A _________ of geese. A _________of pheasants. A __________ of owls. A _________ of woodpeckers. A ___________ of crows. Gaggle. Bouquet. Parliament. Descent. Murder.
It was from a Thursday puzzle, far enough into the week that it was becoming difficult. Bouquet surfaced slowly, trapped by a mistaken p from pot, 5DOWN, the clue was jardiniere. Pot needed to become urn before the pheasants could assemble. A three letter lynchpin. Parliament came easier, so perfect for owls. And murder, an odd word but believable given the blackness of crows, Poe’s raven and all that. But descent, I couldn’t imagine what that was until I had to believe it true, pinned as it was by the words on the other axes. The crossword is language at its purest, words for words’ sake, meaning no more of less than what they mean.
I carry a no. 2 pencil and the NYT crossword puzzle with me as I walk to the end of our road each day to meet the kindergarten school bus. On Mondays and Tuesdays it is done, filled with capital letters forming tight packages of words before the bus arrives, before Silas steps out and we thank Miss Chris, the busdriver, for a safe ride home. Wednesdays and Thursdays, though, squares, maybe even whole corners remain letterless as we walk back up the hill, my eyes, and my attention, darting from paper to son as he tells me of the little girl he sat next to who kept “distracting” him and I try to find a seven letter word for “harmonizes.”
On September 13, when the newspaper was filled with words too horrible to read, I took the Arts section, folded into quarters, the puzzle empty in the lower left, tucked it into Charles Baxter’s “Feast of Love and walked down the street. Silas’s friend Brad had come home with him that day, his first play date in the new world, and we stopped at the crick in the road’s swale so they could hunt for tadpoles. I sat on the stone wall and plumbed my mind’s dictionary as the boys plumbed the pebbly stream. My neighbor Tom came by, off an early train as Rockefeller Center had been evacuated again for a bomb scare, the third time in as many days. We spoke of the world’s events, who was saying what, what it meant of didn’t mean, where Bin Laden was, when would it feel safe again. It was exhausting, suffocating, and meaningless.
I am angry at language I think. Angry at its nuance. Angry at its inability to be just one thing. Angry at my inability to make it say what I want it to. Last week I visited a friend who is doing CPE at a local hospital. Eager to experience all worship space, I ducked first into the chapel where I sat in common prayer with a pink-aproned nurse until she finally rose, we nodded communal blessing and she left. Alone, I got up to explore the square table that stood chest high in front of a stained glass leaf patterned window, backlit by 100 watts of electric utility. There were four books on the table, the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, an Arabic book I took to be the Koran and a fourth I couldn’t identify. The Tanakh was open to the 23rd psalm and I began to read. There was no “valley of the shadow of death” but a “darkness, of deepest darkness.” “Goodness and mercy” no longer followed me, rather “goodness and steadfast love” pursued me as I ran. The words merged and diverged. Translation upon translation.
I think of the fervor of the Islamic fundamentalists, their conviction solid, based on original language. God spoke in Mohammad’s tongue; their faith seeks no translation. I think of the untenable position of homosexuals in the Orthodox Jewish community, skewered by language, desperate for a new translation. I think on how often my own words have been arrows, sometimes aimed, more often sprung from my bow without intention. And I think on how my future depends on my ability to articulate in language a piece in me that lives beyond words.
Poet laureate Stanley Kunitz says that the poem in the head is always perfect. Resistance comes, he reminds me, when it must be put into language. I have lived forever this resistance. I have always found my words insufficient to my task. Perhaps that is why I loved studying French. Maybe that is why I spent years plying the grammatical rules of Russian. To be in another language is to believe you might find your own. If I don’t become a priest, I may yet be a translator, priest of words with a small w.
I the meantime, I enjoy the daily crossword. Its beauty is that outside the box each word can find numerous synonyms, nuanced parallels, new translations. But to complete the puzzle there is only one correct choice. One word that will allow all other words to be themselves. There is no ambiguity. The puzzle is not right unless it is completely right.