We keep hearing — and saying — we don’t have language for what is happening. We need new metaphors. Is “Advice to a Prophet” on every high school syllabus yet? Is “For a Coming Extinction?” Is “The Black Maria?” Meanwhile, I am thinking about the strangeness of words that circulate, ragged, limping, nearly stripped of all currency. The strangeness of the familiar. How to defamiliarize them, and fast!
Near term (social collapse). Mid-term (elections, in the US). (Carrying a pregnancy) to term. Long term (continuation of Earth without everything we currently call life). But also: prison term, a term in office. A name. To name.
What does a proximity of sound suggest, when I hear tern and turn, a subtle shape-shift into greater currency — the noisiness of terns, — and agency — the kinetic action required to turn? And why should these be missing from the first word, term? It’s so ordinary. So self-effacing. I want to move on from it already.
Notice it isn’t short term, though, and how the choice of near makes the prospect of extinction that much more — near. More intimate. Nearby, rather than close by. To near, rather than approach. Near-death. What in the sound, what in the shapes of taken-for-granted symbols, finds a place in the body, saying, “Move slowly?”
Take Sarah Fuller Flower Adams’ “Nearer, My God to Thee” (I like it best without the sixth verse, added by Bishop Bickersteth, the only useful contribution of which seems to be to make one realize how intimate and wild and genderless Sarah Adams’ God is). How nearer is prayer, plaintive, nearer, nearer, please. Not with you (and, anyway, “what kind of withness is it,” Anne Carson asks, about the opening to the Gospel of John), but nearer, which continues the motion from where I am to(ward) where God is, or maybe implies a God that is always receding. But one can draw nearer.
I have arrived some distance away from term. The beginning of the name for a wood-chewer (termite), or a final prognosis (terminal), or a window with insulated glazing that, in Romania, spells out “middle-class enough to be warm” (termopan). I will bypass Terminator; I am already thinking of the eleventh month of the French Republican Calendar (Thermidor). And heat. And the dynamics of heat. “No more water, but fire next time,” from the spiritual. But the near term promises the water and the fire.
The mid-terms, we know already, will not be just, even if they are legal. The law allows a man running for governor in Georgia to determine the terms of voter registration — and the count — in his state. I said determine the terms: are you asleep? He oversees the law that purges a registration if a name is spelled wrong (just today I saw an ad say it’s when it meant its), as of this week, potentially 56k mostly Black names — think of the inalienable freedom of naming one’s child (that wasn’t always so for everyone), think of what happened to names at Ellis Island, think of all the tired, fallible, bored, not-necessarily-but-sometimes spiteful civil servants who copy down name after name behind a glass window. The law requires rural North Dakotan Native voters to give a street address, where many have only post office boxes. The brutal irony of that, the historically land-deprived requiring a street address to legitimate existence and citizenship.
Mid-terms announce the middle of a term. It’s apropos of nothing, but the only mid-term that, for me, has currency as a couple of words is Seamus Heaney’s “Mid-Term Break.”
How do you bring that feeling into the other midterm?
Carrying to term: the clinical to term cuts a sharp contrast to the weight, the tenderness, often the generosity (even — or, especially when — it is begrudging) of carrying. In many cases, where genetic slippage becomes incompatible with life (how strange our language around death, how much we use language like a stick, to batter or to push ourselves away from feeling), carrying to term carries the prison’s trace of term. What might be a baby will die. Few if any women would choose to carry this dying life to term — you have to force them. As far as I can tell, that is the only purpose of the term to term, first to force women into a twisted grief, then to fight, in the language of protest and resistance, against this very thing. I can’t find a way to make the words draw nearer to the grief caused by laws forcing women to carry to term.
These terms may not yet help us feel the ways poems might, but maybe they can count among the tools we need to make the poems we need.