A B C
D E F
G H I
J K L
M N O
P Q R
S T U
V W X
i n d e x
is for Bestiary
Backta Vagen, yells my mother, yanking me backwards. It means, quite
simply, Back off! Car. I shouted it across the street to a startled American
classmate. The car whizzed past and the last fragments of my mother's language
were exhumed as I stood, baffled by their antiquity, her rust in my mouth.
Baring one's teeth and retreating is an animal response. C begins with the
menacing hiss of sss and then the high-pitched wail of the eeeeee. It is
us, backing off from all that is crazed, the entire curve of our backbones
distorted by fear.
Wystan, my brother, lets out a small cry.
The sound of e is the sound of failure, high-pitched screaming. I and my
mother read a book with cardboard pages. The sentences are stiff.
Tom Thumb is a small boy.
The hand is a finger toy.
My mother shuts the book. She puts her hands to her face; I'm wondering
if she is going to cry. Instead, my mother's thumb and index fingers form
a closed rectangle. Through this, she looks at me as through a telescope,
unblinking: I spy with my eye.
I cup my hands together and look back at her. Our eyes meet.
Blackberries are soft.
Pears, plums, oranges are firm.
The pig is in the sty.
The apple has a worm.
You're the apple of my eye.
F is for Father
Violence, force, the white heat of anger and dizziness pulled out and displayed.
That is why the 'F' begins words as 'fuck' and 'father'. Each bout of anger
must begin again. My mother stands up. She's lost so much weight I think
of the woman who's sawn in half. Entire sections have been misplaced. She
pulls out all her clothes into heaps on the floor. She sits, lost in her
clothes. She hasn't washed her hair or cooked in days. She looks at my fingernails
and her own. They're rimmed with dirt.
Wash them, she says, go wash your hands. Our father has been gone for two
weeks. He's scheduled to arrive tonight. My mother wants to be gone before
he arrives but she must sort out all the bills, her belongings and letters,
her failure. Before he arrives, she takes a shower, changes her clothes.
This time, she's prepared.
Jonathan, do you think I'm bad? This is what my mother asks me as she starts
packing. It is autumn. The sky is so blue I don't understand what she is
Where are you going? I ask. I'm going too.
No, you've got to wait for Daddy. I'll be back.
The dual sound embodies the notion of duplicity, the inner pleasuring of
a transvestite. Outwardly, it has the guttural effort of the brusque 'hard'
g. This hard 'g' is a buffoon, a mock-up of a gangster, a pimp. The soft
'g' inside is an effeminate whisper--utterly harmless in its gauzy attempts
to actualize the fantasy of woman. It rarely succeeds. It is used in moist
words such as 'gentle' and 'genitals', ineffectual words such as 'geraniums'
or 'genial' but, usually, the actual woman 'J' pushes it aside, questions
its legitimacy or 'genuineness'.
Shapewise, 'G' echoes C, but it curls its tail inwards. I remember one afternoon
watching my brother Wystan depilate his legs.
H is a letter of self-denial, hiding behind a mock-sneeze. The weakness
of this letter is apparent in its promiscuity. It couples with various letters
such as 't', 's', 'p' and 'c', creating absurdly humpbacked sounds. By itself,
it has no backbone. It takes the breath out of you entirely to say the sound.
It is the motion of disgorging, having the wind knocked out of you.
Hertzsprung-Russell, Demeter (1949----
The tail of this letter lifts upwards in a small query, a faint hope. Refused
legitimacy or equality--note that its top is firmly stoppered--it puts its
root into the ground, seeking ascendancy through wiles, jokes, the tenderness
of manipulation, the submissive wag of the tail.
Marilyn tells me the story of Jonah, a man who is at first fearful and proud.
Jonah tries to sail away from Nineveh and the Lord himself. After a few
days in the belly of the whale, Jonah wags his tail and bares his belly
before the will of the Lord. But, in her version, Jonah never goes back
to Nineveh. Instead, he sails off into the sunset.
Once they arrive at Beirut, my father puts Marilyn on a strict allowance,
just enough for food and clothes. He's learned his lesson from my mother.
He wants to see receipts and itemized bills. Marilyn begins to have a shifty
look about her. I catch her lying several times; I know she's hiding something.
I tell her I'm clearly on her side so she tells me her secret: she is slowly
piling up her own stash. She calls it egg money. My father never confronts
her but he knows and they wage their silent battle. For instance, a large
T.V. might be delivered to the house.
Marilyn looks helpless. Are you sure he didn't pay for it ? It's not
a mistake ?
The delivery man gives her a small note in my father's hand. It says, encouragingly,
Go ahead, Marilyn, you can pay for it.
Why don't you call your parents? I say. Ask your parents for money.
They wouldn't give me a cent. They want me to send them money, she says
bitterly. Besides, your father has my bank account and my passport.
But it isn't really that Marilyn can't run away. It's that she has nowhere
to run to. She's got one bad knee and two young children and this imbalance
causes her to walk in a circle right back to my father.
L is the bane of the stutterer, the child outlining its cleft palate; it
consists of the tongue briefly licking the ridge on roof of the mouth. Tentatively,
we speak of loss. The delicacy of the sound is used to lace cruder concepts
such as leer or lechery with a delightful swirl reminiscent of Benedictine
liqueur. The pleasure of the tongue touching the palate is that of a sweet
dissolving in the mouth. So we savor lewd, lick, linger, longing and lulled.
