Wordsmith Wednesday:

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is an excerpt from Hope Jahren’s novel Lab Girl.

It reads:

“Time has also changed me, my perception of my tree, and my perception of my tree’s perception of itself. Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.”

Winter has always felt like the time of year that we are meant to look inward, self-reflect, and evaluate our surroundings. Recently, however, I’ve constantly found that to be more accurate of the summertime. When everyone is out and present and attempting to extract every bit of life they can out of every minute of the day. That is when I find myself to be searching for happiness, for what will satiate that desire to be satisfied with my own existence and what it has culminated to. It is difficult to pause in this time of everyone’s constant joyous celebration, of movement, of momentum, and reflect on our perspectives and what we have gathered over the course of this time on this planet, but it is simultaneously pivotal in shaping our understanding of our surroundings and being able to derive happiness even from the most confusing/darkest/tumultuous of times. I write to remember these times, the difficult and the prosperous. To remind myself to never forget to reflect on the entire landscape and not just the single object in my immediate line of sight.

– KK

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Ross Gay’s “Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude”

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Our words this week come from Ross Gay’s eponymous poem “Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude” from his 2015 poetry collection.

The stanza is:

“And to the quick and gentle flocking
of men to the old lady falling down
on the corner of Fairmount and 18th, holding patiently
with the softest parts of their hands
her cane and purple hat,
gathering for her the contents of her purse
and touching her shoulder and elbow;
thank you the cockeyed court
on which in a half-court 3 v 3 we oldheads
made of some runny-nosed kids
a shambles, and the 61-year-old
after flipping a reverse lay-up off a back door cut
from my no-look pass to seal the game
ripped off his shirt and threw punches at the gods
and hollered at the kids to admire the pacemaker’s scar
grinning across his chest; thank you
the glad accordion’s wheeze
in the chest; thank you the bagpipes.”

Gay’s ability to shine warmth and love into dirty crevices and tease beauty from everyday experiences is what I believe puts him at the forefront of contemporary poetry. He doesn’t stray away from darkness or sadness, but he also doesn’t wallow; he shows it and says “This is what being alive and being human is” with an inspiring generosity. In a poem in which he expresses gratitude for a number of things from a lone lady on the bus to a patient, listening ear to finding the dreadlock of a murdered friend, I chose this passage because I find the images breathtaking, moving snapshots of human goodness and strength and life. I love the gentle men helping because it’s the right thing to do, I cheer and laugh for the old man proudly patting the pacemaker in his chest. These tiny actions, these little victories are the most beautiful parts of being alive to me and Ross Gay’s ability to show that beauty without overstatement and with a knowing smile is what keeps me waiting on his work.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Jose Saramago’s “Death With Interruptions”

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Our words this week are an excerpt from Jose Saramago’s 2005 novel, Death With Interruptions.

They are:

“It seemed that families, suffering an attack of conscience, had passed the word from one to the other that they were no longer going to send their loved ones far away to die, that if, in the figurative sense, we had eaten of their flesh, then now would have to gnaw on their bones as well, that we are not here just for the good times, when our loved ones had strength and health intact, we are here, too, for the bad times and the worst, when they have become little more than a stinking rag that there is no point in washing.”

In a book split between an exploration of the ramifications of a country blessed/cursed with a mysterious cessation of death and the personification of death herself, Saramago spins and blends seemingly unfathomable ideas into surreal yet plausible human situations. This excerpt, taken from a passage in which the living begin to feel the guilt creep in after normalizing a practice in which a state sponsored mafia discreetly disposes of near-dead bodies just over the border, highlights an element of human  sociology worth focusing on. Too often relationships, even intimate ones, find themselves on foundations of mutual benefit rather than commitments of support. Life is hard and for many it’s easier to shed the stress of caring for those in their life at their lowest rather than sacrifice without certain benefit. Sometimes your friend relapses regardless of how much time you spend. Sometimes your brother makes the same self-destructive mistakes regardless of your guidance or warning. Sometimes your parent’s disease drags them on the edge of death indefinitely regardless of whether you can shoulder the emotional weight. I think love has a lot more to do with sacrifice and selflessness in times of pain and need than we’d like to believe. That actually might be what it’s mostly about. – NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Mos Def’s “Wahid”

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We are highlighting the last verse from Mos Def’s song “Wahid” from his 2009 album The Ecstatic for our Wordsmith Wednesday this week.

The words are:

“Schooling the young like Rev. Run
Quote Pac and tell ’em keep their heads up
And when the pressure comes down press back and press up
Fret not ghetto world guess what?
God is on your side, the devil is a lie
The Empire holds all the gold and the guns
But when all is said and done there’s only
La ilaha ill’Allah”

Mos Def is known for his legendary ability to smoothly weave sometimes dissident ideas together through idiosyncratic rhyme schemes, simultaneously painting in broadstroke and penciling in the details in the wet paint. These lines plant the power of knowledge and hope poetically against military and monetary might, reminding the marginalized to always push back against external pressures that threaten to crush them.As a non-believer from a loose Polish/Italian Catholic background, I don’t connect as much with the religious connotations of this verse as much as I value its message of encouragement and emboldenment of young people coming up in world that may discourage or diminish them. However, it bears noting that the Arabic line roughly translates to “there is no other god than God” in English, referring to idea that all temporary/secular  struggle and desires dissipate in the face of eternal Truth, a concept shared between major monotheistic religions.

