Monthly Archives: August 2012


It is a typical workaday sound, but it caught my attention at work yesterday: a staccato duet of digital slapping and rattling, two typists’ particular aptitudes setting in tandem a tidy recital, inputting a tapestry of tapping artistry. One would crescendo, then the other would join; a weave, an ebb, a flow, an echo. Utterly stochastic and yet quite perfect, like slapping droplets of hat-ripping rain attacking a flat roof – so calming as long as you’re dry and inside – or the ecstatic crackling of a fire as it licks up a partly wet or sappy log. I had to pull out my iPhone and record a snippet of it – not a high-quality recording, but still you can hear just a little bit of the concert:

Such a tight little tattoo they type! Like a tapdance solo, but not in any particular time step; there’s not even an eccentric ictus; rather, it’s just a quotidian utterance in its erratic iterations. Its notes are detached (older Italian distaccato, reduced later to staccato), making what we might call a patter.

The patter of raindrops. The patter of tiny feet. Patter is often thought of as gentle, or quiet, or steady, or rapid; people who patter are auctioneers and salesmen and singers of Gilbert and Sullivan. You know a pat is usually light, like a tap, but still crisp; the word pat is imitative (probably). To it add the old frequentative er suffix you see on clatter, flutter, wander, waver, twitter. A pat and a pat and a pat a pat pat, pat a pat, pat a tap pat, tap a tap pat tap, pat a tap a pat pat. Stochastic terpsichore of the distal phalanx: fingertips trip the light fantastic in an epileptic puppetry.

And you can, if you want, see the sound reflected in the word shape: every so often the thumb hits the spacebar p and in between some taps are sharp and spiky tt and others are soft a er. If you set to typing it repeatedly, patter patter patter patter patter, you will get a type of rhythm – you may also notice that the right hand just pops in for p and space while the left gets up and atter. Say the word in repetition and you will observe quickly how it ricochets between lips and tip of tongue, a very simple pattern that keeps a tight apterture.

Real actual patters can be more complex and chaotic, of course. Keep an ear and a recording device cocked to capture the slapping and patting and become a tapping patter pattern trapper.

more chiaroscuro

Eight years ago I did a little spate of night photography with my Bronica SQ, a very nice medium-format camera (a bit of a tank, though – not light to carry around). I would have included a couple of photos from those sessions with my post on chiaroscuro, but I thought I would have to find them and upload them, and I didn’t want to take the time to do that after midnight.

If it had been before midnight, perhaps I would have remembered that I already had them on flickr.

I add them here as an adjunct and just because I adore night photography. Click on either of them to go to the flickr version, where you can view it larger.

If you like black and white photography, I have a gradually growing set of such images on flickr.


Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Thus begins La Divina Commedia by Dante Alighieri, the words dancing on the tip of the tongue, a play of contrasts between the rolling liquids /r/ and /l/ and the voiceless stops /k/ and /t/ (with the voiceless fricative /s/ to augment the edges), even to a contrast of long versus short: diritta short /r/ long /t/, smarrita the reverse.

Una selva oscura”… a dark forest. Dark and savage? Perhaps – savage is related to selva (so is sylvan). But we know where Dante is headed: first, down into the inferno, down, down, to the darkest depths; then, by way of purgatory, to the greatest heights of paradise. Such a great contrast, night and day, light and dark, clear and obscure.


Italian chiaro means “light” or – its English cognate – “clear”; oscuro means “dark” or – its English cognate – “obscure”. A study in contrasts. It is eye candy: it refers to a painterly technique that accentuates contrasts between light and dark; it has also been used to excellent effect in movies and photography and other visual arts. Shades of grey have a lovely texture, and there is a great thrill in the depth you can get of not just fifty but two hundred fifty-six shades of grey (or even many more if you’re using a good film like Kodak T-Max or sixteen-bit encoding in your image files – subject to display medium limitations), but contrasts are less demanding of the fine discrimination of the senses and give a more heightened emotional and aesthetic response. Think of faces by candlelight; think of scenes at night. That’s why I love photographing after dark.

We love contrasts in other things, too, of course. If you have an equalizer on your stereo, boost the bass and treble – the music becomes ear candy. Sweet and sour are a favourite flavour combination. And in the realm of public discourse and news, stories about good versus evil or little versus big or, or, or, go over very well. We all have our good and bad sides, our bright parts and our dark parts; we like to think that one side or the other is the “real” person – whichever side is kept hidden must be the reality, and whichever is shown publicly must be the act. Not true, of course, but brain candy is brain candy.

