The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Tag: prose

The Memorial

Great writers are immortal:
the names of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Frost
still live on today through their works,
through their words;
they live on in posterity.

Josh was a great writer, as we all know.
Anyone who has had the chance to know him knows that.

But we are here today not to celebrate his posterity.
We’re here to celebrate his memory, yes, but let us not forget:
we are here to celebrate all of you and this moment.

Great writers are immortal:
but what do we know about what made Shakespeare smile?
What do we know what jokes Wordsworth told his friends
— verily, who were his friends?
What made Frost weep?
What did Oscar Wilde whisper to Bosie when they lying in bed?

But we do know how Josh made us feel, made us laugh,
feel inspired, challenged, frustrated and how he loved us.
No one but us will have this moment where we can say we have
lived a life of Josh.
Even were his works to live on, no one but us could claim to have
danced with giddy abandon amidst fireworks,
no one but us could claim to have told him
our humblest, crippling fears.

In this room, we have those who knew Josh
not merely through his intellect but knew him
as a big-headed baby growing up, knew him
as an adventurous soul to the point of foolishness.
Knew him to have fought demons, so many demons.

Josh had many demons. Maybe that’s why he liked angels so much.
His mother’s thesis was about angels. And while he didn’t believe in angels in the Christian sense,
he believed a divine other that represented healing and all that is good.
He would tell me about what he did and what fun he had hanging out with his friends because
up until the recent end of his life,
happiness had always seemed out of his reach.
Every one of you represented an angel to him,
just as he was an angel to all of us.

[Speech: 30th July, 2016]

100 words

Making every word count is hard when you are on a deadline. No time for adjectives, no time for descriptions. Each word will be so vital, that deleting one causes everything to destabilize. When you have 100 words to live, what will you say?

Perhaps you would speak of your fears, having to live in fear of running out of words to say. Perhaps you would bemoan having to cut the excesses in your life; writing meagerly.

I, however, will celebrate the opportunity of being given the chance to say 100 words, and when I run out, I exit happy.

[100 words, 100th post]

Extracting meaning in nonsense

Image credit to Wikipedia

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

— Lewis Caroll, “Jabberwocky”, 1871

This is one of the most well-known nonsense poems in the English language, and yet, as Alice in Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass says

‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate’

Even though the words are nonsensical, we still get a distinct sense of their meaning. How is that achieved? What components of the words in this poem contribute to their meaning? From Wikipedia, it says “The poem relies on a distortion of sense rather than “non-sense”, allowing the reader to infer meaning and therefore engage with narrative while lexical allusions swim under the surface of the poem.” What that means is that when we see the words and hear the sounds of the words, the components draw upon our existing knowledge to draw parallels to words and meaning we already know, and extrapolate the meaning onto the poem.

Thus, the frications, the hisses and lullings of the tongue bring about certain images and parallels to words we already know. A modern example would be the word:

Professor Severus Snape

from the Harry Potter books. It’s a very simply usage of the visual and audio clues as to the kind of person a character with that name might be. From “Severus,” we can break it down phonologically — the repeated sibilant ‘s’ draws upon hissing sounds, starting and ending with an ‘s’ makes the word sound harsher, and the the labio-dental ‘v’ sound draws the speaker’s mouth into an involuntary snarl in order to pronounce the ‘v’. Orthographically, “Severus” looks like the word “severe,” and the “-us” suffix lends it the gravitas of faux-Latin, adding a touch of snobbery and sombreness. Similarly, for “Snape,” phonologically, it leads with an “s” sibilant, and the “SN” consonant cluster makes the reader involuntarily sneer. Ending the word with the plosive “p,” and a released, aspirated one at that, adds to the ideas of a curt, no-nonsense character. One can plausibly imagine Severus Snape (with Alan Rickman as him, of course) saying the words “Get. Up.” with an extra hard release of the final “p” sound. Orthographically, “Snape” looks like “snake,” contains the word “snap” in it, and words that begin with “sn” have usually a slight negative connotation to it. (Snide, sneer, snap, snore, sneak, snoot, snarl, sniffle, snark)

So we’re incredibly able to draw so many allusions just from a person’s name via its sounds and its sights, now imagine extending it to the entire Jabberwocky poem. Let’s just examine the first stanza of the poem:

  1. ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  2. Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
  3. All mimsy were the borogoves,
  4. And the mome raths outgrabe.

And see if we can annotate it with relevant information that we know.

