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THE WORLD IN THEIR WORDS

Inspired by this year’s 400th anniversary Shakespeare celebrations, #wordswelivein explores the words we encounter every day and the stories they tell about our lives and communities. The initiative comes to life through live events, social media and original text-and-image works by writers from around the world.

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It Would Sound like a Dream

The city tells me       I’m alive so I’m alive

       I press my lips against its walls       bless me I’m drunk

on all its promises       & everything       I’ve wanted       the city opens up

       its fist & lets me see       the view is all American

fig. 1: what can I have       fig. 2: what will it cost me

       I’m filthy with desire       says the city I’m unfit & rich

with liberty       I tug my tether       the skyline gleams

       the windows glow their little mysteries       & a mirage

I fumble toward       I breathe it in

       my feet stick to the street       what if I might float

from the rooftops       in the city’s arms       & all these eyes on me

       don’t be sorry       whatever I may be today I’ll be

alive       & nothing hurts       the city holds me

I live in Cambridge, a town where the present is in danger of being drowned out by the din of the past. There is a distinction made here, not clear to outsiders, between the old colleges of the University—of which my own, at 420 years, is the youngest—and the arriviste institutions that have been around for less than a few centuries. In part this is a question of the physical presence of things—the lines and colours that are allowed to encroach upon the centre of town and those that are relegated to the periphery—but in part it is also about the density of information that greets the walker passing through town. The modern buildings, with their smooth exteriors and clean lines, tell us little about the cultures that made them other than their ability to streamline, to reduce form to function. The older ones, on the other hand, are a riot of representation—cabinets de curiosités made of stone.

Cambridge is a Renaissance town, and for all Shakespeare's confidence that his Sonnets were more permanent than "marble" and "the gilded monuments/ Of princes," his contemporaries were careful to set in stone what mattered to them. One of my favourite examples of Tudor stonework is a glorious carving in the small parish church of Burford, outside Oxford, of a monument to Henry VIII's barber-surgeon. The monument is the first three-dimensional representation of a native of the Americas in Europe, and its mason is clearly enthralled by the unfamiliar forms of this Brave New World, whom he has pinned among the scrolls and lion heads of a very Roman frame.

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The presence of the past in Cambridge is not confined to images of the physical world: there are also the words that have also been scarred into the fabric of the town by the people who have been here before. The lapidary phrase on a sundial (Ut hora sic fugit vita: "As the hour flies so does life"); the "H" and "A" intertwined in the organ loft of King's College Chapel that bear witness to its erection during the brief years that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were still an item. In the early part of the twenty-first century, however, these voices slowly retreat into silence.

Somewhere between the shrinking of a stone's life in the face of astronomical timescales and the suspicion of authority with its monumentalising urges, we lost the will to write upon the world for future ages. We became, in a sense, Shakespeareans: believing that immortality is best attempted in the most ephemeral of materials, flimsy and delicate things whose decay is assured. Anything that survives does so by the sheer force of our attraction to it; each moment it lasts a triumphant riposte to the threat of time. As Shakespeare says:

Now with the drops of this most balmy time
My love looks fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes.
                  (Sonnet 107)

To find out more about the marks our age is (or is not) making, I visit the venerable Kindersley Cardozo workshop, around the corner from my house, which is responsible for most of the monumental stonework in town. Along the way I pass this rather touching memorial, a neglected dog-watering trough erected by Prince Chula of Siam to "Tony," his companion during his student years.

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The granite dog-bowl has a touch of that wild and nihilist bohemian whimsy that was the swan-song of monumental culture. It sets the claims of intimacy against the grander subjects of memory and asks us to imagine the world as a gallery of statues to fleeting moments. I am reminded of Ezra Pound's poem "Erat Hora," from around the same time, which gently mocks the pomposity of its own inscription-like title:

"Thank you, whatever comes." And then she turned
And, as the ray of sun on hanging flowers
Fades when the wind hath lifted them aside,
Went swiftly from me. Nay, whatever comes
One hour was sunlit and the most high gods
May not make boast of any better thing
Than to have watched that hour as it passed.

