You might be thinking, “That’s a strange title for a blog post.” And I couldn’t agree with you more. Carpe insolutus!
When my oldest niece was two, I came upon her flipping through a book, muttering the title of this post. As I sat down next to her and listened to her intone the mantra “Words say…words say…still don’t know what words say” with each page, I was struck both by what she was saying and and her demeanor in saying it. She wasn’t cranky or frustrated or resigned. It seemed to me she was in a Zen-like groove of acting out what Rilke described as “living the questions.” I was also struck by the idea that, at an age where we adults were measuring her life in months, she had a complete grip on the concept of “still,” as in, “Here I am, 24 months old, yep, still don’t know how to read.”
Does your brain ever decide to independently multi-task? You’re going along, doing your thing, saying your words and suddenly your mind flashes on a memory? This happens to me A LOT. This past Monday, I had a delightful informational interview with a couple of writers at a big nonprofit in Boston. I was describing to them one of my particular and peculiar gifts: finding connections between seemingly disparate ideas, thoughts, people, etc. In the middle of a sentence about how I often I use metaphors (or similes) to make these unlikely connections, my mind suddenly flashed on my 9th grade English teacher, Mrs. Eleanor Richardson. It took every ounce of brain- and will-power to keep the train from completely derailing.
Perhaps you have a similar figure, someone with one of the largest commemorative statues in the garden of your memory. Mrs. Richardson was a character in every sense of the word. I remember her as being in her 50s, with a platinum blonde, beehive hairdo, and her purse always matched her very high heels. She had stunning legs, an ample and decidedly lopsided bosom, she wore her makeup in a way best described as “Kabuki meets western Missouri,” and she didn’t take shit from anybody. There were MANY rumors about Mrs. Richardson that swirled around our junior high school. The only rumor I still remember about her was that she had been a burlesque dancer in her prime. She was the most exotic person I had ever seen or spoken to. I was both terrified and intoxicated by her.
What I flashed on during my interview this past Monday was how Mrs. Richardson made language come alive. She approached language as though each word was a living, breathing entity. She gave us all kinds of writing exercises that encouraged us to vault over or crash through whatever fences we had put around words. We did a lot of memorization, recitation, and reading aloud in class, and if we didn’t give words their dramatic due when we recited them, we had to do it over until she was satisfied. From Shakespeare to Dickens to Coleridge to Whitman to Dickinson to Giovanni, Mrs. Richardson taught us that words are their own form of music.
I was mistaken earlier, implying that there’s a single, fixed, and enormous statue of Mrs. Richardson in my personal memorial garden. That’s too still and static. A better description of how Eleanor Richardson moves through her acreage in my memory is to tell you this story.
Mrs. Richardson strutted into her 9th grade homeroom class one morning with tiger print stilettos and a matching handbag. The orange of her eye shadow matched the tigery hues in her purse and shoes. She wore a flowy jungle print scarf around her neck. She stowed her purse in a drawer, adjusted her hair, put her hands on her hips, sized up the room and told us to open our books to the poem “The Congo” by Vachel Lindsay. She said we would take turns reading aloud, starting with the unfortunate kid who sat closest to her desk.
The poor boy burst into an instantaneous sweat. He buried his face in the book and began to read in the flat, panicked cadence of one who feels that his death is imminent. Each sentence was a single long word: “Fat-black-bucks-in-a-wine-barrel-room. Barrel-house-kings-with-feet-” Meanwhile, Mrs. Richardson had slid out from behind her desk and her flat palm boomed on the boy’s desktop as she interrupted him, “No No NOOOOOOO!!!! FEEEEEEL it!!! BEEEEEEEEEEE the words!!!” The boy was rigid and dumbstruck with terror.
Seeing the immobilized boy, my 9th grade English teacher, the former burlesque dancer, proceeded to lope and slink around the room, flinging her scarf across our heads and shoulders like a feather boa, slithering between the chairs, reciting the poem from memory, hammering our desks and stomping on the floor for emphasis. She had us shout out the parts of the poem that were in all caps: “THEN I had religion” “THEN I had a vision” “and BLOOD screamed the whistles and the fifes of the warriors” “Boomlay boomlay boomlay BOOM” and the famous chorus, “THEN I SAW THE CONGO CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK, CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.” The goosebumps I get from remembering this scene feel like the same goosebumps I had on that very morning more than 35 years ago.
It’s a wonder to me the way our brains bend time. This past Monday, I said to the two writers in this informational interview something like, “I have loved using metaphors to make unlikely connections since [pause for two seconds and insert previous five paragraphs about Mrs. Richardson and “The Congo”] well, since 9th grade.”
I’m more than a little unnerved by the fact that, for someone as white and as liberal as I am, one of my Aha! moments for what words can say is a poem that is heavily freighted with racist imagery that glorifies Christian colonial conquest. Then again, maybe the best and most enduring lessons we carry with us are the ones that are shot through with complexity and layers, sort of like the Gay jello salad I made last week. Or like a burlesque dancer who becomes a junior high school English teacher.
As for my niece, she is still growing up and is becoming, among other things, a teacher, a poet, a builder of houses, a wife, a singer/songwriter, and one of the lovingest, most generous people to inhabit this planet. I don’t know if she’s ever been a burlesque dancer, but I do know that she has, in her own way, made words come alive for many of her students, of whom I have been one — since before she even knew what words say.
The Indigo Girls’ song “Closer to Fine” has been stuck in my head the whole time I’ve been weaving together some new quilt out of the memories of my niece and Mrs. Richardson. I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone who’s been coming here for awhile that I’m particularly drawn to the line in the chorus “There’s more than one answer to these questions/pointing me in a crooked line.” And speaking of “still don’t know what words say,” this particular live version includes Jewel yodeling a bridge to the third verse. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, as my dad would say.