[As part of the ongoing project of publishing poems from my back catalogue and in response to the #WordPrompt prompt ‘Bridge‘, I am posting this 1994 prose poem entitled Bridge and Ford]
Bridge and Ford
A bridge is no place. A road in the air, thrown between never more than two separate earthbound regions. Normally obviating something – water or a drop – that is of another element; to which it nonetheless owes its name.
To claim a bridge has arms and hands wedded at the centre of gravity forever would be a sentimental exaggeration.
Bridges pull themselves up by their own weight: an exercise in the reflexive mood. A complex of just stable tensions. Concrete and stiff cables swaying in the wind. Fragile strength. At times calm and strong; at others rippling and turbulent.
Yet, all bridges, of whatever character, share the same destiny. The same project; the same end. Slung by human beings – a non-illusory rainbow – between unlike places; denying or defying something of an utterly unlike nature; generating association.
Like a word whispered cleanly in the ear. Through an air, willing yet alien.
A ford, conversely, is a place where nature cedes right of way at times, depending on whimsy or season. Semi-permeable, it does not link entirely unlike things. Folk on either side speak the same tongue. Have grown up together. At a sensible distance. Road and flow blend together in a pleasing rhythm. A proper name known by heart; but without meaning.
[This most recent poem, inspired by the view from Guararapes-Gilberto Freyre International Airport in Recife on a nowadays rare foray into the outside world, was originally composed with a view to celebrating my planned leaving of Brazil for the first time in 25 years. That departure has yet to come to pass but the poem remains. It has a 14-line sonnet-like structure.]
The view sprawls out from Bon Voyage,
from vultures circling the landfill,
from battlefield where church repelled
invading Dutch to hill-ascending algal
bloom of slum and concrete river.
In middle-ground, workers ply jets
with fuel and prechilled food and keep
the rainbowed tarmac of the runway clean,
while, at my feet, a yellow bem-te-vi,
trapped by the fake canopy of sky that is
the airport roof, hops round and pecks at scraps
of rice strewn on the un-swept food-hall floor.
As if this transitory stopping-place meant to provide
some sort of haven for every fleeing flying thing.
[To return to the suspended project of posting items from my extensive back catalogue of creative writing, here is a piece from 1998. Around this time, the tone of my poems took a much more somber turn. This short piece inspired by the semi-arid region of Northeast Brazil was written shortly after my mother died, at a time when I was feeling increasingly homesick in Brazil. Often minimal, doleful, my poems from this period dwell on drought, the inversion of seasons, nostalgia, a perverse longing for winter. Some foreshadow my later work on urban landscapes.]
there are no seasons
life is precious and cheap
the shrub has no sap
most of the dry year
the twigs of a million crucifixes
against the blue and brown and sun
a drop revivifies
for occasional life
life a sliver of a thing
like a local god
over this dearth of life.
Everything is not water.
What do the words ‘prose’ and ‘verse’ and ‘conversation’ and ‘weird’ ‘worms’ ‘wriggling’ ‘towards’ you have in common with economic ‘worth’, ‘worry’, ‘wrongdoing’ and every word that begins with the prefix ‘re-’: ‘return’, ‘reverse’, ‘revolution’, ‘revision’, ‘remembrance’ and all the rest?
The answer is the Proto-Indo-European root *wer(t)- meaning ‘turn’ or ‘bend,’ which turns up as prefix re- and suffix –vert in Latin, and as a wer- wor- or wr- prefix in Germanic languages such as English.
Tempted we may be to deceive ourselves into thinking that the words ‘word,’ ‘world’ and ‘awareness’ too derive from the same root but alas they do not.
In fact, at least seven other distinct Indo-European roots all turn up as wer- or something similar to it in more modern languages.
There is the wer- of ‘air’ and ‘aura’, of ‘arias’ and ‘aerobics’, ‘arteries’ and ‘meteors’.
And then there is wer- of watching out and warding off, found in ‘aware’, ‘beware’, ‘warden’, ‘warehouse’, ‘wary’, ‘hardware’, ‘software’, ‘reverence’ and ‘veneration’.
And there is the wer- of covering found in ‘warrants’, ‘guarantees’, ‘garnishes’ and ‘garages’.
And there is also wer- meaning human being as in ‘werewolf’ and ‘virility’.
Combined with IE *gher(d), which has also given us ‘gardens’ and ‘yards’, this last ‘werewolf’ prefix also provides us with the very world (*weregherd) of Earth on which, should we need reminding, we are doomed forever to live.
And, were this not enough, there is also the wer- of ‘word’ and ‘verb’, and the wer- of ‘veracity’ and ‘verisimilitude’.
And, more disturbing still, there is also the wer- of ‘war’ and ‘worse’.
‘Dike eris, eris dike’, as the old philosopher put it. Law is war and war is law.
