822: Cricket Song

822: Cricket Song

822: Cricket Song


I’m Major Jackson, and this is The Slowdown.

At a reading recently, a fiction writer friend, publicly making the distinction between herself and me, stated: “For novelists like myself, words are tools; but for Major and his ilk, words are jewels.” That’s facts. The litmus test to any writer’s worth is how much they cherish language and how that love is tooled, or jeweled in the very fabric of a phrase.

And where do we satiate this craving beyond our own deep reading? The dictionary, of course. It’s one thing to hear writers discuss their preferred writing utensils, their design and function (refillable cartridges, fountain pen tips, pointed nibs, Faber-Castell or Montblanc) but it’s a whole other tent revival to hear writers gush over their favorite dictionaries.

I know a novelist who swears by his “grand old Webster’s, 2nd edition” published in 1828. Then, there is the mystery writer who keeps her illustrated Oxford on a mahogany stand by the front door and uses it as a divination tool at dinner parties or just before a date. With its 600,000 words, the Oxford English Dictionary never fails to turn a mere search for a word into a descent down a luxuriant hole of splendid etymologies and illustrations. For example, “major, from the Latin, magnus, meaning great.”

In graduate school, my friend Sonya was the first human being I knew to own a twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary outside of a library — thick tomes with blue binding and large, aggressive lettering on the cover. Sonya was ceremonious when retrieving its posh, slip-cased magnifying glass. I wanted that power.

Still, at times, no words exist to capture our rapid, forward-marching world. Life outpaces language. It is then we attempt to create fresh language or rinse cycle words until we have a new purchase on old concepts. For example, for about a decade, I’ve been trying to formulate a word that explains the phenomenon of contagious yawning. It’s a thing and I’m haunted by this lack in our speech. It is what leads me to sing.

In today’s poem, a speaker encounters a near-untranslatable Greek word yet sees its meaning in a beloved, an act of association that unlocks a key myth to explain poets’ obsessive singing.

Cricket Song
by George Kalogeris

Titivízei. Those twittering cries the blackbird
Makes when it descends to drink from a pure
Mountain spring in late Seferis, a word
That seemed to draw on demotic roots so obscure
I couldn’t find it in any of my dictionaries—

Nothing from Oxford’s Modern and Byzantine Greek,
Or Liddell and Scott. Then I looked it up in your eyes,
Incredulous as you turned from the kitchen sink
To enlighten my ignorance with a terse couplet
Fresh from your girlhood, a song about what the crickets

Sing at the height of summer. The dripping faucet
Gleams, like a source that goes back to those early poets
Who loved to sing so much they forgot to eat,
So the gods turned the poets into creatures so tiny
That now they feed on the dew. Titivízei.

“Cricket Song” by George Kalogeris from GUIDE TO GREECE © 2018 George Kalogeris. Used by permission of Louisiana State University Press.