Living · Reading · Teaching

Mr. Palomar’s Blackbirds: How couples’ private language is both more cryptic and more elaborate than is reasonable

So I’m a closet linguist. I’m interested in language—how it changes, how it works, how it feels in my mouth, and how it paints pictures without your standard art supplies. I’ve probably spent more time on how it changes from a historical perspective, but I’m no less intrigued by how it changes in contemporary slang or in my own usage. Today I’m thinking about the language my partner and I use to communicate.

The catalyst for today’s ruminations is Calvino’s Mr. Palomar. In the chapter entitled “The Blackbird’s Whistle,” Mr. Palomar is sitting on his terrace, working , while his wife waters plants, and they both remark on the presence of the blackbird couple who visits. The chapter opens:

“Mr. Palomar is lucky in one respect: he spends the summer in a place where many birds sing. As he sits in a deck chair and “works” (in fact, he is lucky also in another respect: he can say that he is working in places and attitudes that would suggest complete repose; or rather, he suffers this handicap: he feels obliged never to stop working, even when lying under the trees on an August morning)…” (22)

…and we’re done. I’m in. I prepare for class on my patio, listening to bird songs and trying not to get distracted by the wind in the peach tree and the light on the mountains. And to a teacher, every book you read, every movie you watch, every place you go might someday be worked in to a class, so you’re always sort of working.

But that’s just why I love and identify with Mr. Palomar. This is a blog about language.

As he sits on the patio, Mr. Palomar listens to the birds. They seem to him to be communicating, and as Mrs. Palomar bustles about commenting on them, the human couple’s communication mimics the blackbirds.’ She comments absently that the flower bed is dry again, and:

“…from these remarks Mr. Palomar derives a general picture of tranquility, and he is grateful to his wife for it, because if she confirms the fact that for the moment there is nothing more serious for him to bother about, then he can remain absorbed in his work (or pseudowork or hyperwork). He allows a minute to pass; then he also tries to send a reassuring message, to inform his wife that his work (or infrawork or ultrawork) is proceeding as usual: to this end he emits a series of sighs and grumbles—’…crooked… for all that… repeat… yes, my foot…’—utterances that, taken all together, transmit the message ‘I am very busy,’ in the event that his wife’s last remark contained a veiled reproach on the order of ‘You could also assume some responsibility for watering the garden.'” (26)

When I teach this book, this is the point where some sweet, sensitive student worries about him. Why is he not communicating well with his wife? He must be so lonely, isolated even from those who love him. He’s not communicating. She’s talking, and he’s not listening.

I have to explain that this is just a conversation between two people who have been married a long time. They don’t need very many words, just like the blackbirds don’t need many sounds. They are enjoying a summer morning together, companionably parallel-playing, my husband and I would say. He’s doing his thing; she’s doing hers. They’re not interrupting each other, but they’re keeping one another on their radar. He’s alert to potential guilt about never watering the flowers; she’s aware that he’s working and trying to preserve his time while still being present. It’s a delicate dance. But it’s not loneliness.

As we approach our 28th anniversary, Rob and I have begun making jokes about what kind of eccentric old people we’re going to be. I’m certain no one will have any idea what we’re talking about. We talk in movie quotes (“Inconceivable!”) and expressions our children coined when they were little (“Put it in the fridge and save it forever,” which my son said about a train-shaped Jell-O jiggler when he was three and gets hauled out whenever anyone wants to hold on to something long past its prime). We use more Monty Python lines than any ten people should, and we refer to new people with old names, grafting names with personalities—some of people we knew, but others of characters from books or movies we’ve seen together. We have developed our own language.

Our kids understand most references, since we’ve spent years repeating the same stories. (They’re teenagers, so they’re quick to point out when we repeat ourselves. I hope as we age, their patience increases with our propensity to repeat ourselves.)

But to a stranger, I’ll bet we already don’t make much sense.

I’m ok with that. We communicate just fine. We understand each other. Our words carry more meaning because of our shared history. This kind of thing happens whenever two or more people share experiences, inside jokes, and adequate time together. We use language to communicate, but also to reassure, to comfort, to cheer, to share, to love. The birds may do all of that with their series of chirps and trills and silences too, but they’ll never understand the importance of knowing that “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.”

A group of blackbirds isn’t a murder, right? Maybe a manslaughter? A misdemeanor?
Living · Reading

Life Hacks from Ancient Myth #2: How to treat a chest wound, or “Harold wasn’t always allergic to bees.”

