“At first [wo]men spoke only poetry (only much later did it occur to anyone to reason)”

A [woman] alone in a forest sees others moving beyond the shadow of the trees.  She’s frightened and  senses through her fear that they’re bigger and stronger than she is.  She names them (the bodies of those others) (which might, who knows, pounce like lions, charge like bears) Giants : Giants names the fear they draw out in her (which is of and in her body, its discrepant size and strength).  Over time she studies their faces, their arms and legs; she watches their chests rise and fall with breath, notices their taut waists as they run.  And she measures her own body:  they’re neither bigger nor stronger than she is—

Fear will have diminished, dissolving the distance between her body and theirs.

They no longer embody her idea of Giant, so she invents another name that refers both to herself and to them, woman perhaps and women.  And the memory of the experience of fear persists.   As does its name.  She now restricts Giant for the fiction conjured by her passion.  The idea, not the word, transposes:  Giant names an inner feeling, an aberrant perception that swings away from the beings it perceives.  To the fear that interprets that perception.  Fear textures the forest—

It’s a passion, Giant.

“That the first language must have been figurative,” writes Rousseau.  That discrepancy figures giants to decorate the forest.  Figures decorate and:  they impose ideas.  Fear becomes the distance—Giant—between what she felt she saw and the bodies themselves moving through shadow across the forest floor.

She will have sensed fear as the Giant’s body touching her from the inside of her smallness.

Questions and Answers

What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?

Both of these poems work with a short passage from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages.  I was interested in the way the passage imagined the origin of language both as metaphorical and as arising from fear.  The passage felt timely to me in part because fear, perhaps as always, plays such a dominant role in our lives today—often we project our fears onto others, we name them, turn them into objects, respond to them not as people but as the objects of our fear.  This is a devastating dynamic played out over and over again, and I wanted to trace its happening both in language and in the body and thought.

This poem ““At first [wo]men spoke only poetry (only much later did it occur to anyone to reason)”” originally appeared in Asian Canadian Critique Beyond the Nation. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 227 (Winter 2015): 73.

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