And mouth candy is mouth candy. Say chiaroscuro crisply, with a rolled /r/, four syllables: “kya-ro-sku-ro.” The crisp back stop contrasting with the liquid rolling on the tip of the tongue. And the vowels – well, a more front one to start with, but then leaning to the back and round. Of course, for Anglophones, there is the added contrast between what you hear and what it looks like on paper: perfectly phonetic for Italians, a little less so through the Britannic lens.

By the time we reach the middle of the road of life, we of course ought to know very well that pure contrasts are not in the usual nature of things; they are not usual in the things of nature. But at the same time, we have seen enough dark to have our doubts, and we are tired enough that we may want to take the easy angle now and again, and we may be disillusioned about our compromises and one day look up and find ourselves in a dark wood, the straight path lost.

Have we been betrayed? Have we betrayed? Can some clear light be shed on this? How are we thus translated? How may we interpret the original word, the original sense, into our present existence? Oh, traduttore traditore: a translator is a traitor. We lose our way in the grey and grope for light or dark. And we find different paths when we try to make our own words. As witness the many different translations for the opening of Dante’s book – you may read a few fistfuls of them at Litrefs Articles. See the contrasts! They clarify and obscure at the same time.

To see a couple more photos in the chiaroscuro vein, see more chiaroscuro.


I lately started reading The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 by my friend and poetry mentor Molly Peacock. On pages 6 and 7, I read the following passage:

The work Mrs. Delaney labeled her “first essay,” the Scarlet Geranium and Lobelia cardinalis, resembles two pressed flowers in ladylike quietude, but a bully of inspiration begins to burst forth in the ones she began to create after that, muscular, vibrant, petiolate.

Petiolate! This is surely a delicious, erudite text, the way it slips in a word so exotic it is erotic, so technical it is sexual. How can you not be seduced by prose that simply by the way tosses in, as though an ordinary old friend, a word that makes your eyes pop a little (“This is George, this is Margo, and you know Cate Blanchett, yes?”). Four syllables, crisp – those voiceless stops – but with a soft little lick in the middle as of a flower petal.

Petal! These are cut-out paper flowers Molly is talking about. They have petals and so are petiolate. No? Indeed, no. Petiolate means “having petioles”. And petioles are? The stalks by which leaves are attached to plants. The word actually does not come from petal; it is a modified form of peciolus and traces back to Latin pes “foot”.

Well! Something’s afoot! This word has turned over a new leaf. Now, petals are modified leaves, but what we need to remember is that a petiole – also called a petiolus – is that stalk that connects a leaf to the stem. Petiole is also a word for the thin connector that holds the last segment of an insect’s body onto the rest.

Does petiolate seem somehow etiolated by this information – bleached by deprivation of light? No need to be petulant. Its use here simply means that these paper pictures of plants show the sinews, the stems, the necks and stalks that hold the juice of life of the plants: the parts you don’t take notice of every day. Look, something new! How could you communicate that without using a word that is also not part of the quotidian lexis? How communicate the thrill of the detail – the necklike connecting stalks connecting to the stalks, suddenly seen as though that gorgeous girl (or guy) of an instant slipped off the turtleneck – other than with a word crisp, liquid, lean, long, and (for most) arcane, abstruse?


Poetry – the sort of serious poetry that serious poets who take poetry seriously take seriously – can sometimes seem to the uninitiated eye to be a sort of glossolalia, or perhaps Wernicke’s aphasia: what are these words, and why are they in this order? Some sort of explanation is needed – a glossary, and a gloss: a gloze to keep the eyes from glazing and closing. Perhaps ironically, the kind of poems that do this are as a rule oriented to the same sort of cozy in-group, people who not only know what chapbooks are but think they matter, people who bask in the glow of each other’s mutual references.

Do you know what a sutra and a shastra are? These are texts from the Sanskrit tradition. A sutra is a condensed bit of teaching, tightly organized, often like lecture notes; a shastra is a gloss, an explanation, an explication – unfolding – of the tight sutra. There is a western form of poetry that is a bit like this, except that instead of using a condensed text as a basis for an expanded one, it takes a bit of someone else’s poem and treats it as though it were a text to be expanded on. In truth, it is more like jazz, improvisations on someone else’s theme. The opening quatrain or double quatrain taken from a fellow poet’s work are the nut of the matter, its raisin d’être (yes, raisin), and the poem built on it – four stanzas of ten lines each, the last line of each stanza being a line of the original, and the 6th and 9th lines rhyming with it – is like the chocolate coating: ah, a Glossette. Well, in this case, a glosa.

