Experiments in Etymology: Things in Frankfort, KY

Brass Horse HeadLet us start with things. The very word – thing – is a word from the Old Norse, used in Scandinavian countries with the meaning of “meeting” or “assembly.” Thing described a gathering, not of objects, but of people. Interestingly enough, one of “thing’s” cognates is the Dutch word “ding,” which, in English, we recognize as a loud ringing, clattering, commotion. In a way, “things” are the bringing together of voices, people, noises, and actions. In this light, speaking of things as inanimate objects is almost trite, if not a complete etymological misappropriation.

Compare that definition of “thing” to the Latin word “res,” a stagnant object or matter. (In English, we think of “res” in so stagnant and dead terms that we have used it demarcate the the second tone of a diatonic scale from all others, fixed and immovable.)

So, let us begin here – with dings, things that are very much alive, shedding, and transfiguring on micro and macro levels. This past winter, Mary Love and I drove up to Frankfort, Kentucky, to the home where my great-great-aunt lived and died, a home filled with dings, no res.

The place was swimming with dings, three stories of closets, shelving, bureaus, cabinets, and old desks, packed neatly with anything and everything that might be useful (or perhaps just beautiful): 15-inch long tapered candles, old typewriters and sewing machines, silver, brass, and intricate lace work snipped and laid away by mothers and grandmothers. Train trunks, an 86-year old violin, glass paneled wooden bookshelves, and an array of serving ware from a bygone era.

Removing the things of another person, especially one you knew on some level, is accompanied by a distinctly uncanny sense (not quite voyeurism). I think this has to do with the fact that things, real and true things, have a part of their owner imbued in them, some intangible ringing that they carry with them outside of their natural place in the world. It’s a presence that can be felt.

There’s one ding that has resonated for me in particular, a brass horse head clip that bears the markings: 7-79 COPYRIGHT 1949 / HORSE HEAD, made by the VA. Metalcrafters in Waynesboro, VA. The clip can be used as a paperweight, mounted to  a wall, or for a number of any other purposes. But – as it is with things – its being isn’t wrapped up in its functionality. Rather, its essence is granted to it by the user…

As her caretaker says, my great-great-aunt carried this clip in her last few months, shuffling about the house, its great alloyed weight hanging limp in her weakening right hand. But what enthralls me – or maybe disturbs me, I’m not quite certain – is how she would push on the horse’s strained, forward-jutting neck, her thumb and forefinger working its click-clack-dinging like some tinny trap lashing back or the safety pulled off a handgun, this shuffling, dinging, thing-resonation of 99 years coming to an end.

And the stranger thing is, when you hold the horse head in your hand, you can feel the warmth of flesh come back to you in an almost unreal way, as if metals of a certain weight had some natural exothermic property, though we know this not to be the case. And yet you can feel it otherwise, you can feel it, this resounding ring, the thing shining forth, this meeting or assembly of a person, a time, an experience, and you right there in the palm of your warm, living hand.

Why Hyper Self-Awareness Doesn’t Translate

Oftentimes writers are too self-aware, writing phrases like “writers are too self-aware,” referring to themselves and really demonstrating but a pretense of awareness, for a truly self-aware person would strike through the line entirely – much less would he go back and add hyphens between his “aware self” as he composes the next relative clause and interrupts himself before finishing the first to question whether relative clause is the appropriate phrase, carefully noting in a parenthetical (parenthetical?) clause that it’s a good thing his computer is off and he can’t (we are in the third person right?) be bothered to reach for Strunk and White while composing a simple sentence.

By no means is self-awareness attractive, and almost certainly it’s not worthy of publication, and as you, the reader, who must witness it most insufferably for the second time in the matter of a few seconds, already know; it is but an exercise in the thought process of writing a needlessly convoluted and certainly grammatically incorrect sentence.

And, as evidenced, it simply doesn’t translate. Therefore, you, the writer, are kindly beseeched to cease and desist – in the spirit of a mixed metaphor – with your hyper self-awareness lest your blog become no more.

And, of course, no editor present or future need ever worry about receiving any such sentences like these ever again from this desk.

Though that sentence was presumably fine.

Heat Storms

It’s the kind of evening we call electric, though faced with such power, the meaning of our words begins to drift from the sky like the first soft spats of a storm. I’m paused for rest tonight in a valley south of Nashville, eyeing the silence of heat storms as they strike up somewhere far away from here. In sharp flashes, the sky becomes a shock blue the color of daylight. Scaly cirrus clouds like fishbones splayed against the surface of a still water shatter the humid air.

Driving north into town, the clouds begin to separate, and dark patches of night give rise out of the wind. As the highway lanes split before me, I remember driving into Georgia two Christmases ago, the roads suddenly turning to ice as fractured as the sky on this night. Feeling the asphalt give way to ice, my tires gave way to the careening, my body and the weight of the car together passing in slow motion, freeform, across lane after lane of traffic.

At home, at rest, the clouds are still bursting electric, purple fires and jagged cliff-like shapes in the sky. The first drops are falling, transforming the roads, the sounds, the passage of headlights. And only now is it appropriate to think of all the different energies and weathers a body might waver through before arriving into the other side of night.


I’m afraid of the things with you I might forget.

There was the player piano in Falls Mill, a quarter at rest on the wood, and in the memory I still have, a fine line of dust across it all. Amidst the old cookbooks and mounted firearms there was a stillness; there were feelings only born in a room filled with dust. A motion in my body dropped the quarter.

Some years we say spring bursts forth. Other years, we say nothing at all. This spring there was a rupture in the stillness, and the negative space was filling the room, drawing the trees, the stream outside into its powerful vortex. As the music became faster, it became louder, too, and it was as if you could see the corn dust dance and shake from the shelves above.

You can imagine the pounds of corn these people breathe each year, the pounds that are sucked in by the player piano that is never tuned. It coats the keys, the strings, the hammers. It becomes a part of everything here. In the quiet that has followed the music, I am hoping this corn has found a way into my ears, has settled in my brain like a fertilizer. I am wishing for rows and rows of cornfields in the tissues of my brain like a fecund field.

I think I will become hungry, and I will go there, and I will find you lying face down in a row of cornfields somewhere in my cerebrum, and I will say:

“See, don’t you remember the dusty player piano? Didn’t you think it nice, the cobwebs that could catch only corn? Wasn’t it beautiful when something started, and you could hear it without putting an ear to the ground?”

Life was effortless poetry.

Bringing Language Out of Silence

Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.

– Samuel Beckett

Is language a destructive force that taints? Is it one that must be reined in, a loose cannon in the night, a flock of birds in an empty field?

If this becomes our perspective, we must move with more caution than we care to have. The creative impulse is flattened, and language becomes a step, a mystic dance, and we are the outsiders.

Or, do we see language as a constructive force? Do we still use it — only when necessary — but move through it delicately? Do we approach language like a block of marble that hides a statue? Do we consider language as a grand removal, a process of creation that is only possible for those who know what not to include?

I see language as pre-existent, lurking behind every object, every event, every unseeable thing. When we use language properly, we approach an object, and we begin to draft it. We remove everything non-essential to it, we strip it down, and sometimes we take away its flesh by mistake. It’s a process that is only guided by practice, but a process that matures over time.

Beautiful language is in every word unspoken. It’s in every sentence not written.

And, then… it’s in the remainder.