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Howard Anglin: Letters, silent and spoken

Commentary

Linguists will tell you that the silent “p” in English words has a rational explanation. It is, they say, evidence of English’s ability to absorb and standardize words from other languages, in this case from ancient Greek, mostly in scientific and medical terms. But from a young age I knew better. 

The silent “p” is not just a vestigial appendage, it is a joke embedded in creation. Like a platypus or a yawn, it is a quirk of existence, evidence of the humour woven into our world. (Besides, linguists have a patchy record when it comes to the history of language: Goropius was convinced that Antwerpian Brabantic, a Dutch dialect spoken in and around Antwerp, was the original Adamic language—as though the Garden of Eden might have been in Belgium.)

I knew it was a joke the first time I saw the word “phthisis.” Later, I saw that others, including some of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, knew it too. P.G. Wodehouse got the joke and managed to extend it over four novels in the form of a character called Psmith (with a silent “p” “as in pshrimp,” as the character helpfully explains). So did Nabokov, although in his darkly Russian way it is hard to be sure that you are getting the same joke that he is. The name of his eponymous character Pnin begins with a half-pronounced, half-swallowed “p,” something the reader must figure out by ruling out the various mispronunciations by other characters.

The silent “p” is a door, although not the only one, into the world of language and the language of the world. Once you realize that words are not just markings on a page but a place you can crawl into and from which you can look back out at the world, you will never read, speak, or write the same way again. You see that language expands to fill the world and that we can change the shape of words to fit it better. Where there isn’t a word to capture something, you can invent a new one. 

From a young age listening to my parents, I learned that language is always open to negotiation. In my mother’s anarchic speech, words are always reconsidering themselves from new angles: “pussy willows” become “wussy pillows,” “gazebo” rhymes with “maze-bo,” and sudden new accents can tip words off-kilter, wrong-footing familiar syllables, revealing ambiguity and unresolving certainty. Her language is plastic, protean and funny—funny “curious” and funny “amusing”, because irony is the root of humour. I heard early from her and from my father how language can be joyously silly while remaining serious. 

As I read more for myself, I learned that there can be wizardry in wordplay. Puns are simple tricks, a conjurer’s warm-up act, but there are writers who go beyond sleight-of-tongue and touch the deep magic latent in language. That is not a metaphor—I mean it quite literally. There is a reason that esoteric languages, spells and curses, shibboleths and secret passwords recur in both myth and history. Mastery of language means mastery of what lies behind language. Even if you can’t access the magic yourself, you can feel its incantatory effect, especially in poetry. 

Poetry is a special form of language because it is unpredictable, and it is unpredictable because it does not communicate ordinary things in the ordinary way. You wouldn’t use poetry for a contract, unless it were a sacred undertaking; you use poetry to say something that cannot be said without it. Poetry expands meaning by disobeying linguistic rules and upsetting expectations. Poetic devices resist the literal; they transgress and subvert it, forcing multiple meanings into single lines, phrases, and even words. We resort to poetry when prose is too constraining. 

We use poetry when we want to remember an event, a person, or a place. The stories of a people are written first in poetry; the prose comes after. On solemn and joyous occasions of state, we sing our national anthems, which more than the texts drawn up by lawyers are our original and true constitutions. In the past, even some laws were written in poetry. John Huizinga records that parts of the Icelandic and Frisian legal codes are still written in verse, an atavistic reminder of the origins of social order in the fireside songs passed down through generations. 

This doesn’t mean that poetry is always about grand and ineffable subjects, but it does mean that whatever a poem is about becomes grand and ineffable. Its rhythms and images combine to create what the poet Américo Ferrari called an “obscure clarity,” which insinuates us into the “unspeakable where, perhaps, the nucleus of the living relation between the poem and the world resides.” 

Yeats was particularly good at this. The hypnotic opening line: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree” is an example, as is the second stanza of The Second Coming, where Yeats describes an image he sees forming in the Spiritus Mundi:

… somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

That is not just poetry; it is very obviously a powerful and terrible spell. That “rough beast” now exists in our world because Yeats summoned it with his words. It is as real as any physical monster, and perhaps more dangerous. 

Dylan Thomas pushed a little further than Yeats in manipulating the music of language. In Fern Hill, the boy’s “lamb white days” spent by “the “the rivers of the windfall light” and in “the swallow thronged loft” capture the world we inhabit as children, which fades into cherished and half-remembered but fully-felt impressions as we grow up. It is a world that poetry can bring back briefly, like home movies projected onto mist or a dream of something that was once real. 

