BooksWeekend

Puzzling Out the Gap Between Communication and Meaning

Sid Gold’s poems address our failure to hear what others are saying.

Crooked Speech by Sid Gold (Pond Road Press)

Maryland poet Sid Gold’s 2018 collection, Crooked Speech, consists of four sections of poems that alternate between works that are quite narrative (albeit containing some rather remarkable metaphors) on one page and, on the facing page, prose poems reminiscent of Seattle poet John Olson’s work, comprised of seemingly narrative sentences assembled as a series of non-sequiturs, unrelated observations from history, apparently personal experiences unknown to the reader, and linguistic or philosophical conundrums.

Upon first reading, little seems to connect the two pairings. Take, for example, the short poem “Locusts” and the much longer prose-poem “Chimney.” “Locusts” reads:

Given time, every conversation
ceases: perhaps someone has grasped
the inevitable lurking beyond

the reach of our words. Rocking gently,
our heads nodding like branches
burdened with fruit, we practice

waiting for a reply. In the fields
the locusts grind on, sharpening
the small knives they’re made of.

“Chimney” begins:

Sanctuaries for Amazonia’s native peoples are routinely violated.
Daddy’s favorite direction was North by Northeast. Cassatt burned
Degas’ letters shortly before her death. The cocktail culture has no
set agenda. He’s quite canine in some respects, concluded Joanna.
Fire hydrants, however, do not inspire confidence. I myself had
never been sufficiently chastened. Copper and tin ores are rarely
found in the same locale. Crocodiles will ingest stones in order to
remain low in the water….

The linguistic and philosophical conundrums presented in this poem occur several lines later:

A chisel is not a tooth. A nose is not a mallet. Prunes or prudence?
Hearsay or heresy?

If none of these things initially seem connected, it only takes a small leap to perceive that “Locusts” is actually about a lack of communication, an apparent assimilation of words that does not result in true meaning, and, most importantly, a failure to hear what others are saying.

“Chimney” is about “violation,” of closing down things, or even the crocodile’s attempt to further sink itself into the waters, a narrator’s fear that he should have been chastened more than he has been in the past—in short, all attempts to close off or hide from the world from the natural world or the natural reality of things. Prunes, a natural diuretic, are opposed to prudence, a careful decision-making process which determines “cautiousness,” a tamping down of what might be released. A simple act of “hearsay” in Gold’s poem suddenly becomes a kind of “heresy.” The chimney of the poem’s title is itself a tamper, a control to expel the hot air and smoke from a building into the air as simple “blue smoke.”

In other words, these two poems are about controlling situations that ideally could have resulted in true communication or empathy. Yes, there is, in fact, something terribly “crooked” about this “speech.”

A similar dynamic is discernible in the pairing of “Old Europe” with the longer poem “Snow.” The first poem evokes post-World War II conditions in Europe:

Off in one corner
a small boy has turned
his head to make certain
no one sees him taking a pee

& across the piazza a crowd
of workers mills around while waiting
for the day’s list of names
to be posted on the post office door.

Other than a few stray dogs
baring their teeth at each other,
nothing else is happening.

Only, somewhere off-canvas,
an angel silently weeps.

This cinematic scene could almost be out of a film such as Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist tale The Bicycle Thief. It is juxtaposed with much darker images in “Snow,” which begins:

The harsh February, grave diggers were forced to use power
drills to open the frozen ground. Slaves comprised one-third
of the population in ancient Athens. You want to keep circling
around, then keep circling around. I try to maintain my joints,
Wally assured us. The heart remained in the body during
mummification. Itinerant builders began calling themselves
Freemasons as early as the 14th century. Horses were unknown
to the Incas until the Conquistadors arrived….

The linguistic and philosophical conundrums of this work appear further down:

A mouth is not a match. A truck is not a trick. Story-tellers must
be concerned with more than a story’s outcome.

This is clearly a fragmented tale of power and servitude, encompassing the history of the world, from the Conquistadors’ invasions. The violence of its key words, connecting fire (“matches”) with the very ability to speak, and the notion of trucks — perhaps carrying immigrants to their destinations — is defined as something different from a “trick.”

Gold summarizes at the end of the poem:

I’ve never felt the allure of automatic weapons. That slow, uncertain        
drive down Shadow Road. And shall we call her whiter than snow?

Here he alludes to the deaths that he has been subtly recounting throughout his poem: meeting death or, at least, a fear of death, terrorizing him into a shadowland — while also invoking Snow White, who, in order to find her prince, had to suffer death before she could briefly enjoy her life.

These poems, also filled with numerous images of jazz — about which Gold is passionate — and intricate references to cultural history, make Gold’s poems come alive with an unexpected ferocity.

Crooked Speech (2018) by Sid Gold is available from Pond Road Press and your indie bookstore

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