Say/Mean…Shaking the Pumpkin

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Musings on Writing and Life.

Years ago, in a poetry class at the Attic Writers’ Workshop here in Portland, our teacher, Paulann Petersen, turned us on to a really cool book edited by Jerome Rothenberg, Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North America. The title gives you a hint to what is inside—a cornucopia of far-ranging, free-styling poetries from all across this continent. That day in class, Paulann shared an Eskimo poem where you “say” one thing, but actually “mean” something else.

About a year after that class, I returned to working with this material and my own stable of words. Over time and much revision and tweaking, the poem that resulted from my pumpkin-shaking, “Code Talker,” was first published online in The 22 Magazine, Volume 2: Sign & Symbol Issue in 2011 and the next year in print. The 22 Magazine is no longer being published but was an outstanding annual arts and literature magazine that sought “to explore connections and intersections between the works of artists, musicians and writers. In some portions of The 22 the structure is presented as a diptych or sometimes triptych, allowing the viewer to actively participate in the task of opening the hinges that link conversation between the pieces.”

“Code Talker” later appeared as the first poem in the first section of my 2015 collection, Every Door Recklessly Ajar. This one is a bit leaping and sometimes surreal. But I really loved the way language play can also, surprisingly, end with profound meaning, too. What saves this poem from being simply an exercise, I think, is the way it ended up parsing itself on the page, this particular (and very deliberate) line-and-stanza arrangement. A poet friend suggested this 1, 3, 2, 4, 2, 1 line arrangement, a kind of symmetry that works to slow the intensity of the poem down and encourages focus on each line itself.


Say nickel and mean token for the turnstile.

Say thimble and mean a demitasse of flesh.
Say sieve and mean wind from a flensing typhoon.
Say lipstick and ghost stripes on the prow.

Say dagger and mean no Johnny-come-latelies.
Say dungarees and mean do-si-do your cuffs.

Say clothesline and mean every secret hung to dry.
Say brothel and mean a house of many wombs.
Say peony and mean rapture’s flower hurried to skillet.
Say gasoline and mean the fires lit toward us.

Say votive and mean snuff the devotional wars.
Say stigmata and mean target, every ripening wound.

Say incense and mean joss stick flagellations.
Say obelisk and mean the fallen, the never interred.
Say liver and mean none who survive.

Say shadow and mean any god who flouts — this.

The public domain image above was taken in 2007 by Bruce Dupree of the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.

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