Week 38. Lexicon

There has been so much plague research out lately: tracing the bacterium back, giving it name and lineage, connecting the centuries into family. I look at medieval death records and am fascinated by their lexicon: kingsevil, the rising of the lights. I’ve diagnosed myself with a chronic case of “the frights.”

“The rising of the lights,” or croup, is my favorite phrase, the lights being lungs, catarrh of the throat experienced not as a dripping down, but as a rising up – how it truly feels. It sounds like being overtaken by spirits, which is sometimes how illness want to feel, with increasing loss. A visitation, agonizing, desired. People swallowed shot to keep the lights down.

West Nile Virus first appeared in the US as a noticing of dead birds. It must have looked like omen, untrustworthy and inescapable. I’ve never found the line between omen and epidemiology, between sign and sign. When HIV first appeared, it was called “gay-related immune deficiency,” or, simply “gay disease.” Being a part of public health feels like it’s about both saving lives and being a war criminal. I have to hold both legacies in mind to move forward, to help and atone. I have to do this, but I still don’t know how.

In looking for insomnia cures, I found people using the svefnþorn (sleep thorn) rune. Runic languages have been diluted until they are simple and heart-warming and helpful. The svefnþorn is a weapon! For putting your enemies to sleep. But – cure and weapon, medicine and poison. I know from listening to pharmacists that sometimes the body only listens to a bit of poison, enough of an omen to set things right.

Materials: gouache and a dead bird in the alley

I tried learning by force, listing words on one side of the page in Italian, the other in English. Conversation from the street floated up to my window. I practiced writing the same words over and over. Eventually the seeds took root, but it was only with the playfulness of talking in a bar, getting to know the family I worked for, running errands. Five years later, I went back, the words at first gummy then loosening. I added farm vocabulary: mucca, cinghiale, biologico.

A lexicon of italian, some dialect, some from textbooks, some learned translating the newspaper word-for-word.

I ran into a painter from Milan last month in the North Woods of the Midwest, on an island, the middle of nowhere. We spoke of Elena Ferrante, the evolution of feminism, his home town of Palermo where I had once been. I was fast and silly, just as I always am. Later, I played back the conversation and realized I had been flying in a time machine of past, present, future, and also mixing he, I, they, subjects.  Words without syntax, but with the long pom-pom needles of white pine all around and the sun off Lake Superior, it didnt matter. Somehow just throwing words up into the air was enough to start a game of catch. 

Medium – Ink and colored pencil.

Note –  I’m self conscious that some of my postcards are not sciencey enough. I read a lot about the science of grammar this week, but in the end I wrote what came to me. I see the science fibers in my writing, but they are more part of the fabric than the print.


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