  1. It was brillig [N? Time of the day? ADJ? Brilliant?], and the slithy [Definitely ADJ. Slithering and lithe] toves [Definitely N, because of following line]
  2. Did gyre [V. Plural object-verb agreement (“toves gyre”). Gyroscope] and gimble [V. Gyrate and tumble? Rotating movement] in the wabe [N. Wet, plus extra wet connotations from “slithy”]
  3. All mimsy [Adj. Whimsy? Whimper? Miserable?] were the borogoves [N. Borrow-dove? A bird? Mangrove?]
  4. And the mome raths [ADJ-N, because of the following V. Home? Mope? Moan? Wrath? Rats? Moths?] outgrabe [out-grab+PAST? Gripe+PAST?]

Wikipedia compiles a possible interpretation of the words, which mine seem pretty close to.

The human mind is incredibly capable, almost desirous, of pulling meaning out of words, such that people arguing about semantics when they disagree with words used by other people seem almost silly. Previously, I have written about how the grammaticality we’re obsessed with contributes little to the understanding of meaning, and people who advocate and insist on a gold standard of grammar are quite misguided. Similarly, we see here even semantic-correctness seems secondary, if the words used have no semantic distinguishing from another, because they are not words in the lexicon in the first place, yet they contain content and semantic meaning.

Does it matter if I say, “The amalgamation of hydrogen and oxygen atoms yields water,” and “The combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms yield water,”? There will be semantic purists who insist that the act of amalgamation is subtly different from a mere combination; that perhaps amalgamation is more nuanced.

Of course, I don’t deny that there are certainly words that are more nuanced than others. There is certainly a different between the words “happy,” “delighted,” “glad,” and “ecstatic” — they align differently on the superlative scale where one might construe “glad” to be the most slight and “delighted” and “ecstatic” to be on the other end. But even between these words, how is one to distinguish the semantic difference between “delighted” and “ecstatic,” where one is full of delight and the other full of ecstasy, that one is more superlative than the other other? Does ecstasy trump delight?

As such, insisting on absolutism for certain terms is imposition of one’s views on another. Splitting hairs semantically, like grammar-nazism, contributes nothing to the discussion if the intent of the speech is clear.

To end off, I’ll try my hand at “nonsense prose,” to see if I could, without using lexical words, tell a story.

“You seem morried,” Alex said, as he kriched up a klatch, and lit his smube. He took a long wheg. “Is everything milly-willy? Surely nothing fellish happened?”

“I’m afraid I’m a little tatchet,” I said, my shoulders smished, my haiths swanged.

Alex poff-poffed, for he whegged one too big. “Sorry about that. Come on, tich your bin up, kellyvale everything.”

I hished my feet, “You know what my pairrows are; they have viddied not an inch. Every burrise I wake, the same ol’ nubs, the same ol’ tracherns. I am still without work, and my time here is plivered. If I don’t get a job immish, I’m fanade I’m going to go wallyfaloo.”

“Surely it’s not that sapper,” Alex kippered, “You have your tumms around you, being snorm and glideful. Surely that clappas your situation?”

“I’m grateful for my tumms, yes,” I said, “But they can only clappas por piti. It’s been four yardas already, Alex, and the best I’ve bainaged was this mopstep.”

“I can’t movome back, Alex. That finta is unbelfortasible to me; I didn’t swarvvy thousands of loons and cross ninan lashes to come here, only to have to gallivog home. There is no syfe for me there, Alex. Although I have tumms and revelas back home, to have to be washorled by all that sikthorn and snurling pekvork will beshoy me. I’ll sooner slax myself than movome.”

“What are you going to do then?” Alex said.

“I can only prish it will be wingwag, Alex. I can only pope.”

Looking at the person beside you by looking away

ref

We got on the same car together, via different doors. We were on different benches, but our reflections were on the same window. There was no one between us, but it didn’t matter: even though I was not facing you, I could look at you through your reflection on the window on the opposite side.

Even though I could turn my head to look at you, I could only bear to do so by staring ahead, away from you, looking straight at your reflection.

Were you looking back at mine?

We spent the next fifteen minutes in this way, both reflections apparently raptly staring into the same inky blackness of the window.

The train surfaces from the depths for a shot of fresh air and sunshine, as it clangs and rattles on the Manhattan bridge. Daylight flushes the inky blackness of the window away, and your reflection with it, as people around us clamour for their cell phone at this brief respite of phone service. Neither you nor I moved, just sat on our benches silently staring at the dirty window ahead.

The train plunged back into darkness, and you were there again.

I tried to study your features, but you were so far away, seated in that other ethereal cabin. I wish I were my reflection, that I could sit next to your reflection, but he would probably be thinking the same thing, and staring at you instead.

The train pulled into Canal St, and you and your reflection got up, and left.

I could then fall back into repose, into sweetest coma again.