Language is a wayward tangled mess indeed, with sounds and meanings forever converging and diverging as they hurtle through eternity together on the lips of hasty-tongued human beings. What rhapsodies we are apt to wrest from the vortex of adversity into which we are thus thrust by peevish fate.
The /w/ sound is also one of the most prevalent in world languages and one of the first to be mastered by infants. This phoneme is more primordial—more inchoate and pre-maternal—than /m/, reminding us of the womb to which we are wont to revert.
The idea of twisting and bending things is likewise very primeval and it should come as no surprise that it ends up lending its name to our entire universe, wrought as it is of quantum entanglement in our prose and verse, and war of all against all.
Ask any adult learner of English who already possesses a fairly high level of proficiency in the language to spell their own name. It is more likely than not that they will be unable to do so—or at least unable to do so well.
This may shock you. But, in fact, it should come as no surprise.
As one learner put it to me recently after failing to spell her name:“I was trying to remember the rhyme we learned in school.”
The rhyme she learned in school clearly didn’t help.
This common problem with an aspect of language that seems so basic neatly encapsulates the multiple difficulties that arise when the arduous business of learning a language is further complicated by misguided teaching.
In the case of the alphabet, the traditional approach is encumbered by three fundamental flaws:
1) the alphabet is incorrectly regarded as something very basic;
2) it is therefore taught early on in a course and then forgotten; and
3) it is usually taught in isolation both from social use and from other aspects of the language.
On top of this, there is a whole truckload of ideological and socio-cultural baggage associated with the alphabet.
It is regarded in popular discourse, for instance, as something proverbially very basic or childish and hence easy to acquire. We say, in English, that something is ‘as easy as ABC’. In Portuguese, the term ‘alfabetização’ refers both to ‘literacy’ and to the first years of elementary school. People who are unable to read or write are termed ‘analfabetos’, literally ‘unalphabeted’. Learners naturally, therefore, feel a certain shame at seeming not to have mastered this very basic learning stage.
In fact, the alphabet is not basic at all and it is not a stage on the way towards anything.
This is not only because children happily learn to speak and to understand spoken language at a very early age with no recourse whatsoever to a written alphabet. It is also because the very process of learning the names of letters and reciting them in a certain order is not something that is fundamental for any essential communication skill. You can talk and listen to people talking and even read and write perfectly well without ever doing this, as the existence of many a competent adult language learner who has forgotten the alphabet readily attests.
Should you doubt this, try writing down the names of the letters of the English alphabet and try to spell them correctly. I guarantee that, unless you are a regular Scrabble player, you will find this difficult, if not impossible. The answer, should you be interested, can be found at the end of this post.
For the purpose of reading and writing in a first language, there is a good argument for teaching the alphabet to children early on in school. But is this true for adults? And what function could such a procedure possibly serve if adult learners are already literate and already use the Latin alphabet in their own language? Even if they use a very different writing system, they will undoubtedly profit much more greatly from preliminary lessons that focus more on basic spoken communication skills.
No need then to teach the alphabet early on in a course at all.
I am of course not advocating that the pronunciation of the names of the written letters should be removed from the language learning curriculum altogether. I suggest only that it should be covered at a relatively advanced stage and that it should be related always to those (relatively few) practical contexts in which the alphabet is actually needed.
When giving one’s name, for example, it is often useful to spell it out loud. But this would normally be in the context of a situation such a telephone conversation, which already presupposes quite advanced listening and speaking skills.
A good way to introduce the alphabet, therefore, is not through the arbitrary traditional order of the signs, but through the spelling out loud of common words and names, beginning with listening. Another helpful method would be to draw the attention of learners to commonly used acronyms such as DJ, MC, CNN and BBC. Learners are thus introduced to the names of letters of the alphabet in a sequence that reflects the commonness of their occurrence in real discourse, as they are (or should be) with other words.
The fact that so many language courses and course books still begin with recitation of the alphabet is a sign of how little has really changed in the business of language learning.
This failing also however encourages us to reflect one of the fundamental principles that should underpin any attempt to learn or teach a second language. The content of a language learning course should always be firmly embedded in real-life natural language use and as far possible avoid the employment of artificial devices, such as alphabets.
The alphabet jingle may jangle in your memory for the rest of your life. But it will not help you spell your name when you need to. This requires practice of a very different kind.
The names of the letters of the alphabet in English are traditionally written as follows: a, bee, cee, dee, e, ef (or eff), gee, aitch, i, jay, kay, el (or ell), em, en, o, pee, cue, ar, es (or ess), tee, u, vee, double-u, ex, wy (or wye), and zee.
[This was one of the last of my early prose poems, written shortly after I arrived in Brazil]
How to Describe a River
It takes time, normally, for water to inscribe a relatively permanent mark on the earth’s surface. Hence, the antiquity of the words used to describe it: rivers, lakes, mires.
