The Physicality of Language: From Hand to Mouth (Best of WH)

Anita Sullivan

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“Speaking as a poet, I have come to recognize that raw emotions are like rare natural resources: they must be actively mined through some extraction process with tools. They do not obey ordinary verbal commands or cues any more than volcanoes and hurricanes do and, like weather gods, their powers should not be fooled around with. Not surprisingly, humans seem to be constructed much like Earth itself: we have a seething central core, well insulated from the surface by various levels of relatively opaque matter (our brains, for example!). But there are vents through which the steam is regularly allowed to come up. I believe the ritual of oral storytelling and poetry was one of those vents, and one of poetry’s original functions. It is a function now basically obsolete.”—Anita Sullivan

The Highest Cauldron 

By Anita Sullivan

Immediately, my body began to shake beyond my control and my eyes filled with tears.

Immediately, my body began to shake beyond my control and my eyes filled with tears.

Anita Sullivan

EUGENE Oregon—(Weekly Hubris)—First Published on 1/4/2016—

I—Chaucer Stirs Things Up

One evening, I sat in the audience at a poetry reading, waiting for it to start. Other people were talking quietly, but I wasn’t conversing or paying attention to individual words, only aware of the general hum. Then, from directly behind me a voice began to speak slowly in a hoarse whisper:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour . . .

The first three lines from the “Prologue” of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were being spoken in beautiful Middle English dialect.

Immediately, my body began to shake beyond my control and my eyes filled with tears. I could hardly breathe. This was a very different reaction from the one I would soon be having when I listened to two poets read their contemporary lines.

I didn’t turn around to see who was behind me. The uncanny whisper ended abruptly after these three lines and never resumed for the rest of the evening. But I was stunned by the simple, almost brutal physicality of my response, as if I had been actually touched by these words, and I felt a need to think about the experience after I got home.

In what way can words alone become so physical? Daily, we exercise our human capacity to emit, absorb, and shape a variety of sounds with our ears, mouths, chests, stomachs; we are physically involved in regularly altering air. Words themselves are not objects. Yet listening to three lines of Chaucer, at that particular moment, was for me the same as being struck in the solar plexus by a stone. It was like being rubbed down all over my body, inside and out, with something uniquely rough and prickly. I had a physical reaction to something about those words that did not come from their meaning, nor from some passing resemblance to noises of predators, weapons, or the mesmerizing rhythms of drum beats. Several persistent questions refused to go away: Was this just a fluke brought about by an odd combination of circumstances? Did this used to happen quite often? And if so, where, when, why? Why doesn’t it happen any more?

Mine was not a secondary reaction, first processed by the conscious mind; it had little or nothing to do with meaning, rhythm, meter, assonance, alliteration, rhyme. This felt much farther down the brain stem ladder towards the visceral—and yet more refined at the same time—than that.

I had been unaccountably catapulted into to some kind of earlier human relationship with language. And it was neither a simple nor an unmindful one.

Chaucer’s words had to do with spring. Therefore, my response may have been pre-conditioned to be stronger than if he had been talking about a divorce or a fishing trip. Nevertheless, some combination of meaning, sound, rhythm, and the particular situation had conjured for me an original emotional experience; not simply evoked the memory of a previous one.

Speaking as a poet, I have come to recognize that raw emotions are like rare natural resources: they must be actively mined through some extraction process with tools. They do not obey ordinary verbal commands or cues any more than volcanoes and hurricanes do and, like weather gods, their powers should not be fooled around with. Not surprisingly, humans seem to be constructed much like Earth itself: we have a seething central core, well insulated from the surface by various levels of relatively opaque matter (our brains, for example!). But there are vents through which the steam is regularly allowed to come up. I believe the ritual of oral storytelling and poetry was one of those vents, and one of poetry’s original functions. It is a function now basically obsolete.

And yes, my brief experience with the first few words in Chaucer’s amazing poem was related to spring and, through the propelling “juice” of this season, I came into the rhetorical space that ancient poetry used to carve out for itself whenever people gathered for important rites and ceremonies. I could feel a seething in his words; I could feel the ancient, collective urgency and “riddlic fire” moving through his lines. I was connecting with the enormous tradition in ancient myth and story in which words, under the right conditions, can have actual power to bring up new matter into the world, rather than simply serving as a stamp of identification and approval afterwards.

