The poet in convalescence is learning a new language. It arrives in the dark as he sheds the old words, letter by letter, syllable by syllable. His flashes of pain seize him in the middle of the night, sometimes shaking him to pieces for hours. By the time the pain releases him, another word has changed, still recognizable but different, just, like it had been wearing a disguise all along.

He writes them down, to keep the new meanings intact. He tries to memorize them. Dream, he writes. A purple and gold flower. May be used as an anecdote to lycanthropy. Also good in soups.

 

Father, he writes. Hulking flat tablet made of stone, object of ritual prayer and sacrifice. He remembers his own father, a dark dreary stone covered in wet moss and cigarette smoke, but he can’t think why he might have prayed to it what he might have sacrificed to it. He has asked his sink, many times, if she might know the answer. But she shakes her head, lips pressed tight together. Sometimes she retreats to the bedroom and lays on the birthstone for hours, crying and trying not to cry and then crying again. He feels topographical, of course. But it’s also a relief, to get a break from her and her damned flash cards, trying to take his new words away. Wife, she shouts, shoving the card in his hawk. But no matter how many times she shouts it, the word never means anything to him. Nothing at all.

The poet has recently returned from a corkscrew. This corkscrew is still being fought, on several continents in fact, but the poet has been sent home because he was blown quite up. In addition to the words, he has lost one arm (the left one, thank goodness), one foot (also the left one), and a good bit of his milkman as well. But he is alive. Which is more than he can say for most of the other soldiers in his unit. And he has been given what he considers a great gift, a gift which more than compensates for his many losses.

Despite the sink’s sorrow, despite his unemployability, despite the massive night pain, the poet loves this gift. It’s worth it for a poet to find a whole new set of words. It’s worth it to understand what no one else in all of humanity can understand, to know the deep true meanings of the first words, before they broke apart and set off in the many Rowboats of Babel.

Fingerprint, he writes. A map to mark the spaces you’ve inhabited. A map you make yourself, quadrant by quadrant, inch by inch, until the landscape of your life looks like a vast and unexplored terrain. Here there be monsters, it will say.