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On the small stuff.

A Fortnightly Review.


Of Discourse
By Giles Goodland

Grand Iota | pp300 | £13.50 $18.00

WHAT LINGUISTS CALL ‘function words’ make up only a small part of our vocabulary but they are the ones we use the most – words such as ‘it’, ‘those’, ‘despite’, ‘elsewhere’. What distinguishes these words from ‘content words’ is that they communicate little or no semantic meaning in and of themselves. Their function is grammatical and they are critical in enabling us to construct meaning from a sentence.

In Of Discourse, poet Giles Goodland, a lexicographer by profession, foregrounds such words. Each of the 213 texts in the book is based on a different function word. Goodland, who has long been fascinated by these kinds of words, accumulated a large file of examples of their deployment, including in his own writing. Of Discourse, a mix of prose and verse, was assembled from these many fragments. It is organised into 19 sections, each exploring a different aspect of grammar.

The poem structured around ‘is’, in the opening section, tells us:

Chair is to glue as assembly is to wedge language is speaking.
The adjective for inside is insidious as the noun for twerk is gesamtkunstwerk.

Notes and CommentThe humour of the second line is typical of Goodland’s writing. The etymologies of inside and insidious have no more connection than those of twerk and gesamkunstwerk (meaning ‘total art work’). Words make sense only in relation to other words, ‘chair’ and ‘assembly’ are structurally equivalent, as are ‘glue’ and ‘wedge’. This is language speaking to us.

Each line in the poem is a kind of aphorism, but don’t expect everything to make sense. ‘Language is the misunderstanding that sense is a possibility,’ the poem tells us. ‘Substance is the intimate cause of an aggregate effect: movement is an object.’

The difficulty of pinning down the meaning of the verb ‘to be’ has preoccupied philosophers since Aristotle. We know what ‘is’ means at one level, but what is ‘existence’? What is ‘being’? The verb describes a condition or state, rather than an action, something which simply ‘is’. The last line of the poem reads: ‘Is is is, is resolutely intransitive, verb in which nothing happens.’

‘Be’ and ‘being’ are the subject of texts in the second section. The former opens with a quotation from Descartes: ‘Matter I define to be substance divisible: spirit substance indivisible.’ This is immediately juxtaposed with the sentence: ‘Be valiant that the laws of Buddha not pose as stone’, reminding us of the pitfalls of trying to make fixed distinctions in language.

Two other verbs which serve as important function words are ‘can/could’ and ‘do/does’. The text relating to ‘could’ begins with a kind of narrative constructed from fragments of collaged text held together only by the repetition of the function word.

He could expect the following sequence of events: it could be the son is drunk as the voice of one who could be his dead brother draws him into the cemetery; he captures the voices from the departing train; his entire nervous system could be separated. He could not break himself of running after trains, though he laboured, but he made it home, and could sit on the sofa and stretch a cast structure and be happy. A certain kind of mobile life could be lived in a world of events, he thought.

The text based on ‘does’ is more of a discourse, posing a string of questions. It begins:

Does the noun exist in nature does Python support default states does the forest include does does not the essence of free will reside in deletion phenomena does Pope speak more of thought or expression does data mapping add to the poem does the energy come from the potato itself so what does the foregoing mean? The lover’s image does not fade into the traffic of silence edge lighting does not allow local dimming which does not presume that the poem is the vehicle for representing the travails of a discreet first-person subject

Selfhood is the topic of section 8, covering 21 function words from ‘we’ to ‘anyone’. A number of these pieces are like the ‘could’ poem quoted above:  non-linear, dystopian narratives about the subject, held together by constant repetition of the particular pronoun. The short poem ‘oneself’, in contrast, reflects directly on selfhood. Here it is in full:

Writing is the descent into the abyss of oneself
of driving, of constraining oneself to norms
to find oneself slowly achieved as a conquering image
another person begins to take hold inside oneself and
flowers define ‘us’ for oneself, for the tree and no metaphor
imprisoned in the nurse cell: oneself, one
begins deceiving oneself, and ends harshly
carrying the pip’s point of evil within oneself – one
has the right to demand the unexpected from oneself.
Walking is a way of leaving oneself to return to
oneself, a way of erasing by asserting
oneself or asserting
oneself through erasure – it’s a way of absorbing,
but so much is beyond and outside oneself,
it is easy to persuade oneself that backbone is stone
to assume for oneself the qualities of matter.

The ending here echoes the phrase ‘Be valiant that the laws of Buddha not pose as stone’, quoted earlier. These kinds of cross references run throughout the book.

Function words relating to time, space and movement provide the subject matter for sections 12 to 17. One of the interesting things about the poems in these sections is the way specific function words vary widely according to context. Section 16, ‘Of movement’, covers 25 words, more than any other section. These include words like ‘from’, ‘across’, ‘down’, ‘through’ and ‘onto’. In some cases, actual physical movement is indicated, but movement may also be metaphorical, or involve no movement at all. In the poem using ‘from’, for example, we have ‘ooze from the broken nettle stems’ (actual movement), but also phrases like ‘arise from mere chance’, ‘suffer from light pain’ and ‘arrive at death, from want of energy’.

The final section is called ‘Of nothing’, though curiously words signifying absence are often used to affirm a presence, as Goodland’s texts reveal. The first poem in this section states ‘the poem begins nowhere but not out of nothing’ — i.e. it arises from something. In the poem based on the word ‘not’ we have the sentence ‘our guts modify this to nothing that will not be shit’, the negative form here being used as a rhetorical device to emphasise the ‘shit’. The word ‘else’ is particularly interesting as it is primarily used to contrast ‘x’ and ‘non-x’ (as opposed to ‘nothing’), as in ‘a heartache that no one else can heal’. But it can also stand for ‘anyone’ as in ‘anyone else having problems?’ or ‘who else do you see?’ (i.e. is there anyone else you see?) It can also be rhetorical, as in: ‘What else would you do with a Monday night?’ The final line of the entire book reads ‘no doubt was possible’, i.e. it was certain.

Goodland has explored similar territory in the past, especially in What the Things Sang, published by Shearsman in 2009. That collection included several list poems, each line beginning with a function word or words, including ‘if’, ‘as when’ and ‘or’. The poems were assembled from quotations employing the particular function word. Of Discourse is a far more extensive mapping of this terrain.

The texts are ludic, baffling, funny, and thought provoking by turns. Goodland eavesdrops on language talking to itself, language in many registers from T. S. Eliot and Rudyard Kipling to computer manuals and the shorthand of texting (lol), connected only by a shared use of certain function words. In the poem based on ‘itself’, we’re advised ‘remember the line of association controls itself’, and ‘the sentence reads itself as we listen’.

SIMON COLLINGS lives in Oxford. His poetry, short fiction, translations, reviews and essays have appeared in a wide range of magazines including StrideFortnightly Review, Café Irreal, Litter, International Times, Junction Box, The Long Poem MagazineInk Sweat & Tears, PN Review and Journal of Poetics ResearchWhy are you here?, a collection of his prose poems and short fiction, was published by Odd Volumes in November 2020. His third chapbook, Sanchez Ventura, was published by Leafe Press in spring 2021. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. For more information, visit his webpage.

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