Let me read your writing

Friends, let me read your writing, let me read your blogs,
let me read your diary, let me see your thoughts.
When we speak, we speak frankly,
directly, quickly, without much care
for how the words come out
save for how they’re wrought.
But in your diaries,
you edit, censor, redact, and scratch out
offensive lines and statements that would have left you
seeming anything less than pristine
because writing is posterity
because writing makes it so.

So let me see your way with words
and the way you write your tales,
and the way you leave your trails,
let me see your red ink
and read your silences, ellipses, spaces.

Smelling without your nose

Poetry and prose these days are very good with conjuring metaphors and images and the such, and they are very expressive. But I feel that modern poetry lack a sort of creativity in their use of the language. True, the images conjured are very strong and vivid, but in the reading the poems, one mostly appreciates the effect of the images and not so much the language. I would look at my own writing and think that the content is strong but were I to look at the words used alone and how they relate to each other, they are nothing special.

I think it’s because we’re too used as writers to acutely represent and display our senses and what we think and feel — we are able to show readers what we see, what we hear, and feel, through our similes, metaphors, analogies, onomatopoeia, etc. But these uses are expected and staid, after a certain point; there is nothing surprising about using a tapping dactylic meter to represent galloping action.

What if we were not allowed to see with our eyes, hear with our ears, smell with our nose, taste with our tongue, or touch with our skin? Just as a blind person sees the world differently, with his hands, surely we must be able to write about our experiences with the world through our immediate mediums?

With that, I bring to you the challenge of writing about smelling without using your nose.

I will try to write one paragraph about two topics about smelling, introducing that I am smelling something, but subsequently never using any word or phrase that is associated with the nose, or typical flavour words with which smells are associated. Let’s see if I can succeed.

The smell of fried chicken

The very first thing whenever I cycle past the Crown Fried Chicken shop in my neighbourhood is that I always smell the fried chicken on my face first. That wafting, hovering film hangs waiting in the air, waiting to arrest anyone who passes by in hopes of tempting them in for a piece of fried chicken. But that wafting, hovering film also hangs onto my face as a perceptible cling of grease that whets my appetite, even as I salivate from the thought of the crunch of batter-on-skin, the ooze of juice that washes down the side of the tongue, and the slight but oh-so-delightful burn from the steam that escapes the meat as teeth sink into yielding flesh. In but three seconds I would have already cycled past the shop, but I have left my stomach behind on the side walk, peering longingly through the filthy windows, wanting to be filled up with fried chicken and fries.

The smell of rain

I find the smell of rain after it has rained unpleasant — that scrubbing it does to the inside of my nose as it evaporates off of the side walk, that tugging feeling as it roils off of your arms and face. Had I wanted to smell mould, I’d have gone to the basement and stuck the green patches festering slowing up my nose, not to be assaulted by liquid decomposition and acidity that hangs around after the event like an unwelcome customer. Nobody ever smells the rain too much as it is happening, for they are too preoccupied by the sounds, the spectacle — the most people get is a sense of wetness in the air. But after-rain rain reminds you that it had been here, and sticks its proverbial armpit in your face, in my face, in its humidity and the awful contractions it leaves on my tongue.

Beseechment of an ice cube tray

icetrayIt was the summer and you had an intense love affair with me. “I need you,” you told me. And you saw me every single day, sometimes more than once each day. “I don’t know how I can live without you,” you’d whisper, and go for drinks with me. Together, we braved the New York brutal summer.

Once, the building you live in turned off your water because of some issue with the plumbing. You came home to find yourself unable to even pour yourself a glass of water from the taps. Helpless, you turned to me, and asked for my help. I provided whatever little I could as you sat down with me, and waited. Eventually I was able to help, and you managed to get yourself one glass of refreshing, cool water.

Now that summer is over, and we’re going headlong into fall, you forget that I exist. Your daily excursions with me became every other day, and now it’s been a over a week and you’ve yet to make a calling at my place. Sometimes you’re in the neighbourhood, but you never even say “Hi.”

I have been relegated to — what would be the opposite of a ‘fair-weather friend’ — a foul-weather friend? That you’d come calling only when you have need of me?

I shudder to even think about what comes in winter.

 

Seeing beasts

I play Russian Roulette with my mirror. I never know if I’m going to like what I see each time.

“Oh, you look alright today,” would be the sentiment on fair days. The day passes by uneventfully, mostly never remembered.

“Ugh, what is wrong with your face?” would be the judgement at other times. “Look at yourself, you look utterly and absolutely disgusting.” And then you would remember that your father used to say things like that to your acned 14-year-old self.

“Look at your face,” I’d remind myself, and remind myself I would for the rest of the day.