As a younger writer, Thomas had tried to force language to its limits. He learned instead the limits of his powers. In Altarwise by owl-light we see the young poet straining, struggling with language as Jacob wrestled with the angel. Sense is shredded, but revelation remains shrouded:

his was the crucifixion on the mountain,

Time’s nerve in vinegar, the gallow grave

As tarred with blood as the bright thorns I wept;

The world’s my wound, God’s Mary in her grief,

Bent like three trees and bird-papped through her shift,

With pins for teardrops is the long wound’s woman.

Thomas’s effects spiral and soar but we stay firmly on our side of the divine divide. “What is the metre of the dictionary?” the poet asks earlier in the poem—not so much as a genuine question but in protest at his inability to break through language to what lies behind and beyond it. Even Thomas’s linguistic genius could not quite crack the code.

Serious nominalists and post-rem structuralists will scoff at the idea of language as a code we did not set concealing a truth we did not make. No doubt they also believe that the mot juste is just a conventional agreement within a relational structure of human making. But writers know what mathematicians know: the harmony precedes the system. The right word falls into place. We have to find it, but we don’t make the beauty it unlocks. 

Around the time Thomas was beating the bounds of language, James Joyce broke through them. Curiously, Joyce’s own poetry was polished but slight and simple; it was in prose that his words attained the subtlety and complexity of great poetry. After demonstrating a swift and successive mastery of forms between 1914 and 1918, starting with the short story and progressing through the novel, a play, and a volume of poetry, the publication of Ulysses in 1922 showed the possibility of a unique breakthrough. But it wasn’t until 1939, in Finnegan’s Wake, that Joyce produced a work of such dazzling and daunting magic that, in a world that has since witnessed the atomic bomb, the moon landing, sub-atomic physics (the name “quark,” incidentally, comes from Finnegan’s Wake), and virtual reality, we still open it with uncomprehending awe, like a book of miracles.   

In Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce did not so much master language as sacrifice it and resurrect it, word by word and phrase by phrase, until it was reborn as his creation. As readers, we enter Joyce’s language as an alien-familiar place, disoriented, but when we speak the words aloud we can start to see his new world forming around us. Swirl those allusive first lines in your mouth and see the land swim into sight:  

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay

Joyce’s language manipulates the earth itself, swerving and bending it into existence. Few people can command words to recreate the language, fewer still can command words to recreate the world. There are many recordings available of all or parts of Finnegan’s Wake, including by Joyce himself, but just as you can’t really understand Shakespeare until you perform or direct him, you can’t really understand Joyce until you speak him.

A year after Joyce began writing Ulysses, Ludwig Wittgenstein, then a young lieutenant stationed near the Eastern Front, wrote in his soldier’s diary: “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.”(“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”) When we push language beyond language, as Joyce and the greatest poets do, we move beyond the limits of the world into a place where we know, with the certainty of a homing instinct that: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Malcolm Jolley: Casale del Giglio and the wines of Rome

Commentary

Before the summer holidays season slowed things down, I attended a dinner featuring the wines of Casale del Giglio, a half-century old winery outside of Rome near the coastal town of Anzio. Elise Rialland and Giovanni Silvestri from Casale del Giglio were in Toronto for the 2022 edition of the Tre Bicchieri wine show, which had not been staged since 2019. They and Giglio’s Ontario importer, Profile Wine Group—represented by sommelier Drew Walker—hosted the dinner of typical Roman food at Enoteca Social.

Casale del Giglio is an interesting winery because they are both very much on trend and very much against it. It was begun in the 1960’s by a Roman wine merchant, Dino Santarelli. His son, Antonio Santarelli, began an intensive planting project in the 1980’s to probe the potential of their coastal part of the region of Lazio, with the cooperation of several of the viticultural colleges across Italy. As was the fashion then, though frowned upon in some circles now, they planted a number of “international” varieties of grapes.“International” grapes are grapes native to France, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, when they’re grown outside of France. But they also planted indigenous ones like Bellone and Cesanese, which are in fashion now.

Over many courses, served family style, of Roman specialties like supplì, cacio e pepe, carbonara and Amatriciana we tasted through two of Casale del Giglio’s “international” wines and two of their indigenous grape-made wines. All of the wines were designated as simply “Lazio IGT”.

First of the internationals was the 2021 Viognier, which paired particularly well with Chef Kyle Rindinella’s house-made mortadella. When Viogner is made well, as this one was, it has the best of both worlds character of being weighty on the palate with peachy fruit and aromatic on the nose with white flowers. In any event, the wine worked particularly well as an aperitivo, being interesting enough to hold it’s own between nibbles of salumi and olives.

