Best Words, Best Order: On Love and Language
A Memoir Excerpt
Some enchanted evening, you see a strange word across a crowded room. It looks different from all the other words; it beckons and glows, it exerts such a powerful magnetism that you are drawn like a murmurous fly to Keats’s “coming musk rose, full of dewy wine” in the ode where he feels so happy listening to a nightingale that he thinks about getting drunk, killing himself, and other poetic pursuits.
Those first encounters with language, for a writer, are as powerful as confronting Michelangelo’s Pietà might be for a budding young artist who previously knew only the lineaments of the molded plastic baby Jesus and kneeling cows in the Christmas crèche dug out yearly from a cardboard box in the basement in Trenton, New Jersey.
For me, discovering the spelling of bologna was one such revelatory moment.
For me, discovering the spelling of bologna was one such revelatory moment. I was familiar with the thing itself, but not until I saw the word written on a blackboard one Friday in the fourth grade did I appreciate its power. I was instantly hurled into tumultuous confusion about the true nature of reality. How could this ordinary cold cut, pinkish and slippery, trapped between slices of Wonder Bread, slathered with mayonnaise, wrapped in wax paper, and lifted from my Barbie lunchbox each day at school beside the swing set, have such an odd, exotic spelling? Why was there such an enormous distance between the word as it sounded and the way it was actually written? Clearly there were deeper truths than I realized lurking beneath not only language, but existence itself. The routine, mundane occurrences of my nine-year-old world — these were mere appearances, mere shadows on the wall of my bedroom. My human perception was clearly limited. The substance of life might be scarier and wilder than I had imagined. I went around all week with bologna in my head and with a new sense of anticipation and dread for the next Friday’s spelling and vocabulary list.
But the word that truly rocked my world — a word that made bologna seem like mere Spam — was one that I encountered in a poem the following year. The verse, a simple a-a-b-a quatrain, was written in black Magic Marker on a yellow cement wall in the courtyard of my elementary school. The young bard had written:
Her beauty lies
Between her thighs
And that’s what makes
My libido rise.
I had no idea what libido meant, but I more or less understood the writer’s intent. Libido! Maybe it was significant that, like bologna, it was a three-syllable word, with that stress, that lift, in the middle. An amphibrach, like inferno, or Dorito. A Latin word. Foreign, exotic, and in the end — as I discovered, once I got to a dictionary — dirty. It meant sex, desire, excitation. Now the poem itself took hold of me, an intoxicating mix of filth and erudition. It had all the qualities of a great work of literature: paradox, Eros, and the fitting of form to content. The first three lines followed a strict pattern of iambic dimeter. And then the departure, the final line opening into the power of metric substitution, the triple foot of an anapest pouring forth and overflowing its iambic container. The poem met Coleridge’s definition of “the best words in the best order.” It impressed itself indelibly into memory; once read, it could not be forgotten. I was haunted by the poem, and wondered who the author was. A boy, I was sure — possibly an older man, a sixth-grader. He had stood at that wall; he no doubt stood now somewhere nearby — the tetherball court, or the jungle gym. I burned to find him, a bad boy who understood the subtleties of metrics and knew big words. Who had a libido.
It had all the qualities of a great work of literature: paradox, Eros, and the fitting of form to content.
I didn’t ever find him. Not in the fifth grade, or in the sixth, when a boy and I crawled into an empty refrigerator box at the back of the classroom — our science project was to construct a spaceship — and made out instead of drawing the control panel. All we had done in there was glue up a picture of some galaxy and stick our tongues in each other’s mouths and try not to make any sound that would get us hauled out to drill fractions. He was a good kisser, but when we broke up he wrote a note to a friend that read, “Kim is a pigheaded slob.” His language was crude and unrefined, as well as imprecise. The note lacked rhythm, had no surprising metaphor, and its idea was insufficiently developed; it dealt in clichéd generalities (pigheadededness, slobdom) and might have referred to any number of girls named Kim rather than the unique, special eleven-year-old who had allowed his cretinous tongue to slither over her own.
He was the kind of boy I would fall for again and again in the coming years, adorable and unsuitable, ordinary as the dirt in that church in New Mexico that is supposed to heal broken legs and hearts but is really dug up from the hill behind the church and not miraculous at all, which anyone will freely tell you, but people still make pilgrimages and leave their crutches and dog tags hanging there. The guys I fell for rode motorcycles and flew small airplanes and played in bands, and wondered why writers — the writers they knew personally, i.e., me — had to go into things so much. For a while, we would be completely happy together. Then we would grow bored with each other, a circumstance they didn’t seem to mind as much as I did. To a man, they married soon after we broke up, except for the one who might be homeless by now.
He was brilliant and perfect, except for one little thing: he did not make my libido rise.
Then there was the other kind — the kind I did not have to warn not to say “fuck” when we went to lunch at Hamburger Hamlet with my mother. Fuck was not a word this man had befriended. But he knew about the roots of jazz or Hindu philosophy or the French Revolution. He admired my poetry; he loved poetry. He understood how Derrida subverted Plato’s classical concept of mimesis — there was nothing to be imitated. When he said “hymen,” he meant unsettling Heidegger’s concept of synthesis, not to mention Levi-Strauss’s Hegelian notion of the third element that mediates between the two members of a binary opposition. I hope you’re still with me here. He was brilliant and perfect, except for one little thing: he did not make my libido rise.
All my life, since seeing that perfectly placed word, printed in capital letters, I have looked for the one to whom I can say, “Come to me. Call me your little whore and then quote Nietzsche. Tie me up and slap me around and pee on me and then explicate The Waste Land, granting its status as a seminal work with vast influence on twentieth-century literature without praising it as the impetus for a bunch of postmodern hooey no one can understand. Tell me we’re staying in tonight and whip us up some pan-fried bay scallops and saffron pasta with parsley and garlic, and maybe some white corn cakes with caviar. Let the champagne cork blast loose like a rocket ship and shatter the kitchen light and foam run down your arm while the shards fly. I’ll lick the foam while you translate those cuneiform tablets you collected on your last expedition. Dedicate your book and the rest of your carnal life to me, and I’ll do the same.”
Come to me. Call me your little whore and then quote Nietzsche. Tie me up and slap me around and pee on me and then explicate The Waste Land.
Don’t anyone tell me he’s not out there, that the perfect admixture of head and heart is a romantic alchemist’s fantasy, impossible to achieve. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a bunch of bologna. I know he exists. I know.
And listen: If you went to McNab Elementary in Pompano Beach, Florida, and once wrote a poem on a wall, there is someone who wants to meet you.
[From BUKOWSKI IN A SUNDRESS: Confessions from a Writing Life by Kim Addonizio, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Kim Addonizio.]