I grew up with a fear of having pictures of face taken, and also with the disappointment of my friends who wanted to take pictures with me.

“Let’s take a photo together,” they’d suggest, as we hang out for tea, at the park, or at a party.

“I’d rather not, sorry.”

“Oh. Okay then.”

Soon, they’d learn to stop asking altogether.

Just Unlike everyone else

subwaysluggo
“Look at everyone on this train, on their daily commute, fuelling the veins of this city. The city’s lifeblood, as it were, yet each is so individually lifeless.

I sit here, glancing around, looking at the eyes of those who sit around me. What do they see? If you look long and hard enough into their eyes (without them noticing, of course), you’ll see yourself reflected in their eyes. And frankly, I fear that seems to be all they see.

Eyes that do not look beyond their phone displays, eyes that, by being buried in books, seeks solace from the anguish of having to acknowledge another when they make contact. Eyes that prefer the brief respite of a commuter’s siesta.

Such hubris I bear for being so self-aware.

The one foot distance that separates those who sit across me might as well be a chasm insurmountable. The woman who sits next to me, straight-backed and proper, twiddles and twitches her finger, taking care to avoid accidentally catching anyone’s eye, lest she has to give them back.

What is that man with his hands on his chin, shades on his face, earphones plugged in, thinking, seeing, hearing?

Everyone unthinking, unseeing, unlistening, uncaring,” thought I, as I put on my earphones and sunglasses, picked up my briefcase and got off at my station on my way to work.

 

Chasing Roads

otakarova

Once upon a time, in Prague, a tram and a car stopped at the corner of a street called Otakarova. The traffic light was red and both vehicles were waiting for the light to turn green.

“You know, you have it really good,” says the tram, let’s call him Twenty-four, to the blue Skoda car who was waiting alongside him.

“What do you mean?” says the blue Skoda, whose name is Rush, because that’s what his owner named him. “Why do you say I have it really good?” asked Rush to Twenty-four, as his engine rumbled silently and he went put-put-put.

“You have so much freedom on the road. Look at you, after this traffic light turns green, you’re allowed to turn left, right or go straight ahead or anywhere you want to go!” says Twenty-four. “As for me, I go wherever the tracks are laid for me.”

Rush considered what Twenty-four said, and looked at the roads around him, and then he said, “But looking at the roads, you have options too! The tracks bend left, curve right, lead straight ahead.“

“I have choices?” Twenty-four scoffed. “While the tracks bend left, curve right and lead straight ahead, I cannot take any that I wish to. Do you see that small, red blinking light above the traffic lights?”

Rush swivelled its headlamps upwards, and saw that above the traffic lights was a smaller single light that had a red arrow, blinking steadily. It pointed straight ahead.

“Yes I see it. It points ahead,” says Rush.

“There you have it,” says Twenty-four, “that’s the path I will be going, no other ways about it. Many roads have been laid for me, and I don’t even get a say in which ones to take? All I can do is run on schedule and go where I’m supposed to.” At that, Twenty-four rang its bell, alarming a pedestrian who was attempting to run across the road in front of Twenty-four.

“But it’s not so bad, is it?” put-putted Rush, “You’re a great big tram! On the roads, you’re the king – everyone has to give way to you, maybe with the exception of ambulances and police cars. You have the right of way and if you crossed paths with me, I’m expected to maybe even go up on the pavements just to make way for you if the road is too narrow for both of us.”

Rush continued, “Also, look at the good you do for everyone! Hundreds of people, with your help, make it to work, to school, to wherever they need to go.”

“Hundreds of ungrateful people who litter and vandalise within me,” Twenty-four shot back.

“Hundreds more people who’re glad you bring shelter from the rain in the spring, and warmth from the biting cold of winter,” says Rush.

“Trekking dirt in from the rain, vagrants who sleep without meaning to go anywhere, just to be warm,” says Twenty-four. “I wish I could be like you, going anywhere I want to.”

“And I wish I could be like you, and not have to worry about changing lanes, giving way, looking out for pedestrians, etc,” said Rush.

Just then, the traffic light turned green.

“Well it was nice to meet you,” said Rush. “I’m going left now.”

“And I’m going straight ahead, as if I ever had a choice,” rang Twenty-four its bell angrily as it started to roll ahead.

And so they parted ways, with Rush put-putting off to left and Twenty-four moving straight ahead.

 

A couple of hours later, as Rush was returning back to that junction at Otakarova, and took the route that Twenty-four had taken earlier, he saw a tram lying on its side. There were many people around, some sitting on the sidewalk, some crying, others holding up a bandaged arm. As Rush drove past, snippets of conversation could be heard: “It was as if the tram was trying to go off its tracks or something. How scary!”