Back from the dead

In the dictionary—in a large, unabridged one, at least—you’ll notice that some words are followed by the abbreviation obs. It stands for obsolete, meaning that the word is no longer in use, which in essence means it’s no longer a real word. Not used by anyone living, and not known by the vast majority of speakers of the language. Often enough this is a word for an object or, say, a job that is also no longer in use—but sometimes it’s a word that, once I learn its meaning, seems like it would still be useful, and it feels sad to think of it having died, even though languages are constantly changing and these deaths are completely natural. It’s just what happens.

Several years ago I developed a fascination with the idea of obsolete words, and also with the experience of finding them in the dictionary mixed in with the living ones. It gave me a strange, excited feeling, as if the book was a house haunted by ghost words. I got the idea to write poems inspired by obsolete words, and I found the words I wanted to work with in the Oxford English Dictionary at my local library. The OED famously records 1,000 years of the English language, so there are a lot of relics in there. My library had the entire 20-volume set condensed into 2 books, and the print was so small I had to borrow their magnifying glass and pass it over each page, looking for that obs.

At the time I was living in the neighborhood I’d grown up in, just around the corner from my old house where my mother still lived, and the library was the same one where I’d been given my first library card as soon as I was old enough to be able to write my name. My dad had died when I was 22, which was the reason I’d come back, but I ended up sticking around for years, continuing to spook my old haunts. I rented a pretty, airy apartment that I loved, me and my best friend Trixie (a cat), and during those years I did an awful lot of writing and made tons of zines. I listened to music and sat on the hardwood floor of my living room, stapling them and singing along. I had lots of sweet, happy times like that, but it’s also true that I was often quite lonely. I had friends, but never anyone I felt close enough with to let them see all the things I thought were wrong with me. I got terrible migraines that made me think I might die, or at least that I wanted to, and sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night from a deep sleep and didn’t know why. I remember standing in my small kitchen on one of those nights, looking out the window into the dark courtyard, still and lit by floodlights like a movie set, and watching a possum take his time walking along the paved path that I myself took during the day. He was like a ghost too, a sweet, funny ghost: perfectly silent and almost glowing under the streetlamp a grub-like shade of white. I remember this moment fairly often, actually, and when I think of it I feel a mixture of things that I still can’t decide is more peaceful than restless or the other way around.

I think I had some understanding, at the time, of why I was so interested in obsolete words. I knew how much it hurt to feel extraneous, but I also knew the secret joy of liking yourself anywy. This was also the reason I exclusively wore secondhand clothes and dragged home intriguing objects from people’s trash. Everywhere I looked there were things that people didn’t want anymore, but I could look at them and see their value. They were still good! They just needed fresh eyes, some love and imagination. When I resurrected other people’s old belongings I felt the deep pleasure of owning something that was old and new at the same time, of letting the past mingle with the present—this time on purpose and for fun. If I couldn’t “learn to let go,” I could at least make a small theater of my inability to move on.

And those words, gosh, I loved finding them. It was like a treasure hunt, like digging through the dollar bins and finding your new favorite sweater. There was “accinge: to gird up one’s loins, to apply oneself.” Appropriate! “Murklins: in the dark.” Also appropriate. “Famelicose: Often or very hungry.” Yes. Yes.

When I had made a poem I was happy with for each letter of the alphabet, I worked with a friend who designed them into a beautiful little book (I called it Obsolete) and another friend who had acquired an offset printing press and was running his own printing business. We made 500 copies of the book and I sold them, one at a time, through the mail and at events, and in a few years they were gone. I kept two copies for myself—they’re in my big bookcase downstairs—and when I see the book now I feel warmth for the memory of how proud I was of it. Looking back, I feel proud that I was able to find a way to make something beautiful out of my sadness and my love for the world that persisted in spite of it.

The other day a blogger named Tabatha Yeatts gave me a nice surprise by posting a couple of the poems from that book, which was what got me thinking about it again. It was interesting for me to see them on a website, outside of the context of the book, and so nice to read people’s kind comments and feel their excitement at the idea of writing about obsolete words. These words have been dead for even longer than they had been when I first found them, but look! They’ve got some life in them yet. As long as someone is thinking of them, they’re not really gone.