At my house whenever something unexpected happens, you’re liable to hear someone say, pensively, “Harold wasn’t always allergic to bees.” It’s a line from the 1993 rom-com Sleepless in Seattle, from the crazy dinner conversation full of crossing narratives and non-sequiturs, and it struck us as so random that it stuck, and we’ve been variously applying it and misapplying it ever since.

Today, as I write another installment in the Life Hacks from Ancient Myth, I have a lesson that seems less broadly applicable, but is still surprisingly relevant from time to time, so we feel like it’s a truth that no one sees coming: If someone takes a spear to the chest, don’t just pull it out right there. Resist the temptation to relieve your comrade of the stabby thing that seems to be paining them. Be calm.

This is, believe it or not, a recurring lesson throughout literature. I know it from two pretty dissimilar texts—one Roman, and one Anglo-Saxon. It comes up more often than that, really, but these two are very vivid for me.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, completed in the year 8 CE, he parodies the Trojan War material with a raucous wedding scene where a centaur tries to steal the bride. (That hilarious parody and Ovid’s neat reduction of the Trojan War to a couple embarrassing moments for Achilles is the subject for another blog.) Today I’m interested in the tragic love story he drops in the middle of the ‘red wedding’-style brawl.

As humans slaughter centaurs in defense of the bride, and centaurs rise (or not) to glory in self-defense, the narration pauses to hold a light on perfect love: Cyllarus and his beloved Hylonome have come to the wedding as a happy couple to celebrate another happy couple. They are described as almost nauseatingly sweet—“she honeys him” at 12.411, and just as we’re imagining this loving centaur couple (for me, thanks to the Disney animators of Fantasia, I have a very clear image), Cyllarus takes a spear to the chest.

We’re told that it did not pierce his heart, but it’s close, so for a moment the possibility of his survival fills our hearts. Then Hylonome, crazed with fear and grief, rips out the offending projectile.

Oh, Hylonome.

Did she not take War Time Triage 101? When she pulls out the spear, hoping to help, she instead rips his chest open, and his lifeblood pours out. She tries kissing him to stop his soul escaping with his breath, but she’s already lost him. She runs herself through with the same spear, and the tragedy is complete.

So what have we learned? Centaurs are terrible wedding guests; they arrive drunk and only get worse. But also, beware of chest wounds. They need special care.

A later example of this type scene comes from the Old English poem ”The Battle of Maldon,” wherein the defending earl of an English tribe is hit with a spear from an invading Viking ruffian. Byrthnoth, the lord, has exhibited tremendous arrogance in allowing this battle to take place at all (he gave up a position of advantage out of pride). And to prove his manhood, just seconds before the fatal chest wound, he had wrenched a spear out of his own shoulder and sent it back at the Sea Dog who threw it.

So perhaps we forgive poor Wulfmar, who at fifteen years old is fighting his first and last battle. He sees his lord go down and rushes to help. But our narrator reminds us it’s his inexperience that is to blame. You can almost hear a chorus of seasoned warriors scream “NO!—Don’t do it!” as he slides the spear head out and Byrtnoth slumps to the ground.

Why wasn’t this covered in basic training? In both tales someone pulls the blade who didn’t know any better—a woman, a new soldier—because everyone else knows not to do that until you can treat it carefully.

But now we know. If you or someone you love is ever pierced by a spear, don’t try to remove it on the battlefield. Or in the classroom. Because Harold wasn’t always allergic to bees.

In a Texas elementary school in October of 2000, six-year old Destiny Lopez was trotting back to her desk when she fell on her newly sharpened pencil, and it pierced her heart. A pencil is just a small spear, after all—wooden shaft, sharp point.

Her heroic and self-possessed teacher did not act rashly. She lay down on the floor with Destiny as the pencil pulsed with the beat of her heart. She did NOT remove the weapon from the wounded warrior’s chest.

And that little girl lived.

So let that be a lesson to us. And go get some first aid training, or at least read some good battle poetry.

Here are two articles about Destiny and her teacher:

Nora Ephron, screenplay and director. Sleepless in Seattle. 1993. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan starring.


The Mild Mania of Loving Languages

Can one be addicted to learning languages? If you can, aren’t there worse obsessions?

It’s not like I do it thoroughly. I know a fair bit about a number of languages. Most of them aren’t spoken anywhere (hands up if you know anyone who speaks Gothic or Old French?), so there’s no immersion program where I can relocate for six months and come out the other side able to converse with Alaric the Goth.

Mostly it’s about reading. I do like to be able to speak, but my fear of sounding like a jerk or an idiot overcomes my desire to communicate most of the time. It has taken decades to get better at–not over—that. But I really like to read in different languages.