The second international wine we tried was the last of the meal: the 2017 Mater Matuta, Casale del Giglio’s flagship red. Named for the goddess of the dawn, the Mater Matuta is 85 percent Syrah rounded out with 15 percent Petit Verdot. It showed intense and inky black fruit finished with Mediterranean scrub, haloed by the aroma of violets.

Both wines drank as proof that fruit from all those French vines planted 40 or 30 years ago is really coming on line as the plants mature and yield diminishes in favour of concentration of flavour. Purists who, following the dogma of the cult of authenticity, eschew wines made from French grape varieties outside of France, don’t know what they’re missing.

After the Viogner, as the Pecorino cheese-based Roman pasta dishes began to come out, we tried the 2021 Bellone. Bellone is a white wine grape known to be native to the Lazio (or Latium) coast since at least ancient Roman times, as it was cited in Pliny the Elder’s natural histories. 

The hills around Anzio are subject to a near constant breeze from the Tyrrhenian Sea, and past the Casale del Giglio Bellone’s big stone and citrus fruit notes is a salinity. Combined with a racy acidity, that briny character evokes that elusive food-friendly and moreish characteristic known as minerality. Paired with cacio e pepe (literally, pasta with cheese and pepper), I was transported back to the sunny terrace of Flavio al Velavevodetto in Testaccio.

After the Bellone we made the switch to red and tried the 2020 Cesanese. Casale del Giglio has very much been a part of the Risorgimento of the ubiquitous, if formerly under-appreciated, grape of Lazio. Cesanese has found a pride of place on 21st-century Roman wine lists.

The winemaker at Casale del Giglio is Paolo Tiefenthaler, who hails from the Alpine Trentino-Alto Adige region in Italy’s Northeast. It may have been my imagination, fuelled by the power of suggestion, but the 2020 Casale del Giglio Cesanese had an element of white pepper and a gentleness of red cherry fruit that reminded me of the reds found there, like Lagrein and Schiava.

Structured by silky tannins produced by a long maceration on its skins, the Cesanese wanted food and went perfectly with its classic pairing of Amatriciana, giving contrast to the salty cured guanciale and harmonizing with the tomato and garlic. This time the wine glass time machine took me to dinner near the Trevi Fountain and the 1920’s wood-panelled elegance of the great Trattoria al Moro.“A stone’s throw from the Trevi Fountain, it frees all the flavours of authentic Roman cuisine. A local restaurant with outdoor seating, where you can taste dishes prepared with the authenticity of fresh and local ingredients. Cheeses and cold cuts of our own production, fresh pasta dishes and homemade desserts, Trattoria al Moro is an ideal place for those who want a real Roman dinner, surrounded by the historical beauty of the capital.” https://ristorantealmororoma.it/en/

Given that Rome attracts so many tourists (and pilgrims!), it seems curious that its wines are not more widely known. One explanation could be that the Romans, and their visiting guests, drink most of what’s made, so not that much is put aside for export. If you have eaten well in Rome, it’s very likely you have drunk Bellone and Cesanese, and it’s entirely possible they were made by Casale del Giglio.

There is a point in all wine tasting dinners when someone (often me) needs to raise the vulgar subject of commerce and ask how much the wines being tried cost. Drew Walker explained that the Viognier and Mater Matuta were not currently in the market, but might be priced in Canada at around $25-$30 and $65-70, respectively, when they were.

The Bellone and the Cesanese, however, are or will be soon in the market and cost roughly $22 and $25 per bottle. I commented that I thought this was good value for well-made wines and asked if they were due to be sold at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario,“The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) is a government enterprise and a responsible retailer and wholesaler of wine, beer, and spirits in Ontario.” https://www.lcbo.com/content/lcbo/en/corporate-pages/about-LCBO.html where I had seen them (and bought them) in the years before. They would not, I was told, but could be ordered online by the case from Profile Wine Group.

I am glad the wines are available, but the removal of the two wines from regular retail availability worries me. The wine trade is most profitable at its lowest and highest ends. The most money is made from selling bulk, or factory made wines at high volume for a low price (let’s say around $10 a bottle). And the biggest margins can be made by selling luxury wines for a high price (let’s say over $30 a bottle), mostly to restaurants, who view wine purchases as a business expense and an investment.

The individual wine enthusiast will treat themselves to luxury wines at whatever frequency they can afford, but most of us would like access to well-made wines at an approachable price that we can pour with some regularity. The good news is that the world is full of producers making lovely wines that fit into the $15 to $30 price range. It would be a shame if big retailers, especially ones that operate on a government backed near monopoly, got in the way between trade between the two.

More on this, and the danger of a “missing middle” in the wine world, to come…