My first Oxford English Dictionary was given to me as a gift sometime in the late Eighties by a pair of young artists who knew I wanted to be a writer. A month or so later, short of money for rent or booze or coke or brushes, they asked for the dictionary back. By then, though, short of money myself for rent or booze or coke, I’d already sold it, netting $40 from The Strand, where I had worked for 89 days not long before.
My second Oxford English Dictionary was given to me as gift sometime in the early Aughts by my current companion, who, though sometimes broke herself, has not yet asked for it back. Nor have I sold it. Still, because I’ve been associated in one way or another with universities since she gave it to me, and consequently have had access to the Oxford English online, my own gathers dust on top of a bookshelf in the corner of the living room, against the fireplace.
A couple mornings ago, the internet misbehaving, I pulled the dictionary down. Actually, dictionaries, plural, as mine is a two-volume edition, A-O and P-Z. There wasn’t much dust, after all, as we have just recently moved. I did, though, find, when I pulled the volumes from their case, wholly inert, seemingly passed away, on the head of A-O, a brown marmorated stink bug. But as I tried to brush it into my palm, the bug, like a dervish, began a frantic flapping of its wings and rose in the air and for a moment hovered, spinning like an out-of-control helicopter. I watched it until it dropped, possibly exhausted, back down to the dictionary. Then I swept it into my palm and the bug allowed itself to be carried out the door and to the yard, where I set it under a freshly planted dogwood.
A few minutes later, I sat at the dining room table with the Oxford and some Carl Phillips books and a printout of Radiance Versus Ordinary Light, a collection of poems that Phillips has published over the years in The Kenyon Review. My first order of business was to look up in the Oxford the word “Guttering,” which is the first word in Phillips’s poem “Fascination,” from his book Double Shadow. Last week, my friend Natalie Shapero, on this blog, wrote about the poem.
But I couldn’t read the Oxford’s tiny print, not even with the magnifying glass provided in the drawer built into the dictionary’s case. Until the past year, I’d had perfect vision. I’d bragged of my ability to read in near darkness. I’d playfully mocked my own companion’s poor eyesight, her wandering the house in the early mornings like Gloucester, bumping into things, searching for the (unusually thick) lenses that would let her see.
After a long time trying with the magnifying glass to find the sweet spot—I’d start with my nose pressed to to the magnifying glass, which was pressed to the page, then slowly lift my face, the magnifying glass held to the tip of my nose; the blurring would recede, the text becoming clearer, more defined; slowly, slowly I’d lift farther from the page—no sweet spot emerged. That is, I’d go, as I rose from the page, from blurry to oh-so-close-to-clarity to a kind of double vision to complete incomprehensibility. Finally, I gave in and fetched the reading glasses I mostly refuse to use.
Guttering means, it turns out, on a literal level, exactly what “Fascination” needs it to mean: swealing, burning down, melting away. Here is the poem’s opening sentence:
Guttering in its stone urn from a century, by now,
too far away, the candle made of the room
I read that sentence probably four or five times before its meaning became clear. In fact, the entire first stanza of “Fascination” threw me for a loop through several readings. It was only after saying it aloud, very slowly, and then writing it out by hand, did I, on the level of syntax alone, “get it.” Eventually, I memorized the stanza, though doing so was not easy: its syntax, like much of Phillips’s syntax, traffics in the unexpected. The experience of reading him can be—is—viscerally dizzying, especially, on any given poem, the first or second go-around. Reading Phillips is an experience not unlike trying to find the sweet spot without reading glasses, the words—their meanings when strung together in particular formations—coming in and out of focus. But once that focus is achieved, once I’ve unblurred the text, I realize I may be reading perfect, if such a thing is possible, poems.
In my next post, I’d like to compare “Fascination” with a poem from Radiance, “Almost Tenderly.”