8/23/15 WORDS OF POWER. Words are the struck notes of the writer’s composition. Consider: “It is all excessive, violent, and at the same time full of tenderness.” These words appear on page twenty-four of To Live Within. Excessive. Violent. Tenderness. The words resonate individually and as a powerful chord hinting at the essence of being alive in Lizelle Reymond’s 1969 memoir.
In a book published last year, Robin Black plucks a power cord. “I always wanted to be powerful. In this decade, finally, I look powerful. I feel powerful. And I feel alone.” The repetition of the word establishes strength before the counter melody intrudes in Life Drawing: A Novel.
Words of power. Words powerfully used. Whether a book emphasizes action, plot, or character, words are what make it happen, and there are plenty of them to choose from. When Noah Webster published An American Dictionary of the English Language, in 1828, it numbered 70,000 entries, the same number as the 2012 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Unabridged dictionaries can contain ten times that number. A mere fraction of all those words are potent enough to be called soloists, words like rot, fiery, cringe, sleet, sultry, ooze, supple, delicacy. Most do their work in a grouping: a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett opens like this, with words unremarkable in themselves that find their power as a group. “When the lights went off the pianist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands. There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss. They did not see a kiss, that would have been impossible.” Not one of these words is singular. It’s the piling up that creates a certain melancholy in anticipation of discovering the why of the word impossible.
Arundati Roy builds up words that aggregate into a sadness more invasive than grief. In The God of Small Things, she writes, “The Loss of Sophie Mol stepped softly around the Ayemenem House like a quiet thing in socks. It hid in books and food. In Mammachi’s violin case. In the scabs of sores on Chacko’s shins that he constantly worried. In his slack, womanish legs.”
In Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, the unexpected combination of words creates an image that startles the mind awake. “I turned around, stepped over the zebra and threw myself overboard.”
In conventional use words can gathered into a description. In A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry takes the convention and refines it to create a play of the words bloat, bulge, distend, and bubble. “The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed. The train’s brief deception jolted its riders. The bulge of humans hanging out of the doorway distended perilously, like a soap bubble at its limit.”
Descriptive in a more visceral way is this sentence in Eva Lune by Isabelle Allende: “I remember very well, it was a rainy day; there was a strong odor of rotted melons and cat piss on the hot breath blowing from the street; the odor filled the house, so strong you could feel it with your fingertips.” In this case, every word is heightened by a companion word: strong odor, rotten melons, hot breath. Odor and strong repeat, insisting on their importance.
Virginia Wolfe draws a portrait of Mrs. Dalloway by letting her describe her own inner state, “She would not say of anyone in the world now that they were this or were that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” Ordinary words are repeated like the beat of the passing minutes.
The passage of time is poetic in The English Patient. Michael Odaatje writes,
“Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet. She wets a washcloth and holding it above his ankles squeezes the water onto him, looking up as he murmurs, seeing his smile. Above the shins the burns are the worst. Beyond purple. Bone.”
Later he writes, “Some nights she opened doors and slept in rooms that had walls missing. She lay on the pallet on the very edge of the room, facing the drifting landscape of stars, moving clouds, wakened by the growl of thunder and lightning. She was twenty years old and mad and unconcerned with safety during this time, having no qualms about the dangers of the possibly mined library or the thunder that startled her in the night.” Odaatje’s words are tender like water falling softly from the washcloth on the unspeakable pain of war and ruined bodies.
In William Shakespeare’s time, we don’t know how many words he had to choose from but he sure knew how to use them.
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.”
Macbeth’s lines are a primer on the ways of enriching language: repetition of common words like tomorrow and day, pairing of words petty pace and recorded time, and the powerful word death.
This essay first appeared on Late Last Night Books one year ago. It’s repeated today so the writer’s hand might recover from an excess of tenderness.