An art form that relies entirely on the written word is necessarily abstract, existing almost exclusively in the mind of the writer and then the reader. It can’t be touched, tasted, or smelled, not exactly. Even when a poem is read aloud it is still just words, abstractions—not the thing itself but the idea of the thing. And yet the writing assembled here somehow manages to give us the impression of being unusually earthy, pungent, and sensual—cream, meringue, and soft cherry chew; trash, piss, chowder. And this is only the beginning. Maybe it’s just that the northern hemisphere is tilting toward the sun now, but even the words around here seem to be warming up, basking in their own physicality.
To conjure a physical world and give it a place in the reader’s imagination is one of the ways language can mask its intangible nature, but sometimes the words seem to come straight from physicality itself. They seem like an extension and expression of the body—like a dance, or an incantation—rather than a description of it. The pieces here both describe and enact physicality. That’s not unusual, when a wide range of literary creations come together, it’s just that as a whole they make it difficult to forget that even our most treasured abstractions—love, faith, justice—have a physical component. Though words are just signs and symbols and not something you can touch, they originate in a human body.
Words in print are grounded at least in the touch and smell of paper and ink, but in digital form they lose even that form of tactility. The digital world in general serves to remove us from our bodily senses; formerly physical things like shopping, chatting, and laughing out loud are so much more cerebral in their digital form. But even digital language has its origins in the human brain, attached to a human body—at least for now. No matter how abstract and intangible it might seem, all language derives from and acts upon a physical being. All of which may just be an elaborate way of saying that whether you’re reading this in print or on an odorless screen, there’s a lot of skin and bone in the words that lie ahead. There’s a lot of heat and scent.
Which does not mean that there’s not also a place here for the mind in flight, for words seemingly untethered from any body of origin. Most notably, in this issue, is a run of pages dedicated entirely to essays in response to the films of Terrence Malick. These essays are abstractions about abstractions, and yet they manage to make concrete even this—the mind responding to an art form made of image, sound, and voice. Used as they are here, words can slow down and hold onto even the fleeting experience of watching a film, absorbing its symbols, making it part of one’s own memory. Language is marvelously malleable and portable. No wonder we can’t stop rearranging it, playing with it, favoring it as a tool for both art and communication.
As the words make their way from origin to destination, they’re subject to another round of earthy intrusions—or enhancements. The mind reading is also the body reading. The pain in your left shoulder, the bothersome noise of the neighbor’s TV, the smell of the soy ink on the page—that’s part of the art now too. Each page, each paragraph, will be a little different every time it’s read. For the handful of us putting the final touches on the work here, this issue has left a distinct impression of being, on balance, a garden of earthly delights. When we pick it up again in another season, when the space we work in is