too soon.
So easily, if we allow ourselves, can we drop into a childlike, “Garden of Eden” frame of mind. I believe each of us harbors such a “place” deep within ourselves. Yet this is not the same as a tabula rasa, because each human does come into the world already possessed of an enormous “basic education,” a set of structural and topographical intuitions we’ve imbibed, and even honed while in the womb and continue to develop at a rather wild rate for at least the first few years of our lives. Because this part of us has never named anything, it holds an innocent, kinetic power of perpetual readiness. In order to learn something truly new, it is probably necessary to find a way back to this place where a passionate curiosity consumes us utterly, yet we are not impatient; we’re ready and willing to keep reconfiguring the world. This theme occurs in many stories and legends; for example, the Parsival tales of medieval Europe.
By luck or by accident, we can find our way into that place of wildness inside ourselves and hear old words spoken as if for the first time. And although we are accustomed to consider “language” to refer only to spoken and written words – which in themselves pack a wallop less than a wet noodle – a person might yet seek out and feel the sparking that happens each time the crack closes between worlds. It is in this split-second range of almost-not, not-quite, just-before, could-have-been-something-else-just-as-easily (Didn’t I just fly for three seconds?) – where the marvelous hammer-blow of essential enchantment lies.
The Chaucer quotation comes from the Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #3, based on that published in The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. W.W. Skeat (Oxford, 1900).
This is the fourth and final installment in a series on the physicality of language. Writing from direct experience with sharp, sly, and sometimes ham-fisted words, poet and essayist Anita Sullivan speculates on some of the ways language may have worked in early societies as a part of the biological human toolkit – and how that has changed.
Anita Sullivan wanted to major in anthropology in college but ended up with an MFA in Poetry. Her career as a piano tuner allowed time to indulge in a narrow but (to her mind) related set of avocations: archaeology, folklore, oral tradition, translation, early keyboard temperaments and religious studies. She has published two essay collections: The Seventh Dragon (piano tuning) and Ikaria (Greek travel). She has a chapbook of poetry, The Middle Window, and a full-length collection, Garden of Beasts. She is a founding member of the poetry publishing collective Airlie Press in Monmouth, Oregon. Find her at www.seventhdragon.com.