So, the first thing I settled in my mind was that my physical reaction was not because I was remembering some event in my own past, one that the words had almost brutally yanked from my poor quivering unconscious mind. Poetry can do that too. But this was not about me—this was much older, like the language of original naming.

Naming in the Garden of Eden.

Naming in the Garden of Eden.

II—From Syllables to Names

If we’re going to treat words as if they were physical objects instead of mere puffs of air, we need to go way back in time to when people actually believed this sort of thing. In the ancient Hindu mythology of India, for example, the huge crossover from Nothing into Something was brought about by an “object” that resembled the sub-atomic particles of modern physics—that is, it was so “small” that people couldn’t perceive it with their senses, but only with their imaginations. And that object—too small to see with any magnifying device, too teensy to finger-roll like a grain of sand—they called “the syllable.”

In the typical paradoxical fashion of Vedic myth, the syllable—the very first physical object in the universe—was refined into existence by listing everything it is not:

. . . it is neither thick nor thin, neither short nor long, neither flame nor liquid,

neither colored nor dark, neither wind nor ether; it doesn’t stick, is without taste,

without smell, without eyes, without ears, without voice, without mind, without heat, without breath, without mouth, without measure, without an inside, without an outside. It does not eat and is not eaten.

Here, mythology and science are in agreement: this “basic object” is impossible to imagine, much less talk about, without resorting to metaphor. You have to make a second thing before you find out what is actually there first.

It’s like kids with mud pies. Fueled by the energy of a mindless enthusiasm, they start digging into the muck and scooping stuff out. Then they pile that stuff somewhere else. The place they started with turns into a hole. The hole is different from the new pile they have made. There’s no way to make something new without having two things going on at the same time.

Then what happens, of course, is that we all lose track of what is “first,” because it never really was the issue. So we’re left forever with both metaphor and whatever else we have also discovered—or made. This is the gods’ dilemma as well as ours.

Flash forward to our own era, and we have achieved a full separation between the physical and the spiritual, between the hard and the soft, the real and the imagined. Our syllables have glommed themselves into words, and these—although they have motivating power—we  place firmly on the non-physical side of the spread-sheet. For us, words possess only the relatively soft and temporary power that comes through meaning—or, at best, through the sounds and rhythms we might hear from preachers, politicians, poets and the like. While words might incite physical action, they do not possess the heft of the original syllable which, in the Vedic myth, was also the footprint of an enormous cow.

Yet words are not totally non-material, are they? Spoken and written they involve breath, shape, volume—and the weight of our hands.

As early humans huffed and spewed syllables and other vocal noises into speech, something like a word-attention capacity must have grown inside us until it swelled into a small appendage. Maybe we came to count on our words so much that we forgot how the rest of the world also has a language.

At the very least, the new requirements of listening in a different way to one another (Shall we say, talking more and more about less and less?) would have privileged the latent and subversive power of passive voice, going back to the time when we stood in the Garden of Eden being named.

This is the part that has fallen out of our origin myth: that initial moment when “we” felt the weight of our own animal name come gently down upon us like a cloak of office. I like to think that this act occurred with all our senses simultaneously combined into an enormous symphony of receiving—a kind of full-species epiphany.

Soon enough, we stepped out from the flat background of our former existence into a resonant space. We became anointed ones, beings who could simultaneously listen to and speak—words.

So stunning was this awakening of human consciousness that it hovers as a persistent theme in various mythologies, especially as a tale in which a creator god builds a set of living beings (like mud pies!), only to recognize, belatedly, that these creatures know as much as he does. Reluctant to destroy his beautiful creatures, he has to figure out a way to dumb us down. In many Central American native mythologies this is done by clouding the eyes of humans so they can no longer see as far as the gods, metaphorically expressed as “breath on the mirror.”

Eventually we newly-anointed, word-wielders began to name everything that was not us.

But naming was not as simple as it sounds. We didn’t just line up all physical objects into a row like soldiers and bark out a single noun for each. We all know there is more to language than just nouns. Words can shape-shift back and forth from verbs to nouns to adjectives, and everybody who has ever tried to learn a foreign language knows that people speak in phrases —in “clumps” of sounds—not in individual words.

And finally, here comes metaphor again. In early times, people apparently did not separate their language from their mythology. If a man in Siberia mentioned a branch near a fire, he might use a word we’d translate as “gnarled stick.” But the term he was using referred simultaneously to the kettle hanging from the branch and the whole surrounding area; its full meaning would be “the hearth of the horned mother-universe.”

