Sunday, November 25, 2007

Defining Moment

I used to hate it when my mother would say, "look it up." As if she were keeping knowledge from me -- passing on the responsibility of explanation. Refusing to participate.

And anyway, defining always leads to more questions.

From the OED:


1. A substance having the following characters (or most of them): viz. those of being liquid at ordinary temperatures, of a vivid consistence and characteristic smooth and sticky (unctuous) feel, lighter than water and insoluble in it, soluble in alcohol and ether, inflammable, chemically neutral.

3. In figurative and allusive uses.
a. In allusion to the use of oil for anointing (ceremonial or medicinal) or for maintaining light or heat, esp. in reference to smooth i.e. soothing or flattering words.
to hold or bear up oil: to use flattering words.
to pour oil upon the waters: to appease strife or disturbance

As in, when did what appeased and healed become that which blanketed, smothered. When did that which we turned to become that which we distrust. Oily -- slick -- not flattery, but false flattery. Grease a palm -- to lubricate based on money, not fairness or earned advantage.

But now, for me, a dictionary is a place to retreat to -- to get lost in -- to look for grounding on days when I can feel the slightly lifting sense of dissociation setting in behind my forehead. A few years ago, a poet friend of mine was living at McClains Hospital -- not dying there, as the case was. I brought her a book of poems and photographs by Sally Mann -- but realized immediately these things were too volatile for her life just then. So I took back the art and brought her a dictionary instead. It was a better gift.

"Not everyone carries out the act of reading in the same way, but there is a manner of reading comparable to the act of writing -- it's an act that supresses the world. We annihilate the world with a book." Hélén Cixous.

So too, in defining we break down into history and elements -- into sound and allusion that which represents what we are looking at -- that which seems to stand between ourselves and understanding.

Molly, if you are still somewhere, I send you healing and fuel and boundless reserves.

1. Any of numerous mineral, vegetable, and synthetic substances and animal and vegetable fats that are generally slippery, combustible, viscous, liquid or liquefiable at room temperatures, soluble in various organic solvents such as ether but not in water, and used in a great variety of products, especially lubricants and fuels.
a. Petroleum.
b. A petroleum derivative, such as a machine oil or lubricant.
3. A substance with an oily consistency.
4. Oil paint.
5. A painting done in oil paint.
6. Insincere flattery.
tr.v. oiled, oil·ing, oils
To lubricate, supply, cover, or polish with oil.
oil (someone's) hand/palm Informal
1. To bribe: an attorney who tried to oil the judge's hand to obtain a favorable verdict.
2. To give a tip to: oiled the porter's palm.

[Middle English, from Old French oile, from Latin oleum, olive oil, from Greek *elaiwon, elaion, from *elaiw, elai, olive.]

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