If today’s newspaper were a living creature, it would come wrapped in a terrifying miasma of toxic effects. “Hot Zones Shift, Leaving No Hope for a Speedy End,” moans one headline, “Mystery Illness Linked to Virus Sickens Young,” screams another, and rounding out page one is an in-depth bleeding wound: “Trials of a Pennsylvania Street as Contagion and Fear Sped In.” Yet deep inside the guts of the paper, on page C5, is a heart beating wildly, “spellbound by desire and imagination.” Brought to us from an American poet named Wayne Koestenbaum, who I immediately imagined being friends with–he would be a prickly, intense, hilarious kind of friend, I think.
I seized upon the review of Wayne Koestenbaum’s new book, Figure It Out, the way a shipwreck victim might pull herself into a lifeboat, with relief and delight to be on familiar ground again, among the living. I love the whole article, and send out thanks to Parul Sehgal for such a fine interpretation of what must be a hard book to read. But it is the first paragraph that really got me:
“Here’s Something Strange: as babies learn to speak, they don’t merely imitate adult speech. They often produce phonemes—units of sound—not found in any known language: complex vowels, consonants and clicks. The linguist Roman Jakobson called this stage of language acquisition ‘tongue delirium’.”
TONGUE DELIRIUM! WHAT A DELIGHTFUL THOUGHT!
He goes on to discuss what that means when an adult tries to recapture it in writing, because that is Wayne Koestenbaum’s gift, noting Lewis Carroll among others.
“AHA,” I thought, thinking of my Alice in Wonderland quilts, and the happy moments spent with that book. There’s where we go next. So many choices!
There is the delightful song of the Mock Turtle, for example, which begins, “’Will you walk a little faster?’ said a whiting to a snail, / There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail. / See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance! / They are waiting on the shingle—will you come and join the dance? / Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?’”*
Or there is the impotent rage of the Red Queen, when Alice replies that she does not know the identity of the cards on the ground: “’How should I know?’ said Alice, surprised at her own courage. ‘It’s no business of mine.’ The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, began screaming, ‘Off with her head! Off with—’ ‘Nonsense!’ said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.”
The Mad Hatter’s song is very pleasant, sing it with me now: “’Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! / How I wonder what you’re at!’”
Let us all ponder deeply the Cheshire Cat. As Alice says, “I’ve often seen a cat without a grin, but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!’”
Of course, no foray into frivolous thoughts is complete without a few lines, at least from “Jabberwocky,” (from Through the Looking-Glass): “‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: / All mimsy were the borogroves, / And the mome raths outgrabe./ Beware the Jabberwocky, my son! / The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! / Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun / The frumious Bandersnatch!”
And lastly, “The Walrus and the Carpenter” must be read aloud RIGHT NOW!, so it can stick in your head all day long:
The Walrus and the Carpenter / Walked on a mile or so, / And when they rested on a rock / Conveniently low: / And all the little Oysters stood / And waited in a row. / “The time has come,” the Walrus said, / “To talk of many things: / Of shoes–and ships–and sealing wax–/ Of cabbages–and kings–/ And why the sea is boiling hot–/ And whether pigs have wings…”
(this right before he and the Carpenter ate them all with bread and butter. LOL)
I don’t know about you, but I feel refreshed! Those funny words created the effect of a “bain de mots” (word-bath, just as mingling with a group is known as prendre un bain de foule). A departure from grim headlines takes us back to a part of our brain that also needs companionship… the universe of unknown, imaginary, frivolous thoughts. Why not go there today?
(P.s. you just did).
Fyi, yesterday’s face masks:
*Lewis Carroll, song of the Mock Turtle, p. 102; the Queen’s rage, p. 82; the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, p. 73; the Cheshire Cat, p. 67; “Jabberwocky,” p. 148; “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” p. 185. From The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, ed. Martin Gardner, illus. John Tenniel (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000).