I say, that is, I write (to you) from a hot mouth in a month of heat. The hottest ever, the papers are printing in burning letters, sticky fonts, across our social screens. With my mouth I pronounce and stress the heated syllables – hot-test ev-er – round as rocks, wet as eggs, dropped. Liquid that is orange-yellow, reproductive; fire that is red and famished. Out of this mouth and month of fire – ancestral, historical, linguistic, present, ecocidal – I write to you. Each syllable set like a fire in front of you, smoke like consonants, rising upward into the air: ungraspable, unpronounceable. Each syllable like a village that must make a choice: fight or flee. Gather the hoses, the buckets; wet the roof, gather the leaves, cut the brush. Sometimes the fire goes over the house like a word, sometimes it burns right through it.
Return to the real? Yes, I should. Setting the real fires around me are corporate-state policies and global warming and rumours of vague persons that arrive like syllables in the forests, stamping and overwhelming and blowing softly on the soft pine-needle floors. Their arson also drifts up like smoke: it fills your mouth and you cannot breathe. By you, I mean me. What I mean to write is: I cannot get cool. I cannot chill. You are in my mouth, L., your heated syllabics; my speech sticks and stops. I cannot pronounce this pleasure (though I know it). My tongue twists around you – I suck, I spit, I overheat. You are no treat, but I treat you so, your letter, your syllable. And when this happens, I begin to read:
I say that even abstract philosophical categories act upon the real as social. Language casts sheaves of reality upon the social body, stamping it and violently shaping it. For example, the bodies of social actors are fashioned by abstract language as well as by nonabstract language. For there is a plasticity of the real to language: language has a plastic action upon the real.1
Plastic actions upon the real, plastic arts of syllables: I lick their rolling, clicking forms like some popsicle. They feel good in the mouth, L. – you do. Anyway, the quote above is Monique Wittig from ‘The Mark of Gender,’ one of her exemplary pamphlets against heterosexuality. But we often talk about the real when we are at a loss, do we not, L.? I sometimes think your lithe letter – long and loose, lucid and ludic – might be said to stand for this loss, standing tall for all that is unarticulated around it. Syllabics as a series of beats – vowels as rocks that someone’s got – and their drum beat of loss, of losing, of leaving, of wanting. Of letters being spoken and written and dropped, not just consonants dropped but everything, as when one flees some fire (not just of language but of the village, the world).
- Monique Wittig, ‘The Mark of Gender’, Feminist Issues, vol. 5, 1985, pp.3–12.
Another letter, another fire, another day, another set of syllabics. The hot southern winds have picked up. They brush my face like a hot hand; they leave it burning like a slap. I am thinking about ‘plastic actions,’ about ‘social bodies,’ about marks on the body, gendered or otherwise. The mark of etymology returns, as always: Syllable is an Anglo-Norman variant of syllaba (Latin), sillabe (Old French) and συλλαβή or syllabé (Greek). The Greek σuλλαβή means what is ‘taken together,’ all the letters of a word that are enunciated at once (notes and ghost notes both) to make some singular sound. To take together – that’s five syllables that my tongue marks, touching the roof of my mouth, touching my teeth, leaving sound, as syllables of – what – some dark tongue.
In the dictionaries, to which I turn when I am at a loss (of language), it is written that the syllable is a ‘unit of pronunciation having one vowel sound, with or without surrounding consonants, forming the whole or a part of a word.’2 It is written, further, as an example, that ‘there are two syllables in water and three in inferno.’3 Two in water and three in inferno.
Around me, L., this August in Athens, is an inferno – that’s three: in-fer-no – and so we head for the water. That’s two: wa-ter. Three for two; two for three. Beats for the burning – that’s five – south. That’s six. Six syllables for the burning south, hot rocks in my mouth, rolling around. We thought summer would offer sweet relief; but no, no, just in-fer-no.
In Letters to Jill, the artist and writer Pati Hill writes: ‘Jabot is the first French word I learned. It mystified me a lot because you could see it has a ‘t’ at the end – why not pronounce it?’4
In Sea and Fog, the artist and writer Etel Adnan writes: ‘Poetry reaches the unsaid, and leaves it unsaid.’5 In ‘Heat,’ poet and novelist Denis Johnson writes:
Here in the electric dusk your naked lover tips the glass high and the ice cubes fall against her teeth.
you’re just an erotic hallucination … this large oven impersonating night.6
Does the syllable impersonate heat? What fire does it set and in what night? All licking flames and burning mouth. Online, I read: ‘Speech can usually be divided up into a whole number of syllables: for example, the word ignite is made of two syllables: ig and nite.’7 I wonder why all the dictionaries’ definitions of syllables reach for metaphors of fire. Well, good-night, sweet syllable, sweet love, sweet loss, large oven, erotic hallucination. Don’t ig-nite over-night. Not that.
Stay cool, love, and goodnight,
- Oxford Languages, Oxford Dictionaries, Pocket Oxford English Dictionary, Maurice Waite (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Pati Hill, Letters to Jill, Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2020.
- Etel Adnan, Sea and Fog, New York: Nightboat Books, 2012.
- Denis Johnson, ‘Heat’, The Incognito Lounge and Other Poems, Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1994.
- ‘Syllable’, available at www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syllable (last accessed on 28 September 2021).
