Charles Hood, author of Partially Excited States, explains the double meaning behind his title and explores a variety of curious phrases in the English language. His book is published today by the University of Wisconsin Press in the Wisconsin Poetry Series, and is the winner of the 2016 Felix Pollak Poetry Prize.
Somebody at Yale once asked John Ashbery about his relationship to the English language. One wishes to be polite, but come on now—really? All of your work to all of language? It would be impossible for any of us to answer that, but most especially somebody whose artistic register spans every octave from Abstract Expressionism to parking tickets.
Ashbery said oh no, there must be some confusion. He didn’t work in the English language but in American English, and that included the English language within it. (And saying that, he slipped off to freshen his drink.)
It seems to me American English is like an enormous tiger shark, a monster fish whose gullet contains toasters, clocks, two-by-fours, other sharks, pieces of surfboard, half of a suit of armor. One thing about American English: nobody can accuse us of being all hat and no ranch. Macabre pictures gave Huck Finn the fantods; Mr. Twain also preserved for us galoot, palaver, and forty-rod (rotgut whisky). New words arrive daily: clickbait provides a pleasing spondee in the mouth, but I like older, folksier terms, like whisky jack for gray jay.
“Hey guys, wait up,” can be a girl pleading with girls as easily as it is gents razzing gents. Dude is equally inclusive: it used to mean a poor surfer, a term extrapolated from dude ranch, whose label came from the Scots for posh clothing, duds. Whatever happened to pen pals? Gumshoes used to get a hinky feeling about a john’s alibi. I’ll sit through hours of late-night noir just to watch people smoke and to listen to them call each other pal, buddy, and doll. Just once I want to start a poem by warning, “Watch it, buster.”
Do you call it a crayfish or a crawdad? Same creek-bottom bug-lobster, but names change by region. The poet Jonathan Williams loved documenting the language of Appalachia. Right before I retire (once it’s too late to get fired), I’ll quote him often, saying of one colleague in particular, “There’s more mouth on that woman than ass on a goose.”
In my new book, I play with this heritage. The cover photo was taken on a cross-country road trip and the title Partially Excited States I borrowed from material science. Articles in that discipline worry about the “applicability of Kohn–Sham density functional theory.” A sham theory? I’m loving it. But states can mean states of being (when you’re nearly interested, yet not quite) and of course I also mean the fifty U.S. states, all of which I’ve visited at least once. Somebody in a hurry is a highballer; in logging, a high climber is the person who tops a spar tree and hangs the butt rigging. American logging also gives us skidders and peaveys (tools), calks (boots), and slash as a noun—not the Guns N’ Roses guitarist, but piles of leftover branches.
Two people divided by a common language: my California English differs from that of my wife’s family in rural Pennsylvania—“davenport royalty” as I call them in the book—the people who warned me that “to prepare peaches for canning, / first you must scold them.” In hunting, a Texas heart shot means to shoot an animal from behind, through the anus, thus keeping the pelt intact for taxidermy. (Irish karate? To kick a lad after he’s already down.) Some day I want to publish my still-in-progress poem that celebrates aviation slang: to bingo—to abort, be diverted. At the bar, “Let’s bingo.” Judy: target in sight, locked on, got it.
My students mistakenly believe that present times are especially slangy, as if our great-grandparents didn’t get rat-assed, blotto, plowed, or cabbaged. They also expect me to be snobby about “bad” English. No way, brave dudes and dudettes. Best reason to want to live to be 100? Just to find out what our hep cat language plans to do next.
is a writer of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, a photographer, and an artist. His many books include Mouth; South x South; Río de Dios: 13 Histories of the Los Angeles River; The Half-Life of Salt: Voices of the Enola Gay; and Red Sky, Red Water: Powell on the Colorado. A longtime animal spotter, he has seen more than six hundred mammal species and more than five thousand species of wild birds. In his global travels, he has trekked to the South Pole, been lost in a Tibetan whiteout, and recovered from bubonic plague.