I wrote “An Etymology of Sorts” on August 30, 2002. At the time, I was thinking about origins, genealogy, going back and back to find a source, an original relation to myself or to the landscapes that helped to shape my thinking, my presence, and my presence of mind. I considered the prospect of writing a whole series of poems using the stem of “An Etymology…” I wrote titles like “An Etymology of Rain,” “An Etymology of Whimsy,” “An Etymology of Pondside Reeds,” “An Etymology of Barns,” "An Etymology of Sycamore Leaves," and on and on.
“An Etymology of Sorts” was published in the Winter 2005 issue of The North Dakota Quarterly along with two other poems, “Before His Final Day” and “Target Practice,” (a sonnet that later appeared in my third collection, Restoring the Narrative). The poem was later collected in my fourth collection, Small Revolution.
AN ETYMOLOGY OF SORTS
moondrift and mountain laurel,
the path to the falls.
And so much
these clumsy lives
the leaning-halt of barn
and everything beyond.
You speak to me
of garden rows,
and lilac scent.
Whatever it is
we think we know,
with open windows.
More than three decades ago, I began as a narrative poet, writing poems by grounding myself in a location, in a situation, and then exploring time’s hesitant unfolding toward a resolution or insight. Such a poem began in one place and then—through action or gesture—seemed to reach a conclusion. For most of a decade I could turn out poem after poem, based mostly on memory, that gave me the impression I was creating some sense of wholeness through my writing life. I still write such poems, but somewhere around the late 1990s, a different kind of poem began to emerge as a possibility.
There is something about writing short stand-alone stanzas that can lead both to disjuncture and continuity. A thought can occur but then associatively lead anywhere to anything. Or one stanza might be a lens through which to perceive another thought, and then another and another, while each distinct thought (each stanza) could be interesting in and of itself, almost like a small poem, but then all of the stanzas taken together could be larger than any singular stanza. That’s the hope, at least. Better yet, the process of developing a poem could emerge from any connection the mind might make.
Within this “etymology,” what does it mean that the world is a “small wonder”? Is it really small; or is it vast, unfathomable, immense, full of “countless implications” and “the multitudinous mysteries of the moment”? Is “wonder” the source from which all my thoughts emerge, somewhere along “the path to the falls”? My first collection, Fall Sanctuary, explored, to some degree, whether there is sanctuary to be found within the “fall of man.” Perhaps a sense of wonder leads anywhere.
That “so much [is]/unpronounceable” suggests that the world lies beyond our efforts to name it, to hold it, even as it vanishes, even as it hesitantly comes into being before us, even as we, too, “live/these clumsy lives.” We can speak of “garden rows,/of loam/and lilac scent,” speaking alliteratively, associatively, poetically; but, even so, in the end, as we try to trace this etymology of sorts—this etymology of sorting through the emerging details of landscape, memory, and language—anything we ultimately come to know is still “filled/with open windows.”
Can we even keep up with the immensities unfolding before us?
Even the “wonder” we explore, attempting to name its dimensions, its examples, leads us to realize that the word “wonder”—this clumsy attempt to name what we think it is, this seeking after its countless sources—can only be conceived as a kind of openness to the world, window after window. “Wonder” is just wonder after wonder, word after word, gap after hole after emptiness, in any direction we might attempt to search, as endless in one direction—outward, inward, past, present, future—as in any other direction.
What a “small wonder” we ever think anything at all—one thought much less another—and “small wonder” we have these minds so often given to wondering, wandering along wherever the next thought is drawn along.