A Tzutujil Mayan talking about a thirsty jaguar would refer to the animal as “a woman’s child of the Old Complete Being searching for the mouth of Our Mother because of the sharpness of Our Father’s Teeth.”

Names were not abstract; they were connected to an entire worldview with its long trail of stories.

This “packed” quality of words is beautifully expressed by the poet Osip Mandelstam:

Any given word is a bundle, and meaning sticks out of it in various

directions, not aspiring towards any single official point. In pronouncing

the word “sun,” we are, as it were, undertaking an enormous journey

to which we are so accustomed that we travel in our sleep. What distinguishes

poetry from automatic speech is that it rouses us and shakes us into

wakefulness in the middle of a word. Then it turns out that the word is much longer than we thought, and we remember that to speak means to be forever on the road.

Our language began as a bundle—every named object contained, curled inside, the enormous nuclear-fission power of its story. In their way of speaking, people in early societies acknowledged that certain fragments of that story would remain concealed and potent, like a compressed spring hidden by cloth or stone.

I believe language continues to conceal much of itself in exactly the fierce, bristling way described above, but in order to release the catch on its sprung powers we probably need to treat it more like a wild animal than a pet.

South African handiwork.

South African handiwork.

III—From Hand to Mouth

Sticks and stones may break my bones

But names will never hurt me

To regard language as physical, we need to notice our own weight in the world. We are more than the mere lumps we would be if “being” were the only verb and “doing” did not exist. For humans, developing the capacity for language involved additional ways of doing—with both our voices and gestures.

A common assumption is that human language was oral long before it was written. Many mythologies privilege “the Word” as the origin of the universe, by which they usually mean a sound as well as a meaning (a different idea from the Sanskrit syllable). If we assume language is a thing that can have a beginning, and that humans existed for a while without it, then at some point a unique human attention capacity was mysteriously activated by something we were doing with our bodies, not just our voices. We began to feel the tension between the “soft power” of meaning and the spontaneous daily physical acts of bellowing, grunting, clapping, gesturing, jumping, grimacing, pointing, hissing, etc.

For some reason, we began to want more specific results from these familiar gestures and noises. Gradually we worked them into a full-bore language. Our voices especially seemed to intrigue us, so we taught ourselves to sing and to pronounce. At the same time, though, we were dreaming up new tasks for our hands.

So far as we know, humans have been making meaningful marks with their fingers dipped into various gooey mixtures for countless eons. We’ve also used tools to scratch marks onto sticks, bones, and rocks; we have drawn lines in the dirt but also onto just about any surface that would sustain the impression, including of course, our own bodies.

Peoples all over the world who do what we call “rock art” (in Australia, going back at least 50,000 years, and possibly of a similar age in parts of Africa) have generally called it “writing” rather than “art.” There is no consensus among archaeologists, art historians, and the participants themselves as to what these marks signify, but it is generally assumed that they were not random doodling exercises.

Rather, people were communicating something either local and practical (“Here is a dangerous whirlpool.” “There’s water in a little tunnel nearby.” “This is where the landslide happened 17 moons ago,”) or were speaking a kind of pidgin-code that allowed adjacent groups to exchange information without speaking the same language. They may also have been communicating with the spirit world.

All of this was language, but it was silent—analogous to sign-language perhaps—but in any case a visual code to make complex connections with other people, with the larger world, and with the cosmos.

I believe that writing and speaking developed simultaneously, neither “emerging” from the other, but superimposed, intertwined in a huge variety of ways. This allows for a kind of whole-body understanding of our language development rather than confining it mostly to our heads.

Besides rock writing and other meaningful marks on objects hard and soft, there exists an entire language of gesture that we inherit and practice from our pre-hominid ancestors, which we loosely refer to as “body language.” Gesture is refined into a highly articulate speech called sign language, and who is to say that humans with full hearing capacity did not communicate this way, deliberately and with great complexity, in many early cultures? Dance, mime, the martial arts, and entire sets of specialized, coded motion patterns (tea ceremonies, for example) offer ways for humans to extend the physicality of language beyond the vocal.

The silent part of our speaking, though, especially involves the hands, with their huge complex of nerve-endings, tendons, and skin sensitivities.