A river: something it is impossible to embrace. Hence the neurotic debonair quest for origins; the melancholy of seeing one pour itself out into the sea; the sadness of abused estuaries.
A river describes a line no geometry can formulate, showing up with merciless accuracy, every strength and imperfection, every weakness and resistance of the underlying land it slowly scours.
… And there are rivers, it is told, in the heart or horn of Africa, that discharge their mighty bodies of water not into an ocean, but into searing desert sands in one last epic gasp of evaporation, translated by a distant but omnipotent sunlight into vapor and air.
No need to describe a river: its banks, the boulders, pebbles pushed patiently, wearingly along its bed, the willows washing their hair mournfully in its still green bends, the white exhilarating rush down mountainsides; lilies, trout, swans, waterfalls. No need to describe a river. A river is its own autograph.
[Coconuts is one of the first poems I wrote in Brazil. It can be viewed as a companion piece to Flints, written five years earlier, and reflects my continuing interest in the tradition of prose poetry]
Each one is a miniature Argo. Absurdly over-fortified. A living fortress. A galleon, obsessed by security. Shut tight as a rock. A puritanical seed. And yet, their modesty holds no surprises; no pearls or gold. Not much more liquid than a spit. A coconut is a cup closed at birth. A breast we have access to only by the hatchet.
They contain water when young but as they grow old and hirsute bear a sweet white milk. The opposite of us. They mature into lactation; in a clutch of testicle-like breasts, like a graven idol, promise limitless manna. An aged wet-nurse, long past child-bearing; offering, like a housemaid, her obstinate labor to express this barren milk. A uterus within a stone.
Their palms lean out over the sea like refugees. Like castaways, imploring it to conjure up a passage home. Though they know not where home is. They cast their seed upon the waters in absent-minded hope; but thereby only multiply the generations of waifs. They cannot dance capoeira to remember, nor drink rum to forget; cannot sing unless the wind aid them; they know no beat; they cannot fight back against their imposed exile; as they age they just lean out more and more urgently into the sea. Their saudade eventually destroys them; their tough roots designed to make a home even of sand are outweighed by their nostalgia and they crash at night into the shallow waves. Their leaves and bark are gradually stripped off by the tides and their trunks charred by the salt as they lie prostrate in the wet sand. No god comes to them in their distress. But, like Orpheus, they are disintegrated and, limb by limb, washed out to sea. Finally they re-appear on the beach as driftwood, where their porous bleached limbs may still inspire some fleeting enthusiasm in children or artists.
In places, where the sea’s transgression once laid milky mud over Southern England, a gel, subtracted from the decomposing armour of crustacean, has been concentrated by the corpses of sea-anenomes and other once lived-in pockets and concreted into brownish cryptocrystalline tubers, thereby causing to arrive on earth these most helpful stones known to man.
No stone was ever more eager to be held. A flint is a willing quarry; keen to lend a hand; a disposable external bone. It breaks open like a coconut and its conchoidal inner surfaces, unlike the scales of fish, slot ideally into finger-joints and palms. Its glazed, slightly greasy, mottled, white reflective coating a pleasure both to feel and to behold. Flint is brittle but it cannot be broken without thereby multiplying its virtues. Like other uncomplicated organisms, it reproduces by fission.
Flints do not occur in a single mass, but in static shoals set fast in the chalk; they are discrete stones. Reserved; as if for us, to use. Flints, although they have never been ripped by an igneous uplift from the earth, can be taught, by a sort of accident, to ignite of their own accord. Through this latent talent they are mighty as blatant thunderclouds. But, because they do not flaunt their power, but exhibit it with modest reluctance, only on request, they are gifted with fabulous longevity.
It is thus quite impossible for us to grasp the immensity of their translives, which cannot thus be said to exhibit epic scope.
Once the bliss of jelly has ceded to the joy of substance and angles, flints are happy to lie dormant for ages in their hosts, where they occupy no more living space than the volume of their own growth. They do not need extra room to breathe. Their forbearance is from time to time rewarded by exotic travels. For such odysseys, these amphibious minerals need no ships; take no risks: they cannot be drowned. And, when washed up on distant beaches, they are never attended by princesses and tell no tales.
At best they are admitted for a time as minions, and in battle will act with unswerving loyalty as their master’s right-hand man. In time, they are displayed in museums and admired by writers, geologists or artists, whose lives they will as long outlast as they have already outdone them in their work. Were it possible to imagine that there are souls, which survive the decomposition of the flesh, these could not be as air, but would have to be hard, discrete, like flints. Convenient, but resilient, figments of hope. Though there may be no souls, flints occasion some hard proof that there is much more to life after death, but that this after-life, although more durable and protracted an existence, bears but little impression of its transient, gelatinous precedent.