Restless for Words by DeWitt Henry

Finishing Line

Review by Jack Smith

Founder of one of the most prestigious literary magazines in the country, Ploughshares, DeWitt Henry is also a prize-winning novelist, memoirist, essayist, and poet.  Restless for Words, like his other work in four genres, is stylistically brilliant.  As a whole, this collection represents the restless human need to comprehend, and to put into language, one’s multi-faceted existence in this world.

            The collection is divided into four parts.  Part One includes a range of poems on places and things, both literal and metaphorical.  “On Mapping,” for instance, moves from the literal, the “street map,” Google Earth,” his “sister’s Pasadena address,” and “Boy Scout woodcraft” to an analogous, medical mapping: “An age of probes and drones and MRI./ Cartographers of the brain.” In more abstract terms is the metaphorical mapping of the human terrain, “X marks the spot.  And what of time?/Identity?”  In the closing stanza, Henry inquires, “What else is memory, but mapping the heart?” This poem, like other poems in this collection, works by free association and juxtaposition, but also by a steady accumulation of ideas and details that coalesce in a unified concept. 

            Part Two of Henry’s collection deals with a wide range of beings and states of being.  “On Ghosts” covers ghosts as otherworld figures, like Banquo’s ghost and the paranormal, including “Psychics, swamis, fortune-tellers,/ spiritualists and voodooists.” The comic version: “Cartoons make the afterlife/cute in Casper’s case,/though the Friendly Ghost/died as a child.” Ghosts people famous movies: Ghost Busters (1984) and Poltergeists (1982).  And then an observed holiday of long-standing tradition—Halloween, with “Decaying bodies./My neighbor’s/yard decorations, tombstone with/hands reaching out of the ground.” The word ghost is also in our lexicon in such expressions as “Pale as a ghost” and “Not a ghost of a chance.”  Another expression: “The ghost of the past.”  And for writers, “Ghost writer.” Henry’s poem is delightful in the way it reveals how a word’s referential meaning has evolved from the strictly literal to the analogical and metaphorical.

Like the poems in the first part, the poems in this part immerse us in lexicology, revealing the author’s passion for language.  They enable us to appreciate how we use language and its fluidity.  

            Part Three includes several poems on what we might term characteristics and conditions.  “On Versions” playfully spans the four versions of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and then moves on to words with the prefix of “ver,” among them: “Very, as in true”; “Verifiable./Verisimilitude”; “Verso, the other side/Conversion, turn/from one faith to another.” Henry presents more prefixes with the base word “version”: a-, or “Aversion,” meaning: “Turn away/in hatred, fear, disgust”; di-, or “Diversion,” meaning: “a joke or relief/from heavy matters . . .”; re-, or reversion, meaning to “turn back.” The prefix in- makes Inversion, meaning “Turn inside out.”  The poem is an interesting lesson in morphemes, in morphology.

            “On Privacy,” in Part Four, interrogates the concept of privacy.  Robinson Crusoe had no need to worry about this: “No need to hide privates/from primates, swinging in trees.” Goldilocks violates privacy with her home invasion.  What if she were to do so, in say, Manhattan? We’d find her spying “on the apartment opposite, like the invalid in Rear Window.”

What is the status of privacy, legally, morally, and so forth?  It’s a “right, we think.” There’s “Castle Doctine laws,” which “allow owners to shoot first”—and “Ask questions later.” There is an element of shame associated with privacy—shame, which “leads to/fig-leaves and shyness.”  This makes us think of Schopenhauer’s association of sex with shame. Then there’s the confessional nature of memoir and autobiography, the need or desire for privacy surrendered: Ben Franklin’s autobiography; Wordsworth’s “vision’s growth”; Joyce’s “portrait of a word-drunk youth.”  Henry makes us ponder on this revered value: who disrespects it, how it’s protected, and where or when it’s sacrificed.

Restless for Words captures our interest on several fronts: the way a given word has many different applications, the way it often works on several levels, the way words are formed.  We create our world through language, naming things Adam-like, thinking from the literal to the metaphorical.  We are “restless” to say what we mean, and what we mean is bound up in words that are created by lexical forms, but are constantly changing, forever taking on new meanings and forms, as we come to know, and create, our complex worlds. This is a mind-expanding collection: informative, often humorous, and decidedly astute.