Raindrop Suicide

I have a habit of re-reading Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire every couple of years. Nabokov’s verbal virtuosity combined with the novel’s extremely unreliable narrator always charm and stimulate me.

The novel is in two sections: a 999-line poem supposedly written by the narrator’s neighbor, a professor at a small Northeastern college, is followed by a rambling and demented line-by-line commentary by the narrator, Charles Kinbote, who claims to be an exile from Zembla, a “distant northern land”.

Yesterday I opened the novel at random and came across this passage:

Lines 34-35: Stilettos of a frozen stillicide

How persistently our poet invokes images of winter in the beginning of a poem which he started composing on a balmy summer night! The mechanism of the associations is easy to make out (glass leading to crystal and crystal to ice) but the prompter behind it retains his incognito. One is too modest to suppose that the fact that the poet and his future commentator first met on a winter day somehow impinges here on the actual season. In the lovely line heading this comment the reader should note the last word. My dictionary defines it as “a succession of drops falling from the eaves, eavesdrop, cavesdrop.” I remember encountering it for the first time in a poem by Thomas Hardy. The bright frost has eternalized the bright eavesdrop. We should also note the cloak-and-dagger hint-glint in the “svelte stilettos” and the shadow of regicide in the rhyme.

My dictionary (actually the ghosts of several dictionaries given new electronic lives in the mysterious bit-arrays of my computer’s memory-banks) defines the word stillicide for me:


Stillicide Stil"li*cide, n. [L. stillicidium;
     stilla a drop + cadere to fall.]
     A continual falling or succession of drops;
     rain water falling from the eaves.

I wonder why this word has fallen into disuse? I suspect that the “cide” ending leads to an unfortunate association with words such as suicide, parricide, and as mentioned in the note quoted above, regicide — but perhaps that confusion of two similar Latin roots could serve as a mnemonic for the word, a water-droplet’s suicidal act resulting in assimilation by the waiting earth.

Larry

A Sprawl Of Morning Glories

I’m fond of the collective nouns in the English language. The fact that they exist at all is simply yet another linguistic quirk. “a murder of crows”, “an exaltation of larks”, “a wedge of swans”… these terms aren’t really used all that much, but they have a certain poetic potency.

There are several collective nouns which are so embedded in our language that we use them reflexively. Nobody ever refers to an aggregation of cows as a “flock”. For no rational reason, that term is reserved for descriptions of groups of goats or sheep.

I’d like to propose a new collective noun, one which is unlikely to be used by anyone other than myself. “Why is that?”, you might ask. My noun refers to an obscure species of Morning Glory, Ipomoea longifolia, a peculiar species which is only found in Southwestern desert environments. A Sprawl of Morning Glories! I like the sound of the phrase.

This species doesn’t climb like most Morning Glories; there isn’t much to climb on in the desert. The plant sends out ground-hugging vines which make their way across rocks and gravel.

The flowers are beautiful, and I can’t help but wonder how such fleshy and large blooms can grow in such an arid environment. I surmise that the plants might have a fleshy tuberous root, like another member of the genus, the sweet potato. A fetching cluster of flowers which I captured one cool August morning:

Here’s a shot of a shoot making its way across a barren expanse of schist. The seeds of these plants mostly die of desiccation, or are eaten, but a favored few find a cleft in the rocks which has accumulated a pocket of humus, yucca and oak leaves slowly decaying in a crevice or crack which was somehow shielded by topography from the sluicing torrents of the monsoon rains. The wandering vines of this Morning Glory can be ten feet long.

Only once have I seen the vines of this plant actually climb, something temperate-zone Morning Glories do routinely. Here is a shot of a vine climbing up and over a dead yucca clump, a mass of dead vegetation which takes decades to decay:

Right now, during the peak of the monsoon season in the Mule Mountains, the normally barren canyon slopes are cloaked with showy blossoms of this Morning Glory, as well as the pink and fuzzy blossoms of a leguminous shrub which I think might be a species of Mimosa. A nice time of the year for a walk!

Larry

Curmudgeonalia

A crusty irascible cantankerous old person full of stubborn ideas.” is a rather pithy and accurate definition of the word “curmudgeon”, I dare say. That definition came out of the Wordnet project about five years ago. It’s an interesting word with a derogatory flavor to it, a word which is used by young people to describe old folks, and also by old people when referring to themselves in a humorous and self-deprecatory fashion; old people generally don’t mind using the word to describe themselves but might well take umbrage if you use it to describe them.

Many of the best essayists in the English language could be fairly described as curmudgeons. Complaints about the world are more interesting to read than passive expressions of smiling acceptance and complaisance, I’ve noticed.

H.L. Mencken, that journalist, pessimist, and general social gadfly, was a classic curmudgeon. Few escaped his scathing torrents of prose during the early years of the last century. Christopher Hitchens could be considered a modern example.

Some writers are part-time curmudgeons. George Orwell donned curmudgeonly robes when he wrote his classic essay “Politics And The English Language” — but some might call that particular piece shooting fish in a barrel.

