The Search For My Word

By J.S. Porter

I’ll tell you my word if you tell me yours.

My word’s spiritbookword. What’s yours?

The age has its words. Cool and smooth are two of them. Everything that sells is either cool or smooth. If you’re both cool and smooth, you’re hot.

Bush, with his Sunday School, cheerleading mind, has his word; it’s evil. You’ve got to hunt it down, and kill it. With George, evil’s always out there, never in here.

My word’s spiritbookword, but it took me awhile to find it.

To find a word that revealed myself to myself, that I could find myself in and identify myself by, took some time.

Perhaps it began with my reading of Hamlet in high school.

I was aware that the word for Hamlet was words. One word wouldn’t suffice. It had to be words in general. Words, words, words. He spent his life reading and misreading the ghost-father’s words of exhortation, Claudius’ words of deception, Gertrude’s words of denial, Ophelia’s words of love, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s words of chicanery, and so on.

Words confuse, they kill, they heal (for a moment), they torment, they do a hundred things in the play. Hamlet the wordmeister. I’m with Harold Bloom now. I prefer the ale-drinking, blunt-speaking John Falstaff to the whiny Dane, but in the brooding melancholic teenage years Hamlet’s the play and Hamlet the wordmeister is the man.

After Hamlet, I seemed to fall asleep for a long time. I went to Africa, took some blows, discovered some unsavory truths about myself and fell asleep for a decade. I call them my lost years. Years when I can’t remember what I read or thought or even cared about. I entered, in Lewis Lapham’s phrase, the fog of the self.

When I came out of the fog, I wrote a poem for Canadian Literature in the fall of ‘86 called “Words I.” The poem begins with “How you write is how you breathe/In, out, breath, words” and it ends with “Words make you live more/Or die more”. A year later, I wrote a poem called “Word III” for an anthology named Seven X Seven. The poem talks about scraping barnacles from rock, cutting calluses from skin and peeling “a thousand years of advertising/from the felt experience.”

Then came 1988. The New Quarterly published my poem “One Word” and Moonstone Press published The Thomas Merton Poems with its words on words. The book houses a great many word poems: poems about specific words. In that book, my personal word seemed to be amphibian. I was an amphibious being. I thought that this might be my contribution to uniqueness. But not so. My father told me of a dream that he had once: he was running along the shore (probably in Ireland) with one foot in the water (probably the Irish Sea) and one foot on the land. When he told me of his dream, I thought to myself, “That’s me, dad. I thought I had moved some distance from you, but I’ve barely budged an inch.”

In 1993, I wrote a series of meditations on words for an American journal, Burning Light. I called the meditations “Wordways.” The poems acknowledged my lack of a signature word: “I haven’t found mine, but I keep looking.” They also acknowledged that Martin Heidegger and Thomas Merton had found their words, Being for Heidegger and mercy for Merton.

I was slowly creeping towards my spiritbookword. One word that would say what I love, believe in and feel absorbed by.

In Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry into Literature and Spirituality, published by Novalis in 2001, I was looking for my “birthword, the word-written-on-the-forehead, the bloodword, the rootword, the sunword, the magicword, the boneword, the lifeword, the motherword, the word-stitched-in-the-soul, the fireword.” I found it in a bookstore.

In the company of my sculptor friend, Ted Rettig, I hungrily grazed volumes of poetry in my favourite Toronto bookshop, Pages, on Queen Street. I picked up a Paul Celan in a new translation by Pierre Joris: German on the one side, English on the other. Ted personally amplified the German when I needed a fuller understanding of a particular word.

As I read through Celan’s compounds— “woundmirror,” “wellchants,” “wordspoor,” “firethoughts,” “wordblood,” and “wordmembered”— I started to think of my own compounds. Subconsciously, perhaps I was finding language for my own amphibious nature, for the fact that I only feel comfortable when I am more than one thing at a time.

I started to stutter word-amalgamations to myself in a kind of inner grunt and grope: “wordspiritbook,” “bookspiritword,” “spiritwordbook.” The amalgam that felt right for me was “spiritbookword:” spirit, from the Latin spiritus meaning breath; book, the bridge between the spirit and the word; and the word, formed in the book and moulded by the spirit. “Spiritbookword: the breath of the word in the book.”

“I jumped up and down like a four-year old. Hallelujah! I had found my word. I could now look for spiritbookwords in others.”

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