This self-caress is also why love fascinates us, why we repeat it to others
at heady, inappropriate moments, draining it as gamblers drain their luck.
Lastly, L is most irresistible when paired with the sibilant S--this fully
explains why we spend a third of our lives in sleep, the remainder on lust
or even less.
Lunging, Loss, Light and Leaning.
My own mother used to take me on her lap, almost suffocating me as she held
me to her, rocking back and forth in the dusk. I would ask what was wrong.
She would say, Lessna .
M draws itself painfully up on two legs and manages to stand. Therefore
M is the patron of words that imply a task or duty that is difficult to
satisfy or fulfill. M is for Marilyn, my step-mother. M is for Marenna,
a good friend. M is for Maria, my ex-wife. M is for Moving.
The second time my mother runs away, she doesn't take much at all: only
two loosely packed suitcases, one in either hand. Travelling, I realize
the wisdom in this: if there is too much luggage, you get caught. If one
side is too heavy, you keep veering like Marilyn. If you keep veering, you
never reach your destination.
Marenna (1931-- )
My own affair
Mother (1920--1957) Russell, Marilyn
Note that N is a fragment--a rib of M. It waives responsibility by disabling
itself. Thus, words that begin with 'N' are almost weightless, elusive:
Njinsky, nothingness, nearly. Consider my brother kicking both my father's
legs until the man slumps. Wystan and I are the straight lines, carrying
our slanted father towards the car.
P is the letter of disdain, an exhalation of contempt, spitting out: Pah.
That is why we cannot speak of our 'pain' without a certain amount of irony,
for, in expressing it, we are opening ourselves up to the ridicule inherent
in the phonetics.
My brother had a brilliant yellow umbrella with a handle that was a roughly
textured orange, the color of a chicken's foot. The umbrella itself was
a small sun and we gloated beneath that sun in our artificial heat, huddled
together because it was so small it hardly covered one person. Sometimes
Demeter would join us and we would stand in the thunderstorm together, the
yellow light glowing down on us, the rain hissing, wetting our backs, the
faint rumble raising the hairs on the back of our necks. I wish I could
pull that umbrella out of my mind and open it for you. It is a perfect example
of primitive happiness.
Just as Q attempts to go beneath, T desperately struggles to stay on the
surface. Thus touch and talk, titillate, titter and travesty.
When the repressive comes in contact with the corruptive H, it realigns
itself into a hypocrisy. Thus we have thanks, thoughtfulness, theoretically,
theology, thorough, Thalidomide and threat.
We also have Theodore Russell, my father, nicknamed Tito.
U insists that you shape your lips into a kiss. But the words themselves
are somber, concerned with creating ghetto boundaries: Undo. Unusual.
Ugly. Unhappy. Used. Unravel. Umbrage, Underneath,
Then we have stranger words such as undulate, ululate, but these
words, like a U-turn, come back to us and the sound itself brushes the soft,
fleshy uvula suspended from our palate.
W is a strangely moving letter. We form it by drawing our lips together
for an O but then suddenly slackening the muscles: weary. Even the
'h' cannot invigorate it: it sounds exactly as it did before, as in the
negligent 'whatever', or entirely falls back to leave the 'h' alone, as
This wistful quality of the 'W' can be seen even in relatively simple words
such as woe, whittle, willful, wirra, wisp, wanting, wince, wouldn't,
wingless, wayward, whiffle, wellaway, widdershins, wellies and the reoccurring
why? that confronts exposed lies.
Creatures that exist under the sway of W are similarly homely: worms,
wildebeests, water buffalo, wombats, and walruses, or utterly
slight: the cream-crowned widgeon, whippoorwill, woodcock, whooping crane,
widow-bird, whorelet, whimper and warren.
It is also the home of my older brother, Wystan, otherwise known as Jonathan,
better known as myself.
There is no W in the Swedish alphabet.
I ask my mother, Why?
She shrugs then says, What? Why? Who? When? What's the point?
This glyph is synonymous with poison, the letter itself is a curse; the
sound is strange and lifeless: one is pushing the 'k' onto 's'; this unlikely
fusion falls apart. Thus we have xenophobia, and xerosis is when our skin
flakes off due to abnormal dryness or aging. Xenon refuses to merge with
X-rays push aside the impenetrability of the flesh, and the xyster is a
surgical instrument used for scraping bones.
When we are no longer in love, the former object of our desires is also
referred to as our 'X' and we scratch out sap and numbers with this same
With a bright blue marker, I have marked an X on Ventura.
At first glance, there is something wildly exuberant and foolish about the
'Y'--we have Yes-men, yeti, yentas, yahoos and yakuza. One looks foolish,
unhinging the jaw to release this yabbering, yammering, yackety-yak; one
yawls, yawns, yawks, yodels, yowls and then, as the sun shifts from today
to yesterday, Y takes on a quieter note by yielding, yearning, again: yes,
yes and yet I have hardly touched on my subject; I have been swept farther
and farther away. Perhaps it is time to simply give up the idea of returning
home. I should place the heart down at this strange forked juncture. I should
call Anna back but I'm too angry and tired at her joke, her stab at humour.
Look at how effortlessly we have arrived at the end. When I come to Z, she
says, Stop. The English alphabet stops here. I am surprised: it's so short.
Truncated, it does not even reach the floor. Instead, it hangs suspended
by a breath, lazily twirling clockwise, then counterclockwise, perpetual,
i n d e x