Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases
(after Grenville Kleiser)
It’s sweet, really, how you arrange them
alphabetically, as if I could go to your book,
seeking precision and find something
there under, say, “M:”
Memory was busy at her heart.
You have this notion
that phrases, used correctly,
could actually do something useful.
It’s right there on the cover, useful
uncomplicatedly predicated of phrases.
I want to believe you.
Browsing the chapters: Significant Phrases,
Impressive Phrases, Felicitous Phrases,
I feel your absolute, complete, unqualified and final
confidence that fifteen minutes a day
more effectively than an hour a day of desultory reading
will equip the reader, me
for a life of clear expression.
We just need to read the phrases:
intimations of unpenetrated mysteries
dark with unutterable sorrows
days that are brief and shadowed
find where they fit,
and our conversation will sparkle.
you imagine we might memorize,
the perfect clothes
for our ideas
as silent as the sheeted dead
all unconscious as a flower
like dining with a ghost.
I have to ask you,
What is your pose on perfect expression now?
Say any one of these phrases.
Say three in a row.
They fill the air for a moment
and then they are gone.
Like dining with a ghost,
but in reverse:
the food is disappearing;
you can see it happening,
and you are left, across the table.
Something has been transacted.
The plate is empty. Is someone there?
Did someone say something? Did anyone hear?
Maybe in Conversational Phrases,
I could find something to say to her, now
after a long unaccustomed silence:
but who could foresee what was going to happen?
Will you have the kindness to explain?
It’s a difficult and delicate matter to discuss.
I hate that you fucked him in our bed.
I browse the book, every page a distraction;
what I find are my own formulations,
the consequences of an agitated mind.
Something made of language is gone
even as it’s spoken.
I dreamed I was rinsing words from a sponge.
I’ll show you some useful things:
a hammer, a tent, a compass,
even the paper this poem is printed on.
I swear to God
I was walking home at midnight
and had nothing but a draft of this poem
and I had to use it to clean up after my dog.
I felt the warmth spread through the paper’s grain
and it wasn’t just an idea of warmth.
I look to you.
I entreat you.
What could you say in answer?
Tell me, “I have a secret: a whole chapter of blank pages.”
Tell me, “I had my moments when my faith flagged. Here, look where I throw it all away
and just say “some” instead of reaching for the loved particular: ‘as quick as the movement
of some wild animal’ or ‘The earth was like a frying pan or some such hissing matter,’
as much as I despised the indefinite. Or when I just repeat myself: ‘slender and thin
as a slender wire.’ You get the idea, don’t you?
Read the phrases aloud. Listen to that space where one phrase ends and another begins.
Big expanse of space. That’s what I say now.”
And my mother said You won’t find me
in code. Don’t look for me
in the words of your child.
She, who filled our house with talk, told me:
Listen. If you want to know I’m there,
just make yourself quiet.
A task for you: Try to describe for me
how this dog arranges her limbs on the couch,
how one paw has slipped between the cushions,
and something about how her ribs expand.
Let me see the slope of her skull. Oh, and
please include how the couch is almost exactly
her color, try to show me that color,
that of the couch, and the difference between the two.
See if you can delineate the fine articulations of her spine–
and try to do it without asking me to look at something else.
even your name fails you. Grenville?
I’m going to call you something else,
you don’t mind do you?
Spirit of Capture, Hope, Faith.
What is there in your name,
its initial consonant cluster, its word-final liquids
that has anything to do with you?
And so, I’m sure you won’t mind
if I just call you, say, Byron or Sebastian,
or why not even my own name, Genine?
I want to ask you
Could you stand the shifting?
Just today on the street
I thought I heard hatred in the contour of a vowel
a wife leaning into her husband, lowered voice,
Did you see him, there, that one with the purple towel?
I tried to track it, in the falling intonation,
the twisted arc of her sigh.
And I had just seen him too and what I mainly registered
was a luxury of skin, a graceful body walking alone
except for his dog, and he had tied a cloth
around his hips so it sloped to a knot,
which I have since slipped open over and over
just to watch it fall. And it was private;
I had no one to tell, so he remained for me
But I felt, even as I passed him,
the urge to assign some words.
And I can bring this before you now,
this detail: his puppy tumbling,
five steps for every one of his, the leash taut.
I had to admire the precision
of the draping, the assertion of his long stride
through the cloth’s steep gap.
I could have just received it, but gorgeous and sweep and oh and
I think I actually drew in a breath.
And when I got further down the street
and saw them leaning in, I knew why.
