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Phrase

September 1, 2018

PHRASE

 

By Robert Boucheron

    

Fresh from sleep in the morning, while my body is busy washing, clothing and feeding itself, my mind needs something to do. It tosses up words, proper names, and nonsense. I babble out loud. The rant is a privilege of living alone, as walls and furniture don’t complain. I repeat a savory string of syllables, and it takes on meaning, arcane and irresponsible, like the verses of Edward Lear. A phrase sticks in my head.

     Where does the phrase originate? Is it a scrap of speech? If so, who said it, to whom, and under what circumstances? Is the phrase the start of a story, significant in a way I have not yet discovered? Or is it the end, the banal last line that will have acquired a deeper meaning from a story yet to be written? Is the phrase from a poem, an essay, a play? Is a fictional character about to be born?

     As if by biochemical attraction, the phrase attracts more words and names. Like single-cell organisms, the words emit a pheromone to invite their friends to join them. They coalesce and specialize. Secretly they multiply.

     A natural philosopher, I inspect the mass of tissue. Does it exhibit a pulse? To what species does it belong? What should I call this new and living thing? Above all, what does it want to become?

     I interrogate the words, and they yield information, not always correct, but at least we are in dialogue. I sit and lean in, determined to know what the words are hiding, where they came from, and where they intend to go.

     Conditional clauses swim into view, a structure of paragraphs, a season of the year, a social milieu, a place. I scribble a page of notes to myself. I compose an introduction, a guide to the visitor, as Louis XIV did about his gardens at Versailles. Normally I do this with a pencil or a pen, but sometimes the personal computer is on. When it comes to materials and methods, as architects refer to the means of execution, I am not fussy.

     Later, I pick up the paper or open the electronic file. The phrase that promised so much looks pathetic in black and white. I crumple the paper or delete the file. But the phrase, the name, the cluster of words that formed by itself, this imaginary waif refuses to be abandoned. Like a volunteer seedling or a hatchling from a nest, it cries out for rescue.

     I resort to my notebook, an artist’s sketchbook where I stash ideas that may or may not be good, but I hate to throw them away. The notebook has a hard black cover and big white sheets. It has drawings, clippings, biographical profiles, and quotes from wherever. There are no rules. I copy the crumpled notes or recreate them, then slam the notebook shut.

     Days or months later, a tendril emerges. The words did not die.

Neglected, on their own, they have formed a vine or a wild creeper, something that seeks a life in the world. I give it room, prepare a bed of soil, insert, and gently tamp. For shape, I lop off a branch and graft one stem to another. The vine submits to my pruning knife. It thrives.

     It may not be a plant, however. Nor is it an animal fixed in place, like a colony of anemones or a deep sea worm. Like an earthly plasmodium, a slime mold in the woods, a genetic mutant, or something that escaped from a laboratory, it defies Linnaean

classification. It may be a monster, but one I have come to love.

     Obsessed by the task of propagation, I no longer claim to be an observer, dispassionate and innocent. My hands are dirty. My interest comingles with that of the words. Play turns to work, as the part becomes a whole. Synecdoche is the name of the game.

     The phrase that tormented me grows and matures. It already knows what it is. Faithful to the moment that caught my attention, I have only to transcribe it. And in truth, nothing could bring me greater pleasure.

***


Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. From 1978 to 2016, he worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, Litro, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, The Short Story, and other magazines.

 

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