When I was wending my way through graduate school, trying to pin down a field of study, I embarked on a linguistics program. I told my advisor I wanted to focus on historical linguistics. He told me that wasn’t done anymore, that it was just a relic–something non-linguists think of when they think of linguists. What I should have told him was that I wanted the keys to the kingdom—the secret to learning languages. Because the real reason was that I didn’t trust translators. I wanted to read Beowulf and Vǫlsunga Saga and the Romance of the Rose without an intermediary.

That’s pretty close to what I got. I got a chance to study language and language change in the abstract and I got to know a few languages in very concrete, “this text and one other are all we know of this language” terms. Perhaps most importantly, I learned how I learn, and that did me in. I swear it’s addicting. Like Bubble Pop or crosswords, languages feel like puzzle games, and I will be that old, weird little person trying to figure out what dragoncello means in Italian.

Discovering how you think and learn is both empowering and baffling. I know I see words in my head as I hear them, that I parse them, search for cognates, and am genuinely annoyed if I can’t figure out how something is spelled. It makes me good at deducing meaning from words, and good at slipping in to rabbit holes mid-conversation (which is usually not good). In my case it means that I have the same sense of wonder about words as I do about cloud formations, genetics, and how they cram music between the ridges of a record.

It means I recently spent a disconcerting amount of time wondering whether there was a corresponding opposite to the Latinate word “crepuscular,” which means ‘growing dark’ as in twilight or dusk. There was a word in Latin, “clarescere” which meant ‘to grow clearer and brighter’ but English didn’t steal  that one, apparently, and I haven’t found a cognate in other modern Romance languages.

This is all to say that thinking in words is a way of thinking, as is thinking in images or concepts. And as the world continues toward global community, it’s not a bad one to cultivate.

Reading · Writing

In Praise of Prose

If I am a lover of form in verse, I am no less enamored of poetic prose. I don’t know why more people don’t write prose poems. Some poems, in fact, I think would lose none of their charm if we just let them be prose instead of forcing line breaks that can seem arbitrary.

So tonight, on what social media has just informed me is World Book Day, I offer some baby books for the harried, along with a brief introduction.

Prose poems are compact, usually a paragraph to a page or two. Shorter than most fiction, they tend not so much to tell a story as to convey an evocative image. The density of their language and their use of figurative language often used in poetry make them seem like a verbal inoculation against sloppy writing—they remind us that language can be precise and powerful without meter or rhyme, and they leave us with an image or idea that we can carry in to the world.

They are perfect for evenings when you just have a little time and want to indulge in something like candy for your brain. My choices tonight hearken back to where I first encountered the prose poem—a French literature class in college—so one is from the 19th century Baudelaire (who is often compared to Edgar Allan Poe, even by himself) and the 20th century Francis Ponge, who became something of an icon in prose poetry, known for minute description and crystalline imagery.


“Be Drunken” by Charles Baudelaire

BE DRUNKEN, ALWAYS. That is the point. Nothing else matters. If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time weigh you down and crush you to the earth, be drunken continually.

Drunken with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please. But be drunken.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace, or on the green grass in a ditch, or in the dreary solitude of your own room, you should awaken and find the drunkenness half or entirely gone, ask of the wind, of the wave, of the star, of the bird, of the clock, of all that flies, of all that sighs, of all that moves, of all that sings, of all that speaks, ask what hour it is; and wind, wave, star, bird, or clock will answer you: “It is the hour to be drunken! Be drunken, if you would not be the martyred slaves of Time; be drunken continually! With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please.”

“Rain” by Francis Ponge

The rain, in the backyard where I watch it fall, comes down at different 
rates. In the center a fine discontinuous curtain — or network — falls implacably and yet gently in drops that are probably quite light; a strengthless sempiternal precipitation, an intense fraction of the atmosphere at its purest. A little distance from the walls to the right and left plunk heavier drops, one by one. Here they seem about the size of grains of wheat, the size of a pea, while elsewhere they are big as marbles. Along gutters and window frames the rain runs horizontally, while depending from the same obstacles it hangs like individually wrapped candies. Along the entire surface of a little zinc roof under my eyes it trickles in a very thin sheet, a moiré pattern formed by the varying currents created by the imperceptible bumps and undulations of the surface. From the gutter it flows with the restraint of a shallow creek until it tumbles out into a perfectly vertical net, rather imperfectly braided, all the way to the ground where it breaks and sparkles into brilliant needles.

Each of its forms has its particular allure and corresponds to a particular patter. Together they share the intensity of a complex mechanism 
as precise as it is dangerous, like a steam-powered clock whose spring is wound by the force of the precipitation.