Recently I was reading an essay by Roger Kimball called The Great American Novel. The essay is a lament, or perhaps a diatribe, concerning the sad state of affairs in English-language novel-writing these days. According to Kimball, very few novels of much value have been published during the past fifty years. Here’s a quote:

We get a lot of new novels at my office. I often pick up a couple and thumb through them just to keep up with what is on offer in the literary bourse. The delicate feeling of nausea that ensues as my eye wanders over these bijoux is as difficult to describe as it is predictable. The amazing thing is that it takes only a sentence or two before the feeling burgeons in the pit of the stomach and the upper lip grows moist with sweat. I am not generally a fan of the Green party, but at those moments I feel a deep kinship with their cause: All those lovely trees, acres and acres of wood pulp darkened, and for what? No one, I submit, should pay good money for a college education and then be expected to ruminate over the fine points of what is proffered to us by the fiction industry today.

Doesn’t Kimball’s prose just drip with curmudgeonly condescension? It seems that the man has decided to dislike every new novel that comes down the pike, as if the generations younger than his favored one can’t possibly equal the legendary efforts of the Writers of the Golden Age, the god-like scribes of the halcyon years of Kimball’s youth.

I did agree with a few of Kimball’s points, even though he’s on the opposite side of the political spectrum from myself. I wondered about how old the man might be. To be such a bitter curmudgeon, wouldn’t he have to be in his seventies or eighties?

I looked Roger Kimball up at the Wikipedia site. I was a bit bemused to find that Kimball is just one year older than I am! He was born in 1953. Perhaps conservative writers attain curmudgeonhood sooner than the rest of us.

Larry

Potpourri

Potpourri is an interesting word, yet another euphonious loan-word from the French. I had to look up the spelling, never having had the occasion to type the word before. The word brings to mind the Swedish smorgasbord, a fairly recent loan-word which comes from smörgås, an open-faced sandwich, and bord, which is how the Swedes perversely insist upon spelling the word “board”. We should borrow smörgås from those phlegmatic Swedes, discarding the outlandish diacritical marks and giving the word a Scots-Irish twang: “I could do with a smorg-ass right now!”

“Medley”, “pastiche”, “salmagundi” and “miscellanea” also come to mind. That’s what this post is, a mixed bag of interesting things I’ve gathered out on the web, like a dog returning from a foray in the brush with cockleburs and beggar-ticks clinging to its coat.

Here’s a photo I found to be quite intriguing, not least because the back-story of the image was not revealed. It comes from a Microsoft consultant in New Mexico, a photographer named Emiliana Chavez:

A clever concept, and that weird smile!

Brenda Clews is a video-poet who lives in Toronto; she posted this video on Google+, a nostalgic glimpse of what passed for female empowerment back in the 1960s. Nancy Sinatra sings the song well and the moves of the backup dancers are just so quaint, white-girl sexiness from the past:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbyAZQ45uww?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

Nancy’s haircut is laughable to modern tastes, but back then it was state of the art.

Dianne Ward is an IT systems engineer who lives in Massachusetts. She’s a fine photographer and I’d like to show you a couple of her images. Lately she’s been fooling around with smoke, with some interesting results, such as this photo:

Here’s a B&W street shot taken by Dianne in Boston, a woman playing the glass harmonica (one of Ben Franklin’s inventions) — the player looks so focused and intent:

I discovered Dianne’s work on Google+, which has become a favorite hang-out for many great photographers from around the world. I’m particularly fond of the bird photos taken by a Polish photographer named Adam Kumiszcza, who lives in Gdańsk. Here’s one of his many fine photos, this one of a Black-Winged Stilt contemplating its reflection:

One last photo, this one from a Toronto photographer named John Kosmopoulos. I really enjoy his urban abstract images, such as this one, which is called “Triple Threat Toronto”:

Oh, I could go on and on, but I’d rather eat some breakfast!

Larry

In a Field of Liches

There exists in the English language a tendency towards circumlocution when a dead body is mentioned; this leads to a series of euphemisms, many of them derived from Latin roots. “Corpse” is a good example.

Then there is the odd term “mortician”, which seems to have arisen during the nineteenth century. Evidently the circumlocution “undertaker” was still too vivid for peoples’ imaginations! The suffix “ician” is also used in the word “musician”, which would lead you to think that a mortician is someone who practices death as an occupation.

I’m reminded of the vivid slang word “stiff”, familiar to those who read detective and mystery novels. That word seems to have come from gangsters’ and criminals’ lingo during the Prohibition era.

Dead bodies are indeed unsettling. The contrast between the living and the dead is just too much for many people to handle and we retreat into euphemism or fantasies of resurrection. The current craze for zombie literature and film is one manifestation. When we die we might come back as pale and scarred beings with a taste for violence and blood — it’s still better than the alternative! A would-be zombie woman:

I’m fond of the obsolete Old English term “lich”:

Lich Lich (l[i^]ch), n. [AS. l[imac]c body. See {Like}, a.]
A dead body; a corpse. [Obs.]

{Lich fowl} (Zool.), the European goatsucker; — called also
{lich owl}.