Axel Munthe, a Swedish physician who wrote a best-seller in 1929 about his life, was awed by the mute healing power of the human hand. Speaking of his dying patients, he said, “Why, even after the power of speech had gone and the terror of death was staring out of their eyes, did they become so peaceful and still when I laid my hand on their forehead?”

And then, this wise physician continued:

One day, one of my best friends [then in the lunatic asylum] hit me on the back of the head with a hammer he had got hold of in some inexplicable way, and I was carried unconscious to the infirmary. It was a terrible blow, my friend was an ex-blacksmith who knew his business … . As I lay there in the infirmary a whole week with an ice-bag on my “head of a bear” and no visitors or books to keep me company, I began to think hard on the subject, and not even the blacksmith’s hammer could make me abandon my theory that it was all in the hand.

At this point, I feel myself wanting to shout “from hand to mouth!” and here’s why: the human hand is amazingly sensitive in both giving and receiving the highest and most concentrated of human energies. Dumbly, it moves across surfaces and, inside our bodies, explosions take place.

“Things have their secrets,” said Heraclitus over 2000 years ago.

“What you touch knows what you think,” wrote poet Daniela Elza in 2013, as if in reply.

And more recently, continuing this conversation, Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa, author of a book called The Thinking Hand, said in an interview, “There is a rather wide agreement in science that our amazing hands are not products of our spectacular brains, but we have our amazing brains due to our spectacular hands.”

Through aeons of “handiwork,” through a variety of finely practiced acts of touching, the hand —the healer’s, the laborer’s, the lover’s, the artist’s—has acted as a transformer, taking in the unvoiced secrets of things and transferring the shape, form, force and full body of them into an emotional response within us. We are then able, with our minds, to translate that response into words. Voila! We have changed one element into another; we have made electricity from coal and fire; we have translated the physical world into language.

The “pure fool”: Parsifal.

The “pure fool”: Parsifal.

IV—Chaucer Has the Last Word

For this was on Seynt

Valentynes day

When every foul cometh ther

to chese his make,

Of every kind, that men thenke may

So Chaucer says, midway through his poem Parliament of Fowls as he launches into a kind of naming frenzy, or catalogue of all the birds who have come together to choose their “makes” (mates). The last line has been translated  as “all kinds that have a name that men can say,” and also “of every species that men know, I say.” In any case—and looking back to the original above—it seems to me the words contain a tantalizing ambivalence, an implication that naming is a limited power. Which could imply that there is more to language than just an endless telling.

Here, in the final section, I want to return to the original conclusions I allowed myself to jump to after reacting so strongly to a few lines from the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: 1) Words sometimes seem to bypass the mind, and affect a person as if they had been touched, shaken, punched, lightly stroked, etc.; 2) That language can, will, and should routinely have such a direct, hands-on power is knowledge that humans once shared, but lost somewhere in either history or pre-history.

Let me address these issues again with a final question: When do words become a new experience, instead of simply evoking, narrating, describing—a previous one?

For such an experience to happen I believe the timing needs to be exactly right. A crack needs to open between what is spoken and what is understood. This, of course, happens almost every time people talk to each other, but mostly we shrug it off because we assume language will smooth over the cracks. Now and then, though, we need to notice that crack just at the moment it’s closing, and to be puzzled enough to keep it open just a fraction of a second longer than usual.

During that brief time, two possible outcomes tremble in the balance: we relax and figure, oh well, once again we’ve mis-understood (I thought you said “a searing man,” when of course you must have said “a seated man”); or we recognize that a new arrangement of events has just occurred (“Yes, my ex-husband did have a certain kind of vigor, come to think of it.”) and seize a rare opportunity to expand our precious cache of experiential knowledge.

This can be painful, like getting a shot or even a blood transfusion.

If you think about it, how often do you actually learn something that doesn’t involve simply connecting another link to what you already know? Once a person grows into adulthood, the “tacking-on” way of learning has become so ingrained that we easily fall in with it, not realizing that it carries as a side effect, a kind of numbness.

Hearing the opening lines of Chaucer’s “Prologue” allowed me to re-experience an initial connection with the world. I felt as if I were being offered a gift, neither despite nor because of how I had led my life. I heard these words as the first way that something essential would be spoken. The words filled the crack like a physical continuation of what they were speaking about, and I could fully take it in. It was like a beautiful embrace; no, it was a beautiful embrace.