The ringing on the ground of the vertical trickles, the glug-glug of the gutters, the miniscule strikes of the gong multiply and resonate all at once in a concert without monotony, and not without a certain delicacy.

Once the spring unwinds itself certain wheels go on turning for a while, more and more slowly, until the whole mechanism comes to a stop. It all vanishes with the sun: when it finally reappears, the brilliant apparatus evaporates. It has rained.

*The Baudelaire poem was printed in Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine: Selected Verse and Prose Poems and translated by Joseph M. Bernstein. Citadel Press 1990.

*The Ponge piece was translated by Joshua Corey and Jean-Luc Garneau and is available on The Poetry Foundation website at


Life Hacks from Ancient Myths, volume 1

Sometimes in the middle of unpacking a myth’s metaphoric meanings, the story can seem pretty wild and ridiculous, and if I’m still looking like I think it’s cool, my students start to look at me like I’m slightly cracked. That’s when I try to make it relevant. Today’s handy lesson was “When you’re grappling a shapeshifter, just hang on until they run out of forms.”

We read the myth of Erysichthon, the sacrilegious cretin who chops down a giant oak sacred to Ceres (goddess of grain and fertility and motherhood). Inside the tree is a nymph, so it bleeds when he chops it down. Ovid’s treatment is wonderful: in response to this crime, Ceres seeks out her opposite, Famine, and sicks her on Erysichthon. Famine breathes want in to his bones, and he gets hungrier as he eats.

                Just as the sea receives
                the rivers of the earth, but then can drink
                still other streams that flow from distant parts;
                and just as a devouring fire will not
                reject more fuel, but feeds on countless logs,
                becoming ever more voracious with each gift:
                so for the sinner Erysichthon’s lips,
                each banquet only adds to what he’s missed.
                For him food calls for food, glut calls for glut;
                his being full amounts to emptiness.
(Metamorphoses 8; Allen Mandelbaum, translator)

And here we have a doodle of the tree Erysichthon mutilates. It was big enough for fifteen nymphs to dance around, hand in hand, and decorated with ribbons and votive tablets.

When it gets very bad (which doesn’t take long), Erysichthon tries to sell his daughter for food. However, in an offscreen back story, she had been previously raped by Neptune, and in compensation he had granted her the ability to shape-shift. So every time Erysichthon sells her, she transforms in to a different animal and escapes her new master. Eventually he eats away at his own flesh.

That message seems clear. Don’t willfully challenge the gods, or they will respond in kind. Erysichthon’s greed is magnified until it consumes him. It’s not even reciprocal justice; it’s just turning up the volume.

But we were talking about shapeshifters. Erysichthon’s daughter sparks comparison with other shapeshifters: Proteus, who is name-dropped in this same book of the Metamorphoses and Thetis, mother of Achilles, who will come up later.

Both these shapeshifters are gods, so the boon to the mortal girl had been to make her godlike. Proteus and Thetis are both compelled to do something against their will, and their shapeshifting turns out to be a detriment. When Menelaus, the king of Sparta, is trying to get home from the Trojan War, he learns he needs to get directions from Proteus to do so. He must sneak up on Proteus as he’s sunbathing and hold on to him no matter what he turns in to. If he can keep his grip until Proteus grows tired and runs out of ideas and returns to his original form, Menelaus will have power over him.

The same thing happens to Thetis, the sea goddess whom Peleus overcomes. In her case she’s trying to avoid rape, so she turns into a literal hellcat (ok—tiger) and some other scary things in order to get away. She does get away the first time, but the second time, Peleus gets some coaching and learns he just needs to hold on. It’s still a rape narrative. If you don’t like that, and I don’t, it helps to think of Thetis bearing the child Achilles who will be the greatest warrior the Greeks ever produce. He is so great because he’s a goddess’s son, but no goddess would submit to being dominated by a mortal willingly (except Venus), so she needs to be “won.” Still not awesome by 21st century standards, but if we read it mythically and remember that she is the sea, we see Peleus wrangling the ever-changing sea and that power is channeled in to Achilles.

This is what happens for Menelaus too; he conquers Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea, so metaphorically the sea itself. What he gains from that conquest is power over the sea—the ability to navigate it safely and get his crew home. And it reveals our life hack for the day: hang on.

No matter what crazy things happen, no matter how fast things change and how overwhelming or even terrifying they seem, don’t let go. Don’t give up. Every fight teaches you something, so if you fight ten things in quick succession, you learn ten times as fast. Grappling a shapeshifter is like taking a two-week winter session course instead of the whole semester–not for the faint of heart.