At the workshop, set up by David Kindersley and now run by his widow Lida Cardozo, I find Lida busy, deeply engaged with a client on the design of a headstone. I speak to one of the apprentice stonecutters, who tells me that they are one of the last workshops to hand-chisel their inscriptions. The more commercial outfit down the street sandblasts letters into rock through a stencil, a shortcut that has brought the price down far enough that they now make humorous signs to hang over bathrooms and such. I'm struck by how insulted I feel on the stone's behalf upon hearing this. It brings into focus the symbolic nature of inscription, an act of violence against a surface that forcefully resists, something that requires exertion and patience from the letter-cutter at a cost high enough to winnow away all but the most urgent records.

I run out of time to speak to Lida, but before I leave I see a headstone in progress that is poignantly similar to one of my favourite petroglyphs: a simple antelope, engraved into a Saharan cave in southern Algeria. It contains no words, but it says everything about the awe this culture felt at the relationship between animal, form and stone. The cutter clearly intuited that art lay somewhere in man's fight against the resistance of stone to taking on organic forms.

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I run in to Lida a few days later as I am coming out of the library. She has a poetic soul, as I suppose anyone who spends so much time alone with her art must do. She is confident in her vocation—which is, as she sees it, to leave the world a little better than she found it (though she is aware of the irony that when people see her work they are seeing the effect of her taking something away). Yet she is unconvinced by my suggestion that we are an unmonumental people and takes me to see the nearby inscription that she and her workshop have just completed. It is a simple label chiselled into a band of Portobello stone that sits like a stratum low down in a brick wall of a building facing the library. Sitting as it does at shin height, it does not set itself up above the reader, as most inscriptions do, but rather encourages a bowing of the head or even kneeling; this stooping, however, is not an act of humility but of interest, like a child who bends down to watch a beetle emerge from its hole.

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The inscription commemorates a forgotten field hospital that stood on the site between 1914 and 1919, in the tents of which some 70,000 First World War casualties were treated. It seems, in a sense, to capture the kinds of words our age will live on in: not brash statements of what we believe about the world, but a record of the fragments of the past that we feel may be slipping from our grasp. This is, I suppose, one of the major conclusions of Shakespeare's writings about the nature of beauty: just as this monument makes present to the reader something almost beyond retrieving, so beauty itself is nothing more than the anticipation of loss.

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
[…]
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
    This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
    But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
                  (Sonnet 64)

This monument is just such an instance of weeping to have that which we fear to lose, of the mutual orbit of beauty and oblivion. It is a monument to erosion, a writing upon stone that it is water.

Ripped Mom

It became something I didn’t recognize
20+ hours of labor and my vulva swelled up

until I walked like a plastic cowboy from a vending machine
forever ready to ride.

I don’t remember if doctors cut me or if I tore
and I didn’t care and don’t.

I’ve had no time for a hand mirror at my pussy.
I look for any instance of pleasure, listen to the letters

which flash only in the passing light: F A L S E because
everything I read said I was supposed to disarm.

We had a pretty good time together, when she wasn't
trying to kill me!
but you can’t stop me when

I am so turned on by my own damn self and so

exquisite down there.

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From Cambridge–Barton–Wicken Fen

We sink to water. Set the politic cuffs
Roseate in blooms that scatter order. Rock.
Waste. Culpable weights. Pathfinders,
Cellars, new sightings-in. Caritas for wasps in holes.
Each wall is watermarked with blissful fiction
To turn our opening hands upon the marks
Where things are described as they are. Hearts materiel.
Chalk or a blade to wet stone. Enemies tipped in.
Luck blooms in lazy, folding gauze & the haze on the poplars
Pencil-wood and dust admixed with new wire.
You turn to fix the slipping weal of distance
Fortuity with five fingers. Behind you the instar
Splits into seasons: rain for the rubble it leaves
On intimate writings of war. Wings and thirds.
Six sphinx-stripped hawks whose eyes
Are barbs for hoped-for deliverance.
On top the hangar is still in light
Our ships all adrift on the ground.

Lunch in a Town Named After a Company Slowly Poisoning Its Residents

I saw a cow once on a hilltop casually stretch her neck
to face behind herself so that her left hind leg could scratch

her forehead with its hoof. I can’t emphasize enough
how casually she pulled this off, while obviously I was

blown away, having never seen a cow do that before
and having never given thought to whether it was possible.

