Books we love
One Word: "Verb," by Lia Purpura
We are pleased to present another excerpt from the new anthology entitled, One Word: Contemporary Writers on the Words They Love or Loathe, published by Sarabande Books. The editor, Molly McQuade, asked 66 writers the question, "What one word means the most to you, and why?" Among the essays McQuade has collected is "Verb," by Lia Purpura.
The life of the word consists in tensing and stretching itself towards
a thousand connections, like the cut-up snake in the legend whose
pieces search for each other in the dark.
—Bruno Schulz (translated by Celina Wieniewska)
Run. Skate. Fly. Swim. The action words! "This is going to be fun," I remember thinking. And yes, back then the lively, kinaesthetic world could be kept pretty simply in flap-top box, marked with a nice black V. It was the kind of box you reached into, eyes closed, trusting, sure to get something good: Row. Sow. Throw. Mow. The contents of the box were familiar: I knew "slip!" I knew "dodge!" Spot scampered. Whiskers lapped milk from a bowl. Such easy finds on the subject-verb-object quizzes! Then things started dividing and growing: came forth the helping verb. The linking verb. Be-do-have-can-may-will-shall could be managed as a single breath-unit, a fit meditation for a rhythmic walk home, sotto voce and matched to stride, like cross at the green, not in between.
The real complications began with echoes: I heard, early on, the sea in see which made that word an unfolding of riches. (Later I learned riches might be "seined" from the Seine: bouncing lamp-light, scent of butter, smoked meat, wet leaves, cigarettes and—forgive me, this was my first time in Paris—such perfect and poised, floating French trash.) See carried a translucing green tint, and the sound of wavelets hitting the shore, each with a tiny white crest.
Nabokov had his synaesthetic swooning as a kid, and his pencil/sound/color configurations lived for him, ever after. I had echoes in my verbs. Corroborate held corrugate, collate, boric acid (added for scouring if truth wasn't told when matching up facts). Covet held that weird tension between covert and overt (and once, in high school, Corvette layered in—oh, I wanted a red one. How clichéd! I thought I was better than that.)
Sometimes when a verb's meanings crashed and swirled, I'd hear all the definitions at once, as in Bound: 1. rabbits leaping (innocent tinge). 2. corsets, ropes, etc. (not so innocent a tinge). 3. en route (Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory; read-early-on romantic tinge). Even the word "verb" itself came with layers of sound: herb, orb, and most powerfully, Erde (for I could, at the time, pluck a few words from my mother's echt Grimms', before the heavy and leaning Deutschrift collapsed into decrees, proclamations—unreadable stories I had to imagine).
With so many echoes, traits, and suggestions, things came streaming. Verb got faster and faster.
It got slow and weird, too; verb still meant "action" but not as I knew it. Action widened, abstracted. "Contemplate" (I reasoned, I guessed on my test) was in the verb family. But distantly so. Where was the action in contemplate? As far as I knew (remember, I'm eight), contemplate was all stillness and quiet.
Then more happened: there were refractions. Things and actions rode one single rail. "Smattering" came—which could be a noun. (Traitor! stay person-place-thing! Be rock-table-shoe unequivocally, please!) Things with –ings? Not fair. A smattering was all action—anyone could see that, on a wall, on a chair, it was jittery, splotchy, an anxious fat drip, undried where it fell, and perpetually sliding. Roll (v.) kept slipping into my mouth and was warm-golden-light, a morsel with weight/presence/butter. Or roll's letters rose, puffed and settled into the (n.) breakfast they were, when they should've been doing (v.) somersault work.
So—a roll was a thing named for its action! Like a person named Skip, I supposed. And a Slurpee (purple, n.) was a badly disguised, badly spelled adjective. What was role, then, but a pacing and talking set of arm-waving gestures with weeping/imploring?
V! I marked down on my third grade test. I knew from slash-heavy diagramming drills I was wrong—but all that slipping into another's skin, re-pitching the voice, distributing feelings . . . .
And yes, I was red-x assured: role was a noun (from the French, said my teacher, the paper—"le role"—containing the actor's part).
Thus it was learned: things would never stop moving.
Lia Purpura's On Looking was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in nonfiction. Her book of poems, King Baby, won the Beatrice Hawley Award. Recent works have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Agni, and The Paris Review. An NEA and Fulbright recipient, she is writer in residence at Loyola University in Baltimore.