What the Pearl Said

We progress into the most dense part of summer, mid-August. They call it the “dog days”. I always thought it was a little unfair to lay that on dogs who didn’t ask for it and suffer more than most during this time. Most people assume the expression arises from the actual suffering dogs on our porches. More likely the title has to do with the passage of Sirius the Dog Star through our skies during these weeks. (Also the feast day of Saint Roch, the patron saint of dogs and one of my personal heroes, is August 16th.) So the bit about this time of year not being fit for dogs is a retrofit notion we applied later.

Each year, I try to hurry through this part of the calendar, even as everything associated with it conspires to slow me down. Now is the purgatorial slog. I dread it more each year. One day after the next is like a pile of oily, wet earth to push-off the porch. These go by in a progression toward the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. August 29th is tattooed on the inside of my eyelids. The movement toward that date is a peculiar mix of sludge in the forehead, black buzz over the vision and always, always that hot needle of anxiety boring into the cartilage over the ear. An echo of five years ago. We brace ourselves constantly, like a clenched fist . . . for what?

No one is at ease. We’re pretending but not very well. Emily coughed up a poem this morning, and I am not sure what to do with it. Here goes:

#693, c. 1863

Shells from the Coast mistaking —
I cherished them for All —
Happening in After Ages
To entertain a Pearl —

Wherefore so late — I murmured —
My need of Thee — be done —
Therefore — the Pearl responded —
My Period begin

The first thing that strikes my ear is that in her last line she writes “begin”, present tense. Not “begun” past tense, which would have completed the rhyme with “done” more nicely than “begin”. So what does she accomplish here. She irritates our ear with a slant rhyme. Then she ends her poem by launching it outward, into the eternal present tense where it remains in a perpetual state of beginning. All the previous verbs are in the past tense, telling us what happened in the past, fixed under her microscope. Only at the end does the energy change into an ongoing action, wide-open, changeable, uncontrolled.

So irritating this slant rhyme. It rubs the wrong way. It bothers the reader so much that the oyster mind ladles some soothing meaning around the sharp edges. That will make it work better, give it a smoother more acceptable shape. If we can attribute some meaning to it, then we can live with the irritation. To pearlize the problematic slant rhyme is to make a place for it in our minds. If we do that well enough, we may even come to cherish what had irritated us. Since we can’t spit this out, the mind may make it beautiful. But really we come to cherish the clever coating we have placed around it. That is the artful part, right? Not the irritation but our own genius for smoothing over the irritation.

I’d like to do the same for the entire month of August. It chokes me in the back of my throat, and I can’t dislodge this irritant. Nothing for it but to endure, leave town, or make something of it. The writing is not so much more complicated than the clever oyster who accommodates its tender insides to the unkindness of intruding sand. We’ll make a smoother coat for the thing that pains us. Nature compels us to write the story that soothes the mind. Some pearls are lumpier than others. Some are precious. Some only semi-precious. Several are flawed and would be better returned to the sea. Others are simple and lovely, both a remedy and pleasing for its own sake. Those I’ll keep.

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