“A Life Sentence”
by Chet Raymo
“’We each only really speak one sentence in our lifetime. That sentence begins with your first words, toddling around the kitchen, and ends with your last words… in a nursing home, the night-duty attendant vaguely on hand.”
Where did that come from? A review by David Kirby of poet Mary Ruefle's new book, quoting Ruefle on a thought that Ezra Pound learned from Ernest Fenollosa... OK, OK, forget the provenance, or who the heck is Ernest Fenollosa. It's that lifelong sentence I'm interested in, the one that begins with ma-ma and ends with… Well, we'll have to wait and see.
I'm writing that sentence now. Every period in these nine years of posts could be replaced by a semicolon. It's a sentence that has been unspooling for more than seven decades, a long thread of words, sometimes landing in a tangle, sometimes blessedly stitched into a half-way decent fabric.
I loved diagramming sentences in grammar school, and there was a time as an adult that whenever I came across a long, complex sentence I couldn't resist trying to diagram it in the old way. (Even now, I'm tempted to diagram the flawed sentence I just wrote.) It's part of having been trained as a scientist, I suppose- taking something apparently chaotic and revealing its underlying structure.
And what would it look like, that lifelong diagrammed sentence? It would cover a football pitch, even in 4-point type. But from the Goodyear blimp, overhead, what would it look like? I know what I would want it to look like. Deep in the bowels of London's Victoria and Albert Museum are several splendid 15th-century wall-sized tapestries, the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries (above, click to enlarge). I've spent a long time in that otherwise almost empty room, dazzled that mere thread could be woven into such intricate beauty, hugely complex, yet glowing with an underlying unity, themes folding back upon themselves, sometimes new themes floating up by surprise, sometimes old themes receding into the background.
Words, tumbling forward, leaping like a hart, rooting like a boar, tumbling like a hound, soaring like a falcon, whinnying like a steed. Words, words, millions of words, woof and warp, the shuttle flying. Ruefle writes: "If you are blessed, they are heard by someone who knows you and loves you and will be sorry to hear the sentence end."