{Lich gate}, a covered gate through which the corpse was
carried to the church or burial place, and where the bier
was placed to await the clergyman; a corpse gate. [Prov.
Eng.] –Halliwell.

{Lich wake}, the wake, or watching, held over a corpse before
burial. [Prov Eng.] –Chaucer.

{Lich wall}, the wall of a churchyard or burying ground.

{Lich way}, the path by which the dead are carried to the
grave. [Prov. Eng.]

I was tickled to learn the term “lich fowl”. People historically have been suspicious of members of the avian goatsucker clan; the phrase reflects an ancient but erroneous belief that goatsuckers make nocturnal visits to dairy animals and steal milk. The local whippoorwill is one of our resident goatsuckers here in North America, and I can attest that encountering that bird at night does indeed give me a start every time.

Lately I’ve been delivering newspapers on a motor route in rural Adams County, Illinois. I enjoy the work, as it enables me to periodically drive through rural landscapes and see what there is to see. If I see something interesting I’ll stop and investigate, camera at my side.

I’d driven by the Fall Creek Chapel cemetery several times before I stopped and wandered around for a while:

I always gravitate towards the older tombstones in any cemetery. I particularly like seeing stones whose inscription is fading towards illegibility, a metaphor for every human’s posthumous fate in the surviving memories of friends and families.

Here’s an example:

This man lived a long life for his time; with an eighteenth century birth he must have been born in the Old World. The surname “Thompson” suggests a British origin. The lower inscription has succumbed to decades of weathering.

The “hopeful finger” is a recurring gravestone motif. Onward and upward!

Scroll back up to the first picture in this post (no, not the zombie woman — the next one down!). Look behind the metal cemetery sign and you will see a green mass humping up from the closely-shorn sward.

This thicket piqued my curiosity. There’s always a reason an area doesn’t get mowed. I peered into the greenery and saw that it was mostly mulberry sprouts and wild grapevines with a few pre-bloom goldenrods eking out a tenuous existence amidst such fierce competition. I got down on my hands and knees and wormed my way into the mysterious depths. It was sunny and ninety-five degrees that morning but the humidity was low and insects ignored me.

I found a concrete wall with an angled and peaked contour which evidently was intended to demarcate a family plot. The largest tombstone had given up the ghost, so to speak, and was lying comfortably on its back while slowly sinking into the root-filled humusy soil. A photo:

I cleared away sprouts and vines as well as accumulated fallen leaves and found this barely-legible inscription:

Henry, the son of someone, seemed to have died in 1862. Children died easily back then.

I scrambled in a little farther and found this sun-dappled stone:

How sad — the grave of a four-year-old girl named Katie Mable. I couldn’t figure out what the carving at the top was supposed to represent. Some sort of fruit? The hanging fruit on the left looks like an eggplant, but I’ve been eating a lot of eggplant lately and I’m probably biased.

I extricated myself from the thicket and drove off to deliver more papers on my maze-like route.

Larry

Today’s “Word Of The Day”

Every day I get an e-mail from a worthy web-site:

Word Of The Day

The e-mail consists of a word’s definition, pronunciation, and etymology as well as an example of its usage. The Friday e-mail is a compilation of recipient responses to the week’s words. They are almost always interesting and anecdotal, like a weekly word-oriented blog comment section.

I immodestly admit that I have a very large vocabulary, and most of the daily words in the e-mails I already know, but it’s interesting to read the etymologies. I often find that I don’t know the correct pronunciation.

Today’s word is one I’ve never encountered, and it’s also one that relates to my life and interests:

paseo

PRONUNCIATION:
(pah-SAY-oh)

MEANING:
noun:

  1. A leisurely stroll.
  2. A place or path designed for walking.
  3. A street or boulevard.

ETYMOLOGY:
From Spanish pasear (to take a stroll), frequentative of pasar (to go, to pass), from Latin passus (step). Earliest documented use: 1832.

USAGE:
“The idea was to turn the alleys into beachlike paseos to enchant pedestrians.”
Fred Swegles; San Clemente Takes Down Paseo Lights; The Orange County Register (California); Nov 7, 2010.

I doubt that I’ll ever use the word in casual conversation, but it might insinuate its way into my writing, so be forewarned!

As soon as the sun rises I’ll take a little paseo…

Larry

Crossing the Border

Early this morning I was laying in bed while half-listening to the BBC World Service on the radio. Most of my attention was occupied by a fiddle tune playing in my head; I was trying out various improvised variations on the tune when this statement caught my attention:

…and then we crossed the border into Miscellanea.

What could the reporter be talking about in his measured British accent? Was this some sort of strained metaphor?

I listened to more of the story and gradually realized that the border referred to was with Lithuania, not Miscellanea.

This fired up my speculative engine. Why might a country be named Miscellania? (I had to change the spelling.) Perhaps Miscellania is a country of immigrants, none of which has a population majority. Or the spelling might be Missilania, the name of a paranoid country ringed by ICBM missile silos and perpetually suspicious of its neighboring realms.

Back to the tune…

Larry