Small joys

Suitcases, words, books, inchworms, dewdrops, prayers, shrugs

SEXY LEXICOGRAPHY, or, a word of the week

PORTMANTEAU, n. This word, in its first sense, means a suitcase, usually a leather one that opens into two equal parts. It comes to English via the French porte-manteau (or portemanteau, let’s not split hyphens), literally “carry-coat,” although in French, it indicates a coat rack and not luggage.

The second sense of “portmanteau,” a word that is a combination of other words, comes to us from Lewis Carroll. It appears in Chapter VI of Through the Looking Glass, first published in 1871, naturally, in a passage about “Jabberwocky,” a poem full of invented words. Explaining the word “slithy,” Humpty Dumpty says to Alice:

‘Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy.” “Lithe” is the same as “active.” You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.’

And so we make the leap from portmanteau-the-suitcase to portmanteau-the-concept. (An aside here: a nice thing about words is that usually they’re “artist unknown,” but it just so happens that this word has an author. Carroll’s one of those difficult figures who had a huge cultural impact—we’re still using his word!—but was also a creep. So I’m done talking about him now.)

“Portmanteau” is a false friend for any English speakers trying to learn French, where it still has its original meaning. Should you wish to discuss a hybrid melding of words in French, you will need to say mot-valise, which is literally “word suitcase,” more properly translated “suitcase word,” a calque (loan translation) from English “portmanteau.” Round and round we go!

But anyway, as you probably noticed, “hey, that’s the name of the thing!” A suitcase full of words seemed like a fitting metaphor for my brain, and a good title for this newsletter, which will be about words, both individually—as suitcases, carrying many smaller components—and en masse, strung one after the other 100,000 at a time and bound, sometimes in leather, for easy portability.

LEXY SEXICOGRAPHY, or, what I’m reading this week (an exercise in book polyamory)

In Capital-R Romance, I am—and have been, and will be for some time—reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. This week I have at last arrived at Volume III, Book 4 (Les Amis de l’ABC), chapter i, which my ereader says puts me at 44% finished with the book—only TWENTY HOURS AND FORTY-FOUR MINUTES to go! This chapter ought to be when fandom’s beloved revolutionary characters show up. I know very little about this part of the book, or its fandom, but I look forward to finding out more.

I’m switching between an ebook and the lovely, free LibriVox audio recording, for when I want to make a pitiful effort at controlling the weeds in my garden but still find out what Jean Valjean is up to (or progress though an extensive digression on the history of monastic life, or a portrait of the street youth of Paris, or a detailed account of Napoleon’s movements at Waterloo). If my garden ever looks presentable, Victor Hugo will be partly responsible. I should dedicate a plaque to him.

In small-r romance, my most recent reads are

  • JUST PAST TWO by Elia Winters (m/f + various polyamorous arrangements, contemporary) - So many 🔥🔥🔥 for this kinky erotic romance about a couple who decide to spice up their sex life and discover new things to love about each other along the way. I love how much everybody in this book cares for each other, and I was charmed by the reappearance of some characters from THREE-WAY SPLIT, the first book in the series, which I also loved.

  • HITHER, PAGE by Cat Sebastian (m/m, historical) - I had an ARC of this novel that comes out on June 19, which is a murder mystery set in a village in England in the years following World War II, starring a country doctor who just wants everything to be calm and peaceful and safe, and a troublesome spy who doesn’t know what any of those things mean. Naturally, they fall in love. This is the coziest of mysteries, which is a funny pair of words. Someone does, after all, get murdered. And it’s set after one of the most devastating events in human history. But it’s all about the kindnesses and comforts we can offer, the ways we sustain each other, the ways we make the world more livable. In my GoodReads review, I cited a line about “small joys,” and it has really stuck with me.

  • THE KISS QUOTIENT by Helen Hoang (m/f, contemporary) - I know I’m ultra late in arriving to this book, which is a perfect romantic comedy starring an autistic econometrician and the escort she hires to teach her about sex. But a good book always deserves more good reviews, and this one absolutely sparkles all the way through. Such a fun read.

In books that are neither Romance nor romance, I’ve also been reading a lot of poetry. Circumstances entirely beyond my control found me in two used bookstores last week, which was dangerous, as I am incapable of leaving a bookstore without buying books. In one of these perilous places, I picked up Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s 1994 collection Song, which is haunting as fuck. I had read the titular poem in college—more than a decade ago—and still remembered lines from it because it was so powerful.

I have described certain Mountain Goats songs to my partner as “crying jams,” because sometimes you need to sob, and if you can’t get started on your own, The Mountain Goats are there to see you through it. “Song” is a crying jam. A crying jam is, in its own way, a small joy—a necessity, a relief.

Anyway, Brigit Pegeen Kelly does not fuck around. Content warning for breaking my heart, and also human cruelty and animal death. If you need someone to murder you and lay you to rest in the space of two pages, here you go.

If you’re hurting too much for that sort of thing, I get it. In my used bookstore expeditions, I also picked up Charles Wright’s Country Music, a volume of his early work. (I always buy Charles Wright books when I see them. Some day I’ll own the complete works.) While I wouldn’t exactly describe it as comforting, his poetry is less of a knife to the gut than Kelly’s. It’s more of a meditation. I love the repeated gesture in Wright’s work of wondering at the infinite, and then turning his attention back to the minuscule. It’s a prayer; it’s a shrug. Here’s one of my favorite Wright poems, one from later in his career called “Yard Work”:

I think that someone will remember us in another time,
Sappho once said – more or less –
Her words caught
Between the tongue’s tip and the first edge of the invisible.

I hope so, myself now caught
Between the edge of landscape and the absolute,
Which is the same place, and the same sound,
That she made.

Meanwhile, let’s stick to business.
Everything else does, the landscape, the absolute, the invisible.
My job is yard work –
I take this inchworm, for instance, and move it from here to there.

I think you can find this same gesture—or at least, an appreciation for the smallest aspects of nature—in haiku by Basho and Issa. Recently I’ve paged through Robert Hass’s The Essential Haiku for the nth time, and also picked up Sam Hamill’s translation of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior. I posted a twitter thread of Issa’s haiku (translated by Robert Hass) a couple weeks ago and they’re such beautiful little glimpses of life. Issa has such a wry sense of humor:

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house

In that humor, paired with his sharp, melancholy vision of the world in all its suffering, he cultivates an incredible talent for salvage. Not salvation, nothing so glorious. But salvage—rescuing what might otherwise have been discarded.

A good world—
the dewdrops fall,
by ones, by twos.

This is the poetry I turned to, deep in grief and unable to focus on anything, when I needed something small enough to hold. An inchworm to move from here to there, a dewdrop.

Issa also wrote:

In this world,
we walk on the roof of hell,
gazing at flowers.

Can’t do shit about the hell, might as well look at the flowers: a prayer, a shrug. I am grateful for these small joys—a category in which both words and books belong—and if you need me, I’ll be weeding and inching my way through Les Mis.