I tend to get nervous faced with the impulse to begin an article by tracing etymology. To frame a word within the context of its development through language over time risks eliminating all the ways it has been experienced throughout history by the people who heard it, who read it, who touched it, who wrote it down, and who spoke it for themselves.
Ways they might have loved or hated its sound, may have stumbled across it one day while reading a book or listening to a story and had it rattle around in their head for weeks on end, the way they might have forgotten it and then, years later, in an offhand moment or deliberate strain at memory have it return, like an old friend or unlikely season.
At the risk of leaving all this out, erode, in the earliest form to which we can trace it, comes from the latin, erodere. It means to wear, or to gnaw away at. The word’s etymology denotes a connection not just to the environmental, but also the personal. And, of course, this makes sense. The wearing away of the world, on the scale with which we have come to observe and contribute to it in our lives today, is commensurate with our own wearing away as well.
The idea of gnawing away, too, offers a new understanding of what it means to erode. It takes the mind to consumption, on a mass scale and private ones. It makes me think of our globalized, unsustainable modes of consumption-production, as well as what eats at me, the hunger-outside-myself within me.
Despite the latent risk etymology possesses of occluding the very thing it seeks to clarify — our understanding of how a word has been experienced by others throughout time — it can transform our experience of the world as well, estranging us to words we felt familiar with, allowing for meanings more personal and previously unconsidered to emerge, or, in an ideal situation, some confluence of the two.
For all it holds, in possibilities for the collective and the personal, for the season it is here in this state, where the erosion of earth has most recently led to the Alisal fire in Santa Barbara county, to say nothing of any fire elsewhere, which feeds the air here, which is what permits me and so many others to live, though the sense of precariousness increases, and it is that ever more frequently ashen wind of consumption and production that blows down my street, sending, panicle by precious panicle, the flowers of the california buckeyes to the ground. This month’s Poetry We Admire is dedicated to the poetry of erosion, and the poets who write the poems.
I am learning which trees are likely to falter,
that the dogwood goes down and extends its roots at the very same time.
from "I am Learning"
by Suzanne Swanson in Hopper Mag
I admire Swanson’s poem for the way it succeeds not just at being a poem of erosion — of slow endings and final moments — but also one of preservation and life, in the growth it witnesses, the learning it professes to, and all it notices, from “the women who pause for my Columbine and wild ginger,” to every molecule “pitching a different dance.”
Where the past meets the day’s magnetosphere
a hectic body, growing older and more unknown
as the mood turns
from "Poem for Feeling's Sake"
by Wendy Xu in American Poetry Review
The syntactical structures of Xu’s poem keep me off balance in a way that delights me, even as its subject matter points my mind in more grim directions. Erosion feels a more private act in the beginning and middle of this poem, with lines like “Morning with a feeling to walk / Limbs churning through air and the traffic so polite” and “Who am I to think about philosophy, money?” retaining a sense not just of self, but of the self-imposition of limits. These self-impositions never feel far from view in Xu’s poem. Imagery like “my sweltering private factory” and “infallible satellites” transforming the modes of production we have come to depend upon as consumers into images we might empathize with or aspire to. This is a poem that leads me to reexamine my own relationship to the very modes of production eroding the world I inhabit.
by no one in ctrl + v journal
I had never heard of ctrl + v journal until I stumbled upon it by chance and glee earlier this month, as it offers the opportunity to witness some of the more visually experimental poetry available on the web. Among these, no one’s “y.0 page 24” especially called to mind ideas of erosion. Bits of red string fall atop wheels upon which equations or symbols have been written, resembling clocks whose hands have fallen off-center. Clippings from old and new paper alike adorn the page as well, with letters more legible and faded in kind. Somewhere near the top left corner one can make out “Oyster (I)ceberg”, in the lower right, vertically entered, “eye witness.” This is a poem that seems to work to deconstruct not space-time itself, but rather our ideas of what space must cover and be covered by, and, in turn, to challenge our organized systems of time. Such erosion of fixed ideas may be necessary to survive the erosion we are now bearing witness to on earth.
I spent the night waking to the gasps
of my own cravings.
from "Fire Study"
by Amanda Hawkins in Terrain
The imagery and themes in Hawkins’ poem denote erosion more directly than perhaps any of the other four pieces. What brought me back to this piece was not erosion’s primary definition, but what its etymology has to teach us about the meaning of the word. Hawkins’ piece doesn’t stop at examining the decay of the surrounding world, but traces the effects this decay has upon the speaker as well.
(when they burn I stink like
by Fargo Tbakhi in Wildness
In Tbakhi’s poem, erosion occurs in ways formal as well as written — the word misshapen takes on a separate form to allow the world a space in which to be more representative of itself, and a second story, told in parentheses on the right margins of the page, is grayer and harder to make out, as though eroded by time or the deliberateness of memory. In this piece, my ideas of erosion, and the relationship between the human and the environment which they call to mind, are inverted. Rather than the ecosystem suffering so that humans may live a certain way, the reverse begins to become true: “and the soil reached / at me with claws / of grass to pull / its way inside / my skin and walk / at last,” for formal reasons, thematic ones, and the sheer innovation of this poem, it felt like a necessary addition to the list.