Well, it’s possible. Things went back to normal after that.
Sometimes you feel like a change might be underway

but just wait it out: hands on the tabletop, eyes on the wall.
Meanwhile, it’s safe to say the cow has since died. Not

as a result of what I saw, but because I saw it long ago.
A cow’s life expectancy turns out to be fifteen years or so.

I’m still here. The day started off cloudy but the clouds
have drifted apart. To think too much of life would spoil it.

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MIXED MESSAGES

I.

     My neighbor has spraypainted on one of his sheds “IN CASE OF ZOMBIES” and on another “JESUS IS LORD.” Read consecutively, the way I do when I ride my bicycle past them to town, the messages offer a warning (zombies may happen) and a solution (turn to Jesus, somehow).

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     But what if there is no connection between the messages, only a spatial continuity? Are they then meant to be read as instructions to what the sheds contain? I picture the first shed full of helical braids of garlic and ammo boxes with silver bullets, garden shears, whatever proper anti-zombie defense tools might be. In the second, cobbled out of corrugated metal patches: crucifixes, candlewax stalagmites, perhaps communion wine. Maybe an entire small chapel. The sheds are on private land but you can read the signs from the street: Are these messages public or private? Are they a joke? I am not sure. I think about them a lot and photograph them furtively.

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II.

     In town I head to the Prescription Shop. I am a new customer, so while the clerk verifies my insurance information I get to browse the shelves. I find this in the gift section. Friend or foe? The curator has a sense of humor.

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     The artificial grapes in glitter bother me.

III.

     What are words? Meanings, a form of communication, something that affords the integrity of existence. Maggie Nelson wonders if words may be “one of the few economies left on earth in which plentitude—surfeit, even—comes at no cost.” But words can be misread, misspoken, misunderstood. Because of that when it comes to words I trust poets the most. Poets are parsimonious, precise: they know words’ worth. As a reminder I keep on my wall this gift from my friend Carlos Soto Román, a poet from Chile.

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     Anne Carson talks about unfinished lines in poetry as "the space where a thought would be, but which you can’t get hold of."

IV.

     In Philadelphia, another poet friend, Kevin Varrone, has been photographing the graffiti utility workers leave on walls and pavement. He calls it the Language of Infrastructure. He posts the images on his Facebook page so that they are visible only to his Facebook friends: a poignantly poetic inversion of the very public and indifferent into the private, the intimate.

V.

     Until recently I was fishing in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Senegal to research a book, and now I am at the parched exposed bottom of an ancient sea, in the Chihuahuan desert, in a small anchorage on a friend’s ranch in West Texas. I am here to write the book; I have been writing fourteen hours a day, with no days off. Words words words.

     There are no cattle on the ranch. Beyond it lies wilderness, high desert. On the ranch there are deer with translucent ears at dawn; a woodpecker metronoming the mesquite tree; owls by night. One morning, a javelina walks into my single-room house. Another morning, a blue grosbeak becomes so curious about the typing madwoman he ignores the window. Communications are encounters. The grosbeak: a blue note. I tell him about the sea on my page, the sea as blue as his mantel.

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VI.

     The Delaware Sea was once that blue.

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VII.

     Or maybe it was Homeric, wine-dark, like the sea almost four billion years back, when a multimillion-year-long rain was raining an ocean to cover the whole of Hadean Earth, cool it down. What was it like after that cloud cover thinned, lifted, and the sun shone upon the water for the very first time?

VIII.

     Another morning I watch desert sun burn dew off nopal spines. There was a lot of nopal in Senegal, on the beach, where my friends drydocked their pirogues. Nopal is an American native and in West Africa it is a relic of the transatlantic slave trade that began when Portuguese slave traders landed on those shores in the fifteenth century. A memento of one of the most depraved and indelible displays of greed in our history. Greed and bigotry: two of the things that make us human.

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     On both sides of the ocean, ripe nopal fruit will stain your fingertips with juice that runs crimson, runs bloodred.

IX.