Well, of course there is no way to experience something for the first time more than once!

To realize, even briefly, an original physicality to words after so many centuries of developing a more distant relationship, must involve the prefix “re-” (as in “remember,” “renew,” “redundant,” “repeat”). But blessedly since the “we” that each individual person embodies, since that “we” is historically prone to spells of communal forgetting, I believe humans have lived for centuries in a chronic state of depletion—call it spiritual, imaginal, visionary, all of the above—without realizing it. Almost as if we grew up too fast, or came out of the garden too soon.

So easily, if we allow ourselves, can we drop into a childlike, “Garden of Eden” frame of mind. I believe each of us harbors such a “place” deep within ourselves. Yet this is not the same as a tabula rasa, because each human does come into the world already possessed of an enormous “basic education,” a set of structural and topographical intuitions we’ve imbibed, and even honed while in the womb and continue to develop at a rather wild rate for at least the first few years of our lives. 

Because this part of us has never named anything, it holds the innocent power of perpetual readiness. In order to learn something truly new, it is probably necessary to find a way back to this place where a passionate curiosity consumes us utterly, yet we are not impatient; we’re ready and willing to keep reconfiguring the world. This theme occurs in many stories and legends (for example, the Parsifal tales of medieval Europe).

By luck or by accident, we can find our way into that place of wildness inside ourselves and hear old words spoken as if for the first time. And although we are accustomed to consider “language” to refer only to spoken and written words, which in themselves pack a wallop less than a wet noodle—a person might yet seek out and feel the sparking that happens each time the crack closes between worlds. It is in this split-second range of almost-not, not-quite, just-before, could-have-been-something-else-just-as-easily (didn’t I just fly for three seconds?) —where the marvelous hammer-blow of essential enchantment lies.

Note: This essay was first published in four parts in the Portland, Oregon literary e-zine VoiceCatcher on these dates: May 6, 2013, June 3, 2013, July 1, 2013, and August 5, 2013.

Illustrations: “The Opening of the Fifth Seal (The Vision of St John),” by El Greco; “The Garden of Eden,” by Lucas Cranach the Elder; South African sandstone rock art photo by Evelyn Mervine; and “Parsifal,” by the Chicago Lyric Opera (photo by Todd Rosenberg).

To order Anita Sullivan’s books, Ever After and/or And if the Dead Do Dream, click on the book covers below.

Sullivan Ever After

Sullivan And if the Dead Do Dream

Anita Sullivan

About Anita Sullivan

Born under the sign of Libra, Anita Sullivan cheerfully admits to a life governed by issues of balance and harmony. This likely led to her 25-year career as a piano tuner, as well as her love of birds (Libra is an air sign), and love of gardening, music and fine literature (beauty). She spent years trying to decide if she was a piano tuner who wrote poetry, or a poet who tuned pianos. She traveled a lot without giving way to a strong urge to become a nomad; taught without becoming a teacher; danced without becoming a dancer; and fell totally in love with the high desert country of the Southwest, and then never managed to stay there. However, Sullivan did firmly settle the writing question–yes, it turns out she is a writer, but not fixed into any one category. She has published two essay collections, a novel, two chapbooks and one full-length book of poetry, and many short pieces in journals. Most recently she published Ever After, a novel that takes place after life but before death, mostly on the Greek island of Ikaria. Every incident in the book happened to her in a slightly different form: she always writes from direct experience. Even more recently (November 2016) Sullivan published a chapbook of poems, And If The Dead Do Dream. True to her Libra roots, it has a theme of parallel worlds.
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4 Responses to The Physicality of Language: From Hand to Mouth (Best of WH)

  1. Avatar diana says:

    Wow! What an essay, so many incredible thoughts and ideas packed into it. Bravo, Anita. This is a keeper than demands and deserves reading and rereading.

  2. Avatar Anita Sullivan says:

    Thanks, Diana — this essay took me a long time to “cook” and “distill.” I deeply appreciate you taking the time to read it, that means a lot to me!

  3. Avatar Linda Seidel says:

    Such an awesome & inspirational; THE PHYSICALITY OF LANGUANGE:FROM HAND TO MOUTH!

    I so related to all that you wrote!

    Linda Seidel

  4. Avatar Anita Sullivan says:

    Thanks, Linda. Feel free to write to me in more detail, if you wish.

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