And I wanted to tell the woman
It wasn’t a towel. Have you ever seen a towel that size?
Or would a towel hang with such elegance?
And, could a towel come to so fine a knot?
But she denied you
your promise; she did not pursue
the right word,
as if the imprecision put her at a wanted distance from him,
and her husband listened and nodded as if he understood.
I wanted to tell her no it wasn’t a towel,
but I didn’t even want to name it.
Sometimes I wish for no language;
I want my whole job to be seeing.
But let’s say the word is sarong.
Now we’re in the marketplace;
we’re off his thigh,
in a bright noisy store, packed with racks, all one price.
And if I do say sarong,
I’ll say it mainly for the pleasure of feeling
my tongue arch along my palate. And I’ll know
that what I saw is already in the past
the second I try to put a word on it anyway.
But she didn’t even give him that.
Maybe she didn’t like the idea of him,
his valent body,
the confusion of signifiers.
Skirt with no shirt, and then the sigh.
And still they stopped walking
to lean into each other.
I took the permission of the street
to stand there next to them,
nothing to do but listen,
long enough to hear her skid
to the end of her sentiment
and her sigh said, That’s no son of mine.
I imagine you were happy
in your dream of precision.
I am touched by your faith in the alphabet.
And you’re long gone
and I address you here, what’s left of you,
in your binding.
There is some use in that, isn’t there?
Just the idea of your book was enough
to make someone buy it new in 1918.
And then again, eighty years later, I could find it,
and I admit it was mainly an amusement,
but I was curious.
I want to believe you; can you show me again
the part about how ideas can be clothed?
And I’ll show you how it’s all drag,
the moment it passes from thought to form.
Look, you know I loved finding meadow
when my lips grazed the surface of her skin
where her jaw meets her throat
and I know I loved
how having a word for it right there
let me tell her this, let me whisper it right there
where my mouth was
and bring her into the sun-bending grass
in the darkness of our bed.
And I have heard you, you tell me, speaking in a garden at a memorial for a friend, younger
than her mother was when she gave birth to her, whose numerous tumors crowded the cavities
of her body and wrapped her aorta, diminishing her before her own two daughters’ eyes.
And I have seen you visit her there on her couch and you thought she’s a leaf blown against
a sheet of glass, and somehow thinking that made it more manageable.
And yes, she told her mother, “I want Genine to do something.”
And I took that to mean, “I want Genine to say something.”
And yes, I made sure when I spoke
to the group gathered in the sloping shade
that I said radiant when I related my dream
of her dancing down her narrow street
because wouldn’t her mother want for that moment–
as long as it took to say the word–
the sun to be blasting all its light on her daughter
now that she couldn’t wet her child’s mouth
with water drawn through a thin straw?
And didn’t you listen with me
when an M.I.T. syntactician
told the tale of a dying warrior chief
who possessed a word capable of killing,
and needed to pass it on before he died.
He gathered the children of the village
around his bed and gave them each a baby chick,
then told them
“Now, crush it in your hand.”
And all but one snapped the fine bones
easily. And that one received the word
because he could manage its power.
And I was soaked in that belief.
And I wanted to be that child.
And the coat check clerk told me,
“Describe it and you can have it back.”
So, it’s not as if I don’t see your point.
But in your stockpile of expression,
can I find a way to get the gist
of this white peach I’m eating?
And for example, most of what I say is lost
on my dog, and she seems fine.
And what about there,
right at the end
of my mother’s life,
when she finally
when she stopped
loading her breaths
and we exchanged breath
from my birth
when what I did was gasp
for air with no words available.
And you say,
See, there? See the child trade breaths with her mother, and then when the one stops,
the other waits, and when nothing comes, watch how the child takes her first breath
And haven’t I taken a word on my tongue
and held it there waiting
for a breath to come carry it away?
You know I want to find a way to capture
the grace of his stride,
the exact quality of light on his skin.
I want to go back onto the street
and find the moment frozen there
so I can get it all down, better this time.
I want to see my own face in seeing
and disappear into the telling
so that you can see through me.
And even better if I’m glass
and if what you see is slightly more,
if there’s a little refraction, more heat.
“Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases” is from Mr. Worthington’s Beautiful Experiments on Splashes (New Michigan Press, 2010).
Author’s Note: The title of the poem, “Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases,” comes from the book by the same name by Grenville Kleiser, described as “A practical handbook of pertinent expressions, striking similes, literary, commercial, conversational, and oratorical terms, for the embellishment of speech and literature, and the improvement of the vocabulary of those persons who read, write, and speak English.” (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 4th ed., 1918.)