One morning early in my life I decided it was high time I read a book. My parents had been pointing out letters to me for a while, and I loved noticing “H”s when we drove past billboards, or stood in line at the supermarket near the magazines. They had helped me begin making the link between letters and their sounds, and I was tired of being surrounded by words I could not decipher on my own. From a shelf in the living room I selected Owl and Sleepy Dragon, carried it to the kitchen table, and went to work.
Reading the word “owl” wasn’t too hard, but I thought “dragon” might kill me. Holy crap. How, I thought, did everyone manage to suffer like this, through the constant, slow, agonizing accumulation of sound into meaning? I kept slogging on, but I was not looking forward to the rest of my life. Then I hit the word “dragon” for a second time. I began my time-consuming decoding until it hit me, somewhere around the third letter, that I knew this word. This word was already mine; I recognized it as I would recognize any recently acquired toy, with relish.
Until that moment it had not occurred to me that words could reappear with the same letters in the same order. What an excellent idea! And my long journey into literacy worked for years by repeating that same trick, acquiring and then maintaining recognition of an entire word.
To borrow from the neurolinguist Stanslas Dehaene's Reading in the Brain, I was moving from the phonological route (sounding out letters) into the lexical (apprehending entire words). For a long time it became difficult for me to not read a word, to actually see its constituent parts. It was poetry, of course, that returned my letters to me.
There are many, many poetry books that resist easy access to simply lexical reading (think of what music Harryette Mullen makes of meaning in Sleeping with the Dictionary’s “Kirstenography”), but I want to focus here on what happens when you try to read Franck Andre Jamme’s New Exercises, translated from the French by Charles Borkhuis.
Before I send you over the the Wave Books site to see a poem for yourself, I should tell you a couple of things from the book's introduction, first that "Tablets like these used to be found on small gold leaves in ancient Roman graves. These leaves were typically folded inside the closed hands or mouths of the dead. They could be read as maxims, wishes, recommendations, or favorite sentences." And secondly, that Jamme says he wanted "to distract myself for once with letters and words, and to abandon, for a time, the customary, linear way of reading. To obscure it in order to suddenly render attention necessary; not only attention, but even a kind of effort." Got that? Okay, click here to read the first poem.
How was that? How do you feel? Did the words elude you? Did you need to move through them slowly? How did you know when a new word began? Did you predict that a word would continue one way when in fact it went another? Did the "DI" of "DISOBEY" momentarily suggest the ability might be to "DIE"? (I am really asking you, I think, whether you feel at all as I do.)
Here is a more important question: Did you begin to read aloud? It took me ages to realize that might help me understand these poems. Try it with this one. (I'm very bossy, I know.)
What happened? Did you find "THEE" bridging the imaginary space between "THE" and "ENIGMA"? Did you see the COMET? Did you speak the sounds of these letters and sound yourself as though you were only now learning to read?
Both the necessity of reading out loud and the leaving out of spaces between words feel novel to me, reading this book, but they are, of course, very old. Reading silently and making spaces are more recent inventions, as St. Augustine and W. S. Graham well know:
PS Hello, it's nice to meet you. My name is Heather Christle and I will be typing here this week.