The shape of words

I used to think
That I knew the shape of words,
The round and flat of them as they skimmed across the page,
The whistle and snap as they slotted into place
In the spaces for consonants and vowels.

Now I think I know
The shape of moments,
The rise and fall of breaths like cities,
Patterns of light slowing and pausing
While the pen, pneumatic, tattoos the page,
The texture and the taste of a fragment of living.


Poetry: Syllabic

When a word crashes to the ground

creates a soundwave, a pulse

a little death that scatters leaves

those clacking hammers of the typewriter

piano keys dropping

suddenly livid

that musical myotonia

as it shatters into syllables

crumbles into spiralling letters

we see it break apart into meaning

symbol and sign spin away from each other

the phonemes collide and repel, atomic

when a word collapses into chaos

that is when we see

a little of what is called meaning

A fictional etymology of the word ‘catastrophe’

I wrote this as an exercise for a creative writing class that I’m in. Turned out to be fun. 


When the word ‘strephein’ (to turn) was born in Greece many hundreds of years ago, it would never have suspected the length and variety of the life that lay in front of it. Growing up with the Turner family, a household full of curling, impossibly complex Greek verbs, it longed to escape, to find a new place to be. A place to grow. To seek out new morphemes that the Greeks had not conceived of. As a child it was a quiet verb, unassuming and content to fit in and spend time with its family.

            At puberty it changed, as so many verbs do. Became a little more tense, more moody and prone to outbreaks of adverbs. This was despite the sunny climate and plentiful fruit and vegetables that the Mediterranean diet provides. Around this time also, it lost its youthful verb ending, and got its vowels pierced, becoming a strophē. It was a more progressive outlook, left-wing and idealist as we often are in youth. Turning. It could describe the spin of a top, the delicate movement of a lathe as it crafted shapes, even the earth itself. Describe things in the now. It was a turning point in the life of the young verb.

            Unusually, trophē married while still young, yet the marriage lasted. Kata (down) was a dark, brooding girl from an adjectival family. She had doleful black eyes, and her moods seemingly alternated at random between spiky and consonantal and unutterably depressed. She hung around with the prepositions at school, who liked to wear black eyeliner and hide from the summer sun. But together, they were happy. Together they converted to nominalism, and took the meaning of ‘an overturning’. Perhaps appropriately, they subverted all expectations and stayed happily married for many years.

            As adults, the couple moved to Italy, where at that time Roman culture was flourishing. It offered new opportunities and a bewilderingly aromatic array of cases for the adventurous word. The Romans were less welcoming than their society might have led the two to expect, and in fact they suffered jibes from the native words, who claimed words like them had come to replace latin words of good breeding and put them out of jobs. Katastrophē changed their names to catastropha, almost overnight causing them to be accepted by the populace, although many were still wary of their propensity to suddenly change, and most adjectives now kept away from them. This suited the couple as they didn’t feel especially prone to being modified in any case.

            Catastropha thought that their time was done when the Roman society fell after a brief flash of centuries, but they slumbered fitfully for hundreds of years in the manuscripts and scrolls that the Romans left behind. Then, in the 16th century, British scholars came across the couple nestling peacefully in the vellumed pages of the descriptions of Pompeii. The couple relocated again, this time to the thriving culture of England, changing their spelling again to ‘catastrophe’ and taking a subtle meaning change. Now that they were older they settled into meaning something like an unraveling in a drama. They enjoyed many nights at the theatre, witnessing the works of Shakespeare, Marlow and Jonson.

            It was strangely in keeping with the twists and turns of their story that in modern times they should take on the meaning of a disaster: just as dramatic as the plays they had frequented, but with a more real element of tragedy. The modern world had changed them. They were called to fly to the most remote locations to appellate earthquakes, floods, the political fallout of despotic regimes. It was fulfilling life, trying to make a difference to the people afflicted by such things, but exhausting for the now aged couple. After a long and happy life together, we believe that the couple may consider retiring to the obsolete section of the OED, and occupying a few silent pages together until a new meaning comes along to tempt them forth again.