In light of our current social and political landscape, it’s important to remember the elements that should unite us in pursuit of Truth, regardless of religious beliefs (or lack thereof): protection of the weak/marginalized/impoverished, morally and ethically sound thought and action, sustained resistance in the face of corruption and abuse of power. Strength through love and empathy is far more sustainable than through guns and gold. Keep your head up and keep pressing back, everyone.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Modest Mouse’s “You’re the Good Things”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday comes from Modest Mouse’s “You’re the Good Things” off of Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks. It goes:

“You’re the icing on the cake on the table at my wake
You’re the extra ton of cash on my sinking life raft
You’re the loud sound of fun when I’m trying to sleep
You’re the flowers in my house when my allergies come out
You’re the good things…”

We’ve had Modest Mouse on here before and I’m sure Nick and I have more than enough of their lyrics that we would love to use for Wordsmith Wednesday, but, in any case, I’ve chosen them again because it’s hard to resist.

What always sticks out for me with these particular lyrics is just how much the words and Isaac Brock’s voice work together to create the feeling that the lines are trying to express. Brock starts out with a positive half of the line, things you enjoy, and sings it softly, almost crooning. Halfway through he picks up speed, transitioning to the second half of the line, singing quickly and sharply, where he places us in a situation where the positive becomes a negative. We get this contrast of things that we love in situations where we wouldn’t want them to be. A cake at a wake and extra cash on a sinking raft, these all sound great at first, as does Brock’s voice, but they rapidly become unappealing further into the line. It’s this type of contrast that we see often in Modest Mouse lyrics, and the reason I for one appreciate them, but nowhere more than here is it most clear cut and apparent.

– KK

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Sufjan Stevens’ “Casimir Pulaski Day”

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This weeks Wordsmith Wednesday comes from Sufjan Steven’s song “Casimir Pulaski Day” off of his album Illinois.

It reads:

“On the floor at the great divide
with my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March, on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing”

Sufjan speaks to the disheveled, hurtful remembrance of coping with the passing of a loved one. It is never easy. It comes on slowly and then all at once until you’re left “crying in the bathroom,” questioning the reason behind all of it (“and he takes and he takes and he takes”). As a holiday whose meaning is often forgotten, seen as nothing other than a day off, Sufjan titles this track as such to bring it back to the forefront, to not allow important moments as such to be forgotten. The entire song is composed of little pockets of memories the narrator holds dear, ones he wishes to never forget, even if they are painful. He reminds us that we must also not forget, not allow these moments to fall into the abyss but to keep them as a reminder of all that they meant to us.

– KK

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Wordsmith Wednesday: The Beatles’ “She Said She Said”

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We are excited to have our words provided by Issue 5 guest editor Grant Garland!

This Wordsmith Wednesday highlights the lyrics of “She Said She Said,” my favorite track from the iconic 1966 album Revolver by The Beatles. Anybody familiar with the Beatles discography can notice the psychedelic tendencies that begin to flourish on Revolver’s fourteen tracks, the well-documented result of the introduction of LSD to the band. The song is a McCartney-Lennon collaboration, John Lennon penning the lyrics after the band famously took acid with actor Peter Fonda in LA, during their tour of America in 1965.

The words themselves are:

She said, “I know what it’s like to be dead.
I know what it is to be sad.”
And she’s making me feel like I’ve never been born

I said, “Who put all those things in your head?
Things that make me feel that I’m mad.
And you’re making me feel like I’ve never been born.”

She said, “You don’t understand what I said.”
I said, “No, no, no, you’re wrong.
When I was a boy everything was right,
Everything was right.”

I said, “Even though you know what you know,
I know that I’m ready to leave
‘Cause you’re making me feel like I’ve never been born.”

As I mentioned, the specific origin of these lyrics is well documented, down to the moment Peter Fonda spoke the opening line to George Harrison, referencing an accidental gunshot wound Fonda suffered as a child. LSD trips aside, the words are about life changing revelations, and perhaps the human tendency to resist such revelations. Lennon changes the “He” to “She” disguising the song as a love song, maybe because love is often the source of many of his revelations. The first stanza sounds to me like a lover, or somebody trusted (those are almost interchangeable in my mind), revealing knowledge of the afterlife to the speaker. “And she’s making me feel like I’ve never been born” says that the speaker feels like they don’t exist, or that knowing the afterlife might make this existence seem meaningless. The second stanza, with its forceful question “Who put all those things in your head?” is the resistance to the revelations being presented. “Things that make me feel that I’m mad,” however, invites an admission of an already present tear in the fabric of the mind. The third stanza is an interaction between the two, a back and forth that reveals the speaker to be nostalgic for childhood, when “everything was right.”

Unpacking this bag one phrase at a time was very eye opening for me. It showed me why it has taken me so long to listen—and I mean really listen—to the Beatles. Everyone in my generation was likely made familiar with the Beatles at a young age (my parents were not fans, I don’t hold a grudge), but it wasn’t until their entire discography was finally made available on Spotify that I found the time to return to it as a young adult. I found that songs like “She Said She Said” suddenly seemed oddly profound to me. Words that used to feel too simple and not provocative enough suddenly struck me somewhere deep down. When I retrace my life—it doesn’t take long, I am young, after all—I can still place the moment that literary writing clicked for me. It was when I finally learned to realize that simple events can often be monumental. I’ve spent the last several years examining the quiet moments that have had profound effect on me. I have resisted many of those moments while they were occurring, attempting to trudge on the same path, to remain the same as I used to be “when I was a boy.”

It probably is no coincidence that as a twenty-seven year old I suddenly relate to words John Lennon wrote at twenty-five. Our experiences were obviously not similar, him likely having these types of conversations and revelations while hiding out from swarms of admirers at a Los Angeles mansion, and me usually having them in the drive-thru at Taco Bell on a Thursday night. But when the song comes on, and I sing the words, I am aware of myself and my longing for some sort that feeling—the feeling I used to get as a child—of everything being right.

– GG

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