     What are words? Semantic devices, symbols. The world speaks to us in symbols: bluebirds, nopal plants. There are no bad symbols just as there are no bad words: there are merely the billion hurts we inflict upon one another, the billion comforts we bestow.

     A friend tells me about a young man she met recently not far from here. His name is Amani; he is from the Congo and he drives an oil truck, delivers crude to a pipeline that runs it to refineries back east. Amani means “peace” in Swahili, and in the Congo—home to the deadliest conflict since World War II, with close to six million slaughtered and more than two million displaced—his name can only mean one thing: his mother’s desperate, aching desire, desire so consuming it had to be expressed literally, in a word. Peace, at least for him. I hope he is finding it in West Texas. I am glad to be secondhand privy to his mother’s sacred wish, that magic spell, becoming true.

X.

     Have I ever really left Africa? Has anyone? Some days after I arrive from Senegal I find, on the ground outside my writing shack, a cowrie shell. Like the cowrie one sorcerer gave me as a talisman, or the cowries another used to tell my fortune.

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     I think the Chihuahuan Desert is telling me: I am Africa, I follow you.

     Or maybe it is telling me: you are protected.

     Or maybe it is telling me nothing. It is simply offering up silence, space where a thought would be, space to think by.

All the Letters in Lisbon Spell "Saudade"

A haunting desire for an imaginary, impossible,
never—to—be experienced love

Look at me, he said, how can anyone want me?
His beard: an avalanche of honey
His name dark beneath my fingernails
Some days, when I catch my reflection in a mirror,
I think, Someone has hurt this animal
A desire with no future
I can't forgive his kindness
His voice: six hummingbirds nailed to a wall
A desire with no future
He held my hand
Once

I, too, have moved to Brooklyn

A photo essay

1.

For a long time, I used to make fun of writers who lived in Brooklyn. There are a lot of things about Brooklyn that are both funny and sad, but none more so than the density of writers per square yard. I was trying to explain it once to a Russian novelist, back in the old days. We were sitting at a table. “There are writers everywhere. If this table was in Brooklyn, you would look under it, and there would be a writer.” The novelist looked under the table, and said: “Like mushrooms.”

Last fall, I moved to Bed-Stuy. The building manager, a longtime resident, chose all the doormats. The doormats are all the same, or at least they were, at some point. This is the one in the front hall:

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Being a writer, I live alone, have few visitors, and rarely leave the house, so I am proud to report that my own personal doormat is still near-pristine and highly legible:

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With one thing and another, I don’t have the familiarity with the Book of Joshua that I might, and so, when I first moved into this unit, I sent a snapshot of the doormat to a friend who had studied in a yeshiva, with the text: "Should I be worried?"

"You should definitely be worried," my friend replied. "When Joshua says 'serve the Lord,' he basically means murder."

Well, my friend is very well read, but sometimes a tiny bit of an alarmist, so I decided to look up the quote for myself.

And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

With my optimistic outlook and interpretative skills, I eventually arrived at a reading of the text that suited my own purposes. Basically, I decided, it was about keeping a sense of perspective, without getting bogged down in the past and one’s own thoughts ("the other side of the flood"), or in the relentless shouting of capitalism ("the gods of the Amorites").

2.

Oh, I don’t leave the house often. I stay in the neighborhood. But every now and then I have to go to Manhattan for a meeting or something. On one such occasion I found myself in the subway station, filled with low-grade dread, when my eyes were drawn to this inspirational combination of text and image:

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There was something so celebratory and, well, explosive about it. It cheered me right up, helping me to put things into the proper perspective. I also found myself thinking warmly about whatever nameless commentator wrote "apocalypse" under "syphilis"—inviting the rest of us to contemplate which would be a better slogan: "SYPHILLIS EXPLOSION," or "SYPHILLIS APOCALYPSE." Sometimes, I thought one, other times—the other. Before I knew it, my train had come.

3.

I have taken up jogging.

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4.

We were not placed on earth for our pleasure alone.

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5.

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.

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6.

O furious! O confine me not!

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7.

Every day, a new beginning.

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8.

I saw this at night, on the way to the Brooklyn Bridge, and felt lucky to be alive.

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