837: Fire Destroys Beloved Chicago Bakery

837: Fire Destroys Beloved Chicago Bakery

837: Fire Destroys Beloved Chicago Bakery

Today’s episode is guest hosted by Jason Schneiderman.


I’m Jason Schneiderman and this is The Slowdown.

One of the weird things about language is that similar sounding words have very different meanings. If you are looking for a lavatory, a laboratory will not do. Having a prodigal child is cause for despair, but having a prodigy for a child is cause for celebration. There’s a book about speech recognition called “How To Wreck a Nice Beach” because that’s what the computer heard, the first time it was asked to transcribe the phrase, “How to Recognize Speech.” I spend a lot of time with people who are learning English, so I’ve become attuned to some of the weirder aspects of the sounds of English. Does it make sense that Tim and Tom are both names but Jim and Jom are not? You tell me.

Of course, anything challenging can also be a source of pleasure, and using the wrong word is a very old kind of joke, one that takes its name from Mrs. Malaprop, a character in a comedy from the 1700s. Mrs. Malaprop, whose name is a play on the French for “misplaced,” says she hopes that her daughter will “reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying” and uses the word “allegory” when she means “alligator.” These so-called Malapropisms have never gone away. Justin Bieber, for example, apparently thought that the Sistine Chapel was the Sixteenth Chapel.

But in the 1800s, Sigmund Freud suggested that using the wrong word might not just be a source of humor, but could also give us a glimpse into the unconscious. He gave his own name to what is now commonly called a Freudian slip, when someone says what they really mean or really want, instead of the socially acceptable thing they meant to say.

Today’s poem starts with a conceit, an idea or premise that motivates the poem. The speaker misreads the word “fire” as “father”— and then proceeds along the twin lines of malapropism and Freudian slip. At times the usage is funny and clever, and at times dire and significant, and sometimes — because this is a poem — it’s both.

“Fire Destroys Beloved Chicago Bakery”
by Nathan McClain

How is it that you misread “fire”
as “father”—your father—
come back from the dead,

to sweep, like hard wind, through the building,
to smash, with a Louisville Slugger,
every pastry with which you’d pack

your sweet little mouth, then
flick a lit match into the trash bin?
The entire building

will have to be demolished
because the father took hours
finally to be put out;

it was a stubborn father. Your father
who once, outside a grocery store,
warned you against asking 

for anything inside, so you have learned
to keep your appetites a secret.
And how good you are: refusing,

in the drive thru, the hot apple pie
(two for a dollar), choosing
 the house salad over french fries.

But maybe this is why
they all leave you, why you can’t
let him rest in peace. The real question is

not why your father would do such a thing, 
but why you smell him in every ruin, every
smoldering heap of ash and brick?

“Fire Destroys Beloved Chicago Bakery” by Nathan McClain from SCALE © 2017 Nathan McClain. Used by permission of Four Way Books.