As it is: only in things

Blog post
Published: 27.06.2010

 Matilda bit me. I’d been ignoring her miaowing for a while. I have no idea what she wanted. It’s clear that she understands some of the sounds I make, sounds that I call words, and I think I can translate some of her sounds (does she call them words?) Her body language is easier to interpret.
Blood staunched. Band-aid applied. Cuddles and purring. We’re friends again.

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Words don’t do it. Ultimately they fail to express, or even to explain, what is. How it is.
Poetry comes closer, with its unique ways of saying, so abstract yet so precise, with its different way of being in the world of words. A poem is more like a thing.

The things I make represent what I am not able to say. Not that they are always so articulate, so willing to accede to my wishes, so docile. No. They are far from docile; they take meaning and run with it, at their own behest, in their own direction; and I have learned to respect their quest for autonomy, their will. But they occupy a position in which meaning inheres in the their thingness, rather than any words that might be used in an attempt to describe them or to say what it is that they are. Even a meticulous, precisely worded description of them does not say it as it is. Not in the way they do.

When I say blue, what can that mean? It cannot say how blue is. Even a more specific descriptor such as light blue, cerulean blue, delphinium blue, mid-navy-blue is not precise. I could say sky-blue, but the sky at a thousand meters up over the Blue Mountains is a different blue from that down on the coast, over Sydney, or out over the western plains, and different again from that over Paris, Philadelphia, Bergen, Barcelona, at any time of year or day. To give a Pantone number is only helpful if we both have access to a Pantone chart.


When I paint a stone blue, the colour is unequivocal. It is what it is. Even more consequential, though it might be glossy or matt, thickly impasted, or scumbled, scraped or scrubbed, it does not carry the load that the word blue carries1; and the edge of the stone, which I could describe using words: straight, angular, curved, rounded, smooth, jagged, rough, broken, chipped, would only be as it is in so far as those words are universal in their application and interpretation. But, as it exists, the edge of the thing is the edge of the thing, unequivocally displaying its very own edginess.


Words cannot accurately voice the timbre of a particular blue, cannot convey how quietly it breathes, cannot let you hear its ecstatic hymn to the sky, the chorus it sings with cornflowers, its passionate duet with orange (its after-image); they cannot permit you to hear how the painted stone moans with blueness (does it desire proximity to orange as its complement or yearn to be orange?) they cannot intimate its whisper towards its dusty destiny, its almost silent expiration.

Objective measurements can be stated accurately: so may centimeters, height by width by depth; and weight: so many grams. But not tactile quality; not precisely how the thing feels in the hand, on the finger, round the neck; not how it is smooth, slightly smoother, much smoother, ridged, granular, rough, slightly rougher; and not whether what we might call rough is pitted or scratchy, visually rough or rough to touch; not how it is chill when first held, how it gradually accepts and holds the body’s warmth; not the way it carries my warmth to you when I hand you the thing; not the way it curves caressingly around the neck, or bites into it.

While words can evoke sensate or bodily memories, the sensate experience of the tangible thing is unequivocal. The adjectival evocation of the thing and the actual experience of the thing are incommensurable. Words have the capacity to unleash a plethora of imaginary or remembered experiences and associations which the verifiability of the actual thing cannot — perhaps even prevents. Although the material thing with its actual qualities can evoke images, recollections, it constantly brings us back to itself. Its tangible presence is an anchor to our experience of it. With the word, many images can flood our minds consecutively, even simultaneously, without the dense matter of the thing to ground us. With the word our journey is stratospheric, subterranean, submarine, subcutaneous, sublime — exhilarating, vertiginous. With the thing we are like a kite. The cord to the actual ensures that we stray only so far and have always a solid point of reference. It has the capacity both to encourage and to censure. A dependable haven. It’s name is constance.

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Miaaoooww!!  I know what that means at this time of day.  Feed me!

1  So eruditely and playfully explored by William Gass in On Being Blue : A Philosophical Enquiry, David R. Godine, Boston, USA, 1976