When I was six, and my friend and I found a small cottontail—a baby, really—that my cat had caught and nearly killed (I remember it was bleeding), we knew to make a bed of lettuce in a basket. We knew that rabbits liked vegetables from reading the Peter Rabbit stories; we knew that our mothers fed us what we liked when we were sick; we knew that we could coo and sing to the baby rabbit to encourage even more healing. Our words could make the violence, its blood, go away.
The rabbit, with its small heartbeat and impossible softness, died, I’m now certain, of a heart attack, from the fear of us.
Even now, to recall that memory, it is my adult self rewriting that experience—an experiment in power and powerlessness, maybe—to make sense of it.
This is language making. This is crafting the world through words, standing in the intersection of form and function.
And this is where we meet Genine Lentine in her arresting chapbook, Mr. Worthington’s Beautiful Experiments on Splashes.
To read this book is to be lulled by the comfort and consistency of language making, only to have the inherent upheaval and disquiet of language itself. It is to pass through the spaces between authorial intent and reader reaction. The attention to form (to look at her careful poems split down the page is to know this) and function (what must we do with language? what must it do to us?) carves passageways—tunnels, really—into experience.
Poetry exposes precision. Language exposes imprecision.
The first poem in the book begins:
You are once again
I exclaim: To be and to remember being in one present moment, again and again—!
Lentine opens the door to familiarity.
And so, how I must begin is in pieces, in the things we create with language—sentences—and more specifically still, the four types of sentences in the English language. As Lentine disrupts language, she also consoles readers by using these basic structures.
You are once again rifling
the sixth floor supply cabinet.
Let her sleep, your brother tells you
as he dials the room phone.
Exclamatory: (or as near as we will get to it)
What you have
is this supply closet:
Not an equal trade for your mother,
but it’s something.
What are these cool white
waffle weave cloths , each folded
into its own cell ophane bag?
Why this long zipper?
Why this zipper the length
of y our mother’s body?
Just as we learn more—just as we begin to make sense of an ordered world—the language breaks, unzippers, opens to uncertainty. We touch the grief that the ordering of words has helped us avoid.
Readers are told: Declarative:
So much of this life is language making.
Go into this world. Make yourself a language to live within it.
How certain we feel with language to explain everything away!
What is this thing we have made?
Something of made of language is gone
even as it’s spoken.
I dreamed I was rinsing words from a sponge.
The violence of language is that it is not enough.
For Lentine, language seems to be breaking down while also building up. In her words, we find certainty, understanding of this strange life. In her spaces, in the line breaks and pauses, we confront uncertainty.
She says, imperatively now:
…Read the phrases aloud. Listen to that space where one phrase ends and
Big expanse of space. That’s what I say now.”
She cannot take the violence of language away, so instead leads us to view it, to meditate on the very thing we fear.
The Zen Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh urges his students to mediate on a dead body.
I find a dying rabbit in my memory. I do not recall my cat, my friend’s reaction, or where the body went—just the blood on a bed of lettuce.
Lentine finds the body bag that will be filled by her mother.
Our language is both what we are and what we make it. But the question remains: how do we write the desire to make sense of the senseless?
And my mother said, You won’t find me in code. Don’t look for me in the words of your child. She, who filled our house with talk, told me: Listen: If you want to know I’m there, just make yourself quiet.
Genine Lentine is the author of Poses: An Essay Drawn from the Model, Kelly’s Cove, 2012/g.e. collective (chapbook) 2010, and Mr. Worthington's Beautiful Experiments on Splashes, New Michigan Press, 2010, and, and co-author with Stanley Kunitz of The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden (W.W. Norton, 2005). She received an M.S. in Theoretical Linguistics from Georgetown University and an M.F.A. in Poetry from New York University. She teaches privately, and conducts an ongoing Writing Studio in San Francisco. Works-in-progress include Slug or Snail: An Assay on Velocity and Viscosity, and Love Serenade, and On Growth + Form, a series of poems based on the 1945 ecstatic natural history compendium by Sir D’Arcy Thompson.
Born and raised in the Sonoran Desert, Laura Maher is currently pursuing her MFA in Poetry at Warren Wilson College. Her work has appeared in Crazyhorse, The Blue Guitar Magazine, and Status Hat. She lives, writes, and teaches in Tucson, Arizona.