Sunday, February 15, 2009

For All We Know

The maitre'd was looking at us in a funny way
as if he caught the drift I sought between the lines you spoke.

For one word never came across as just itself, but you
would put it over as insinuating something else.

Then slowly, slowly we would draw in on one another
until everything was implicated like wool spooled

from my yawning hands as you wound the yarn into a ball.

(Ciaran Carson, "Second Time Around," For All We Know, 15)

You speak; I seek to understand what you say; I read the expression of the maitre'd. I think he looks as if he understands; if he understands your subtexts, that means that there are subtexts to be understood. My conditional reading of his expression is a sign of my desire for there to be a subtext, a "drift" to catch.

The source of ambiguity is fourfold: it comes from my desire for it; it comes from the attempt by the maitre'd to interpret something unfamiliar; it comes from you and your manner of speaking; it comes from language itself.

But perhaps one should say "implication" rather than "ambiguity." Your words have implications (you "insinuate something else"); they imply more than themselves. But I do not "imply"; I infer, and it seems to me as if the maitre'd also infers.

Ambiguity, implication, insinuation, inference: all this may imply that communication is not happening, that I am not "catching your drift," that something is wrong. But "slowly, slowly," you and I do communicate at this implicit level at which "everything is implicated" (whereby this verb, like "insinuate," has a sinister "drift" that "imply" does not), even if the simile of the winding of the yarn is not simple. What is being implied (insinuated, implicated) does not become explicit, but the feeling, the sensation, of communication ("we would draw in on one another") is generated, how it is when one is in love and words always have a surplus of meaning.

In the yarn simile, I hold up the wool while you wind it into a ball. As "yarn" can also mean "tale" or "story" (with the added implication that the tale might be "tall"), it is appropriate that you, the one telling the story, the one "insinuating something else," the one who has a drift to catch, should be one "winding the yarn." But the simile puts the listener in an unusual, surprising position: I do not unwind the yarn as you tell your tale; I hold the unwound wool up for you to wind.

So the listener here does not just receive the tale from the storyteller; I am not a passive receptacle for your "yarn." "Catching the drift" and understanding "insinuations" are activities I engage in in response to your story, but "everything is implicated" only because I provide a foundation for your storytelling. For the story to have its full effect, the listener must offer not only attention but something that the passage does not name, something prior to attention, something whose drift is caught only in the ambiguous image of "my yawning hands."

[I just noticed that I had forgotten that my original review of For All We Know begins with these same lines.]

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