Everything pronounced with the mouth or the mind is erotic, because of all that remains unpronounceable around it. Said/unsaid, et cetera. I think, anyway. Sex and gender and syllables – we take them together, they are tied together, through the ages, from the ancients. Consider: the female oracles of Ancient Greece and Rome, who prophesied from centres of cult like Delphi, were called sibyls. Their oracular, literary, speculative style: sibylline. Such sibyls spoke their dark syllables across the Eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor, and their place names indicated as such: Cimmerian Sibyl, Cumaean Sibyl, Delphic Sibyl, Erythraean Sibyl, Hellespontine Sibyl, Libyan Sibyl, Persian Sibyl, the Phrygian Sibyl, Samian Sibyl. Say their names with your mouth; feel their narrative moves there. Roll this circular litany of sybils and their trancey prophesies with – what – your own tongue, also ecstatic and flame-filled. Taste their worlds of language, their poetics of natural and political disaster dark, ecstatic.
In a fragment, Heraclitus wrote: ‘The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.’8 Language unadorned and unperfumed, L., and not to be laughed at.
Heraclitus also believed that fire is the basic material of the world. He pronounced this in a distinctly oracular language. Full of syllables and sibyls, steady beats of fire. Not minimal, rhetorical.
What did the sibyls themselves prophesy? Disasters, mostly. Fire, flood, fury of the gods. Ruins of empire. Indeed, the 6th-century anthology Sibylline Oracles ‘typically predict disasters rather than prescribe solutions.’ Take the L., American pop singers of the late 20th century would say on late-night talk shows – those late-century sybils and their televised centres of cult – their hand in the shape of the letter (of loss and language) held to their forehead, their brown lip liner drawn on too literally.
Apoc-a-lyp-tic, we say with our tongues now, counting out the beats: one, two, three, four. Apoc-a-lyp-tic. A kind of loop, its poetics of O.
In an essay, Audre Lorde writes that: ‘The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.’10 Might the word as spoken in syllables, in beats, in prophesy, be the stretch of this measure, the bar? Might it be so?
Lorde also writes: ‘The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects – born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language.’11
Don’t lean in, love, just lose your mouth,
- Heraclitus, Herakleitos and Diogenes (trans. Guy Davenport), Bolinas: Grey Fox Press, 1979.
- John Joseph Collins, Seers, Sibyls, and Sages in Hellenistic-Roman Judaism, Boston/Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2001.
- Audre Lorde, ‘Uses of the Erotic’, Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches, Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984/2007.
Letters to syllables – what insanity! You who would only write back in the guise of another, the mouth of another, like some meme crossing our screens, so serpentine, like an ouroboros with its tail in its mouth, speaking and birthing itself continually. Its O the very vowel, syllable, it speaks and devours, like a refrain, hissing, turning, a letter. Repetition, return, the cyclical sound spoken again and again, some hypnotic drumming (I feel it in my mouth). One of our oldest signs, this O, alchemical and endless and crossing the ancient world, from Egypt to Greece to Hindu to Norse mythology. If these hot winds in Athens come from Egypt, from the Sahara – if they leave our terraces red as a mouth with sand, its copper grit – so what. Hot southern winds where only cool northern should be. Apoc-a-lyp-tic, we say with our lips, our tongues, counting out then looping the beats.
Should ‘all things be modifications of fire,’ per Heraclitus; should there be ‘no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love,’ per Lorde; should I read and pronounce these lines of language, letting their syllabics make some minimal music of my tongue, ‘rolling off it,’ as they say in certain parts, in certain tones; should I keep writing letters as fires rage, as I rage. Should the material of language materialise as a series of stones, syllables warm on my tongue; should I let my tongue loop them into some series of missives, dry as brushfire, intent as arson. Should the sybils warn me. Should they have warned me, would have I done any different?
Loop d’ loop,
A few years ago, in a high desert of enforced borders in North America, I wrote an essay about the recurring image of women on fire in contemporary literature, coupled with an analysis of the annual fires of my native California, and the female prisoners made to fight them. It was a kind of poetics of heat – of a sort. The essay was called ‘Some Heat: Writing Women Into and Out of the Fire.’12 After a friend read it, she remarked how dry it felt – no sex in it at all, nothing erotic, she said, perplexed. She had been expecting something different; so had I. I had been trying to write myself back into my body. It wasn’t working.
Why do we equate heat and fire with the erotic, L.? Why sexual desire with skin burning? Why do we couple them in our thought, our literature, our spoken language? What is really burning in the field, in the forest, on the mountain, in the village, in the poem, in the painting, in the body? Fire cancels the body – we know this – as it burns the tongue. It singes the field, destroys the forest, empties the city. It burns page after page, woman after woman. Why, then, do we keep living it, pronouncing it, writing it down?
My tongue is wet, my speech is burning, my mouth is hot. Syllables like stones fill it. Each stone a sybil, some prophesied stress of apocalypse, some life burning down. My life was burning down when I wrote ‘Some Heat’ and it is burning down now – I think. Lorde writes about the ‘erotic’s electrical charge,’ about ‘not looking away.’13 I take her advice, L.: I look, I watch, I speak, I taste – syllables, words, beats, refrains that dully repeat and invoke all that remains unspoken. I feel my pronouncing body underneath me, my burning mouth taking measure of it.
So: I write you from this hot month, this hot mouth. Each syllable a fire I set, flames licking future pages. Should it ignite, this is all
that will be left. My mouth, all want, lapping at each stress of sound. Tasting language, its burning, then offering it as missive, as narrative, a kind of water, kind of cooling. What sibylline style is this?
Dear L., dear language, write back to me –
I can take the heat.
- Quinn Latimer, ‘Some Heat: Writing Women Into and Out of the Fire’, The White Review, no. 22, June 2018.