Wordways (meditation)

By J.S. Porter


The Holy Spirit, breath of my breath, passes through the apple orchard near the cedar forest and the creek. The apple boughs shake, and the leaves tremble. The rustle of leaves. The mouth speaks and makes a rustling sound in the ear. Every object has its glow, every sound its re-sounding. The rustle of language. Barthes’ phrase. If the breath speaks with authority to the welcoming ear, as wind blowing through the leaves, as spirit moving through the apple orchard, words bloom into being. Words blow out and back, caught in the afterdraft, the backwind of breath, the reciprocity of wind. Rustled words, rustling words, language a-twitch, stirring, alive in the breath of the blower, in the torque of the tongue, in the embrace of the ear.


Language begins in horror. You and I make a sound at a Medusa sight and learn to shape the sound. Those shapings become our words for things and the educated tongue learns to do what no other organ can do; it makes a counter-reality, sounds in which to shelter itself from sights too terrible to look at. Image precedes word, word in defiance of image, an attempt to cure the image-wound as if from infancy we were subjected to more than our eyes could bear. There are images from which we do not recover. The young girl sees, or feels, a penis at too early an age, before word-shields can deflect and redirect. The young boy encounters a vagina, from sight or touch, at too early an age, and loses all innocence and the linguistic capacity to recreate its illusion. Maimed, mauled and mutilated by the image, we grope towards healing words only to find that they too are, in Jacques Ellul’s word, humiliated.


Language, says Karl Kraus, is the universal whore whom I must remake into a virgin. The whores outnumber the virgins. Most words will sleep with anybody. Words like love. They have the discriminating taste of dogs; they’ll lick any hand, wag for any master. Other words are much more selective about the hosts on whom they are parasites. “Being,” for example, was hardly a word before Heidegger got his tongue around it. It was just there, unspoken and unthought of, but after Heidegger’s tongue passed over it a thousand times—you need about a thousand tonguings to make a word your own—the word took on weight and substance. Making the whore a virgin again is no easy task, however. When the word has been mounted on a city billboard, it can no longer be naked; it has been seen by too many eyes. When the word is raped on television, the word is shorn of its purity. When what is intended for one ear is spoken by radio to a million ears, the word loses its aura of holiness, its surround of silence. The marketplace, as every good whore knows, cheapens its commodities.


Have I received my word yet? That’s all I need, just one. Shakespeare had, according to Hughes, over 25,000, Milton about l0,000. Every writer has his word, as every carver has his wood and every sculptor his stone. The carver returns to the wood with which he feels most at home. The sculptor makes use of granite and soapstone and marble, but somewhere, undiscovered perhaps, sleeps a stone that calls him home. I’m waiting for my homecoming word, my birth-stone, my sustaining wood. Heidegger had his word—Being—and its miraculousness. Merton had mercy for his life-word, the word that enabled him to walk and caught him when he fell. Mercy and its munificence. Have you found your word yet? I haven’t found mine, but I keep looking.


Sleeping beauty, can it ever be more than a fairytale? Suppose I insert an invisible comma after sleeping, and slow the phrase down so that you pause and reflect on its meaning. Sleeping beauty, beauty sleeping. Of all the human states, sleep the richest, the most beautiful, the most pregnant. Think of all the things asleep in a tree: a staff, a boat, a cross, a house, a bridge, a ladder. Sleep gives birth to dreams, and dreams to creation. Rivers at rest, and the still heron at the water’s edge. Consider the unhatched eggs, the seeds in the ground, buds about to blossom, a child at sleep, an old woman dreaming, Arp’s concretions, Brancusi’s sleeping muses who have travelled a long distance in another world and are coming back, slowly finding form, into this one. The beauty of sleeping stone, fire enclosed in serenity. No form final, no final form, sleeping beauty, beauty sleeping.


A critic christens his book Words With Power as if a word, any word, at a given moment can be imbued with power or stripped of power. The preposition “with” weakens the noun “power” by implied multiple accretions. Words with power, with silence, with beauty, with terror… Words as expedient as politicians, as attachable and detachable as burrs. But where are the mother words, the words, not with power but of power. Rocks in the river. The words of power? Yes: God, mother, child. The child asleep in her mother’s arms, the mother asleep in God’s arms and God asleep in the child’s arms. When one awakens, they all awaken. When one breathes, they all breathe—rock within rock within rock.


The President of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, while in prison, writes to his wife Olga and never mentions the word God. The lips equivocate on a cliche. Let’s declare a moratorium on the word. Bury it now to dig it up later, when we’ve earned it, oldest and holiest word in our tongue. For now, let’s use what the native peoples use, the Creator, the Great Spirit. Let’s use the word of Kabir, the Guest. Let’s use the words of Rumi: the Host, the Beloved, the Holy One. These words name without naming; these words can encompass dogs, children, angels and gods. Divinity resides in insects or nowhere at all. Just keep your doors open; unlock your windows. Keep looking out and in. Make sure you have enough wine in the cellar and some good bread—dark Russian rye is pretty good.


My friend Garber thinks that there is always something waiting for me out there, some undiscovered or untranslated Heidegger called “wordpaths” I’ll come upon when the time comes. Wordpaths. The paths words take, their unexpected turnings. Wordways. The ways of words. Their hidden origins, their strange associations, their flamboyant sounds. The way of the word. I live like a turtle between the roof and the basement, between word shells. A man and his word. I give my word. I take your word. The intercourse and commerce of words. The wordway that leads to awakening, Buddha under the Bodhi. Words, my Bethlehem and Golgotha. Break me into metaphor. Bleed me into speech. Taxidermist, mummy. A way with words, the worded way, a way through, a throughway, away with words. Wordstruck, wordstuck, the word as lightning,the word as mud. The wayward, wayfaring word having its way against my will.

  • published in Burning Light: A Journal of Christian Literature, Vol. 1, No. 3, August, 1993.

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