Word Has It, by Ruth Danon. New Delhi, India: Nirala Publications, March 2018. 85 pages. $22.99, hardcover.
The word has insurmountable potential and power to guide readers on and through a seemingly endless but ultimately finite voyage. Word Has It, Ruth Danon’s latest poetry collection, is a philosophical three-section, chapter-book prose poem, where, Word, its main character—whose thoughts and narrative are italicized—is a kind of literary, film noir-ish detective searching for everything concealed from us as we try and often fail to define what it means to exist.
“Habitual” speaks to the dark obsessions and secrets, to the act of reading mystery novels and books about serial murderers, which fuel this writer to continue writing:
The writer acquires mysteries with increasing frequency, first delaying the purchase to avoid guilt, then acquiring a mystery almost every day because the pleasure is too intense to refuse. She learns that serial murderers begin to leave less and less time between crimes because the kick doesn’t last. The writer understands this. The body is gone, there is only language.
Is writing a crime to be solved? What’s left when everything is dissolved but sentences trailing off the page and floating into the ether? Everything presented here, and in other passages in the collection, can be read as a code to be deciphered, as something lost that must be found, even, perhaps, as acts of denial.
In “An Act of Faith in a Simple Time,” the literary detective’s singular fascination continues, the writer always on high alert: attentive to what’s happening in their actual surroundings or in the landscape of their mind’s imaginings:
Alert to the sudden
motion in the street, I raise my eyes. Now
the firemen drift slowly down the avenue
carrying hatchets, bearing their own
names across their backs. Or so they say.
Following this poem, word and Word, the character, are defined metaphorically as well as literally in terms of their affect over writer and reader and in interactions in actual life that can sometimes lead to revelation: “word spills the beans / all over / the circus floor …”
In “‘The Need for Disorder’” and “Americana,” Danon addresses the desires and compulsions stoking literary and artistic creativity as well as society’s present and possible future(s). “‘The Need for Disorder’” highlights the mechanisms creators employ to get through daily trials and tribulations: “Here in the dusk studded city we have methods and tactics. / This is why we specialize in lightly fingered melodies / after the fact.” In “Americana,” the narrator is in Los Angeles, a chaotic place beyond the norm, a “golden land” stretching “out beyond relief.” It’s a world full of strange questions: “Can I wash my hands in dust?” Like many other poems in this collection, “Americana” exudes the apprehension dominating America’s present, where so much is known and unknown, real and fake, and consequentially frightening, a present where, flying in the face of its many mythologies, everything can vanish in an instant.
Word intervenes and provides profound revelations:
to interrupt sleep
the bad taste
into the mouth
Throughout, Word’s reflections highlight the sensitivity of the word. Certain words, whether heard or said, can affect a person for the rest of their lives, sometimes remaining internally always dormant, temporarily submerged until something suddenly triggers it. “The Joke” reveals how tragic stories and even the recollection of their telling can be:
On another night a man reads a story about going batshit in Kansas City. The audience thought this was funny, what the writer referred to as high hilarity. That was what he told them he would provide. But of course it wasn’t funny. It was terrifying, the extremes of paranoia and delusion closing in on him in a fading, not too clean hotel in the middle of the country.
Funny how sad “high hilarity” can be, how it can cause someone to squirm in their seats instead of to roll in the aisles, to unravel. Instead of “killing” his audience, the comic potentially damages himself and his audience in the process.
In Section II of Word Has It, we’re taken into the quotidian, the life of an individual, the life of a writer, into their mental states, observed through the lens of writing a novel and through the gauze of predictions, the omens providing clues to what appears to be impenetrable. In “Domestic,” the female speaker assumes a role, seeming to imitate or approximate how society says she should act, should be internally or appear at home. She explores whether she’s capable of this pretense, whether or not she can actually fit into society’s picture-perfect frame: the constructs depicted in advertisements, propaganda both new and old:
“Shot of whiskey,” she thought, from
nowhere, not because she ever drank
the stuff, but because it seemed the kind
of random association one might have at
the end of a long day.
These and other poems are suffused with doubt and apprehension, for one’s place in the home as well as in the world outside. In “Habitation,” the rooms are parts of the speaker’s mind, and we travel with her as she navigates and questions, and struggles with what this means. What’s her role as a writer as she inhabits this domestic sphere? Where will these thoughts and ideas take her?
And that long breath, that hesitation, was a way of betraying
something I hadn’t known. For some reason I thought of
oysters, closed up in their shells and the hard work of prying
them open. I didn’t know why I thought of them, except
they seemed vulnerable, there in the water they yielded
when split in two
Where will these thoughts take us? Here, the speaker is the room and room is the speaker (as she is the word and the word is she as it comes out of her) and all of this must yield to the dilemma of the writer: dispassionately observing while expressively acknowledging life’s beauty and fragility, depicting nature and the human condition, affirming the writer’s own humanity.
In Section III, “Divination,” the speaker waxes almost biblical as she reads omens marked and delivered by birds that appear in several of the poems, like “Doubt” and “Birding. In “Doubt,” the writer expresses uncertainty as to who is responsible for what creatures are called:
the birds for me and I
could see reason in their names:
The bluebird is, after all,
blue and bears itself before
me in a barren tree
In “Birding,” statements are expressed with certainty or negation: “I face one brick wall from another and another brick wall on another”; and “I do not know what a plover looks like and I do not know if it makes a sound.” And when we finally reach the bird, doubt and certainty are expressed almost simultaneously: “I believe in the power of birds, but I do not know, / not for a minute, how to describe their quivering / hearts or their flights or the mad plunge of / herons into salty marshes.”
The further you delve into this section, into poems like “Large and Small,” “Augury,” “The Clairvoyant,” and more, the images and actions of the speaker, whether bird-related or not, become increasingly apocalyptic and ominous. From “Large and Small”: “In the silence of my own making I / wait to hear the death shriek of/stars.” From “Augury”: “You boiled away tea water / until the pot scorched craters into unfathomable ash.” And lastly in “The Clairvoyant,” we’re taken to the heavens, where what isn’t on solid ground is known, but where the actual soil of earth is something we must keep endlessly digging to find what we’re looking for: “Thus birds, falling to earth, at once and without warning, a signal a visible / sign of angelic knowing. The birds cluster on earth, scratching dirt.”
Like a good mystery or mythic quest tale, Ruth Danon’s Word Has It offers engaging glimpses into the writer’s mind, of their trials and tribulations, their creative process often filled with doubt, neurosis, and vanity, not to mention the folly of regret, meanwhile acknowledging the beauty in all things, both great and small, all of which continuing to stoke their curiosity. While fully descending into end-times darkness full of blood, of ash and bird omens, the speaker continues to search and question, to discover truths new and old. Spoonfuls of philosophical sugar, of clever and serious wordplay, help the medicine go down, preparing the reader for the end, the culmination of all things, the final violent tumult of the word, whatever symbolic methods it utilizes to explain itself, how it can help defend themselves against or at least better understand. The bird is the word and the word is the bird; it is everything and nothing. (Keep reading, in other words.)
Micah Zevin is a librarian poet living in Jackson Heights, Queens, NY, with his wife, a playwright. He has recently published articles and poems at The Otter, Newtown Literary Journal and Blog, Poetry and Politics, Reality Beach, Jokes Review, Post (Blank), American Journal of Poetry, and The Tower Journal. He created/curates an open mic/poetry prompt workshop called The Risk of Discovery Reading Series now at Blue Cups.