The glosa is such an uncommon form in poetry that Wikipedia knoweth it not, nor doth the Oxford English Dictionary. But many Canadian poets know it, thanks in large part to P.K. Page, who published a book Hologram, A Book of Glosas. Page is to Canadian poetry rather as Alice Munro is to Canadian short fiction (except that Munro is still alive): the doyenne. If she happened to decide to put together a book of poems based on a Spanish form from the 14th and 15th centuries, well, everyone stood up and took notice, and quite a few of them in turn wrote glosas on her glosas. I first encountered a glosa from her book more than a decade ago, when I was singing with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, premiering a new work by the Canadian composer Derek Holman: The Invisible Reality. Even now, reading her “Planet Earth,” on nearly every line I can remember the angular phrases we sang.

This word, glosa, has considerable phonaesthetic connections. The opening /gl/ has associations of shininess (gleam, glimmer, glow, glint) and the oral cavity (glottis), plus words (glossary) and a few other lexemes, all of which have some flavour of the swallowing gesture it suggests. The /s/ in glosa adds to a sense of shininess and slickness. But the final unstressed vowel keeps it lighter, more delicate. The source of the word is the source of glossary and gloss (as in “explanatory text”): Greek glossa γλῶσσα “language; foreign language; foreign word; word needing explanation”, coming by way of Latin glossa, which came to refer also to the explanation of the word.

And how is a glosa to read? Well, that depends. It may be as clear as glass; it may be a slog. The odds are not too bad that it will be precious and allusive, an in-group form, almost a glad-handing and logrolling to situate the poet in the world of poetic discourse and among its assorted personae. Of course it can be a bit more straightforward. And the development on the original theme may be less an explanation and more a wandering.

You may be thinking that this sounds, if in a defined poetic form, rather like what I, too, do with other people’s words. I will not deny it, at least not much. But as it happens, a few years ago I wrote a couple of glosas (in the midst of a spate of form poetry encouraged by Molly Peacock, who was teaching me a few more things about poetry), and I present them here as examples of the form (I make no claims as to their merits as poetry). A warning to those who dislike vulgarities: the first one has a couple. The second one is a modified form – it uses an 8-line extract; it opens each stanza with a line from the first quatrain and closes each with a line from the second. (I’m not the first to do this. I got the idea from Glenn Kletke’s “O Grandfather Dust” in In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry.) For both poems, the sutra, the theme for development, is provided by poetry in song form, one by Jefferson Airplane and one by Martha and the Muffins.


by James Harbeck

Lather was thirty years old today,
They took away all of his toys.
His mother sent newspaper clippings to him,
About his old friends who’d stopped being boys.
—“Lather,” Jefferson Airplane

The mirror’s chipped, the razor’s dull,
but this is how you be a man.
Come on, wimp, do it, scrape it!
A snag, a little drop of blood…
oh, yes, and now we learn to swear.
“Uh, fuck!” is all he thought to say.
His mother came in and she wasn’t pleased.
Let’s say it was funny in the retelling.
That ugly small child who tried to play
in lather was thirty years old today,

and he’s still ugly, still shaves,
still wonders if anyone will notice
that blood trickling down his neck.
He knows new people now,
a little assortment of friends
who come over and make some noise.
They seem more reliable than
the ones he had when he was young,
not memories he enjoys.
They took away all of his toys

once, and called him Wimpy Scarface.
You know what? Kids are shitty like that.
Kids think adults are mean and tough,
but adults at least remember what
it felt like to take abuse. Quite a lot.
They remember that day in fifth-grade gym
they took a hockey stick in the face
by accident, six or seven times.
And after, just to keep life grim,
his mother sent newspaper clippings to him

while he was laid up in the hospital.
Because others’ lives are worse.
But kids don’t know that it changes.
And some don’t make it, either.
So this is what grown-up is like:
less pain, or at least more poise.
And, hey, he was one who made it,
no crash, no throat slash, no bullet,
just the memory that destroys
about his old friends who’d stopped being boys.


Echo Beach

by James Harbeck

I know it’s out of fashion
And a trifle uncool
But I can’t help it
I’m a romantic fool
It’s a habit of mine
To watch the sun go down
On Echo Beach
I watch the sun go down
—Echo Beach, Martha and the Muffins (Mark Gane)

I know it’s out of fashion
to go for walks on the beach,
or write poems, or whatever,
and pretty dumb to dwell
on a lonely twenty minutes spent
going to look at water and pine
when I was twelve, OK,
on some dumb school camping trip.
Well, the hell with it. Fine.
It’s a habit of mine,

and a trifle uncool,
to be nostalgic about
the nobility of loneliness
and tart young yearning.
It was actually a pretty good trip.
I tried to be the clown;
they let me play strip poker
and I almost felt I belonged.
Later I walked alone out in the brown
to watch the sun go down.

But I can’t help it
if that Martha and the Muffins song
was popular just then
or if we were by a lake at sunset.
It was a good tune. Who didn’t like it?
I learned what I wanted it to teach.
It told me I could love empty dreams,
and take loneliness as a virtue,
and leave behind what I could reach
on Echo Beach.

I’m a romantic fool.
It was a cold little lake
with cattails and mud.
There was no echo.
I walked out, felt lonely and noble, and walked back.
Then it rained and we went to town
to stay in a cheap motel instead.
But I have learned well. Now I write poems
And file them away, and when there’s not a soul around
I watch the sun go down.


As the day evens out, the throbbing heart of the heat of the day shifts from glow to gloam towards gloom, and the sky bleeds corpuscular crepuscular red; as the firmament falls to fundament in layers like travertine, it is travel time: turn away from the work of day toward the delight of night. It is evening, fall of day, living time for the libertine; it is whisper-time; it is vespertine.

Ah, vesper, the Latin evening, time of Hesperus, the evening star – which we now know is Venus, that planet named for the goddess of love. It is the time when young lovers ride in pairs on Vespas, especially on those summer nights. We are in the passage through the sunset from twilight time to nights in white satin. We sit by the boardwalk, refreshing ourselves al fresco, and the runners and bikers and strollers passing by gradually become fewer; the beach volleyball players abruptly cease and pack up their nets between the time I sip my beer and the time I sip it again. As we walk homeward, it is a silent summer evening, but the sky is alive with light; the buildings in the distance are a surrealistic sight. The water reflecting them is rippled smooth like century-old window glass. My eye is seized by a light down to the right on the beach: a young man sitting at a table working on his laptop and wearing large headphones.

Vespertine: such a fine wine of a word, encircling the ambit of encroaching dark. Monks and nuns say vespers in chants before retreating to their cells; but vesper names Venus too, bringing not chants but chance, not retreat but advance. There is no guttural gloaming in this adjective of evening; after the v-neck unzip of the onset, it slides like silk on the tongue tip, alternately smooth and crisp, ending with the sonorous hum of the nasal. Things you have half-heard waft past your ears in tatters and feathers: is it vice, vest, viper, vestal, Vespasian, spur, spurt, expert, pert, tine, time? Is Valentine pertinent? Do you hear the French j’espère (“I hope”)? The vespertine hour is a time for yearning. The light is hiding. Dream with me a while. As you drift to sleep, flakes of songs fall like ashes past your ears. Time will circle back; it will be warm and dark again.


Yumpin’ yiminy! What fun it is when the vehicles of our expression take flight and land somewhere other than where they came from – and sometimes come back changed, too. It’s like someone who takes a trip abroad, maybe in a “gap year,” and “goes native” – fits right into the new context and adopts the culture. And then maybe comes back but retains elements of that culture. Or perhaps they never really fit in over there but enjoy being the poseur on return. Sort of like a car that takes off from a hump in the ground and then comes back down just a little farther along, but with its bits perhaps a little redistributed from the landing.

Well, today’s word is one such. It’s not a loan that has taken on an English form. It’s not even really a word that’s been fully borrowed into another language and is now being borrowed back (like Japanese sarariman “salaryman” – or references to the Russian mafiya, which is just a transliteration of the Russian transliteration of mafia). Yump is actually a word that stepped out for a smoke with some foreigners and came back in with a foreign accent (I’m put in mind of how bit, as spoken by Sonia Moore, a Russian acting teacher, became beat to generations of actors when referring to a part of a scene). It’s that car that flew through the air for a few seconds and landed with the statuettes on the dashboard rearranged.

It’s a likeable word, to be sure. How can you not enjoy a word that starts with “yum”? Yup! it may rhyme with lump and ump and bump and so on, but that opening glide just smooths it all in – the y is like a funnel of oil, and the u is the cup it pours into, and the m is the buns – I mean the nice oil-risen bread rolls, of course. And the p? Just the little puff at the end.

You probably won’t have encountered this word unless you follow car rallies. Well, in rally car driving, sometimes a car comes to a crest in a road at such high speed that it takes to the air – Dukes of Hazzard style. One set of rally car drivers who demonstrated a fondness for this in the 1960s were Scandinavians (Swedes, Norsemen, et alia). And, well, Yiminy, we know how Scandinavians are thought of as saying jumping and jump, right? Yup. Now rally cars that take flight briefly before returning to their home soil are said to be yumping.

Want to see a picture – and see this word in use in recent times, as proof of currency? Try this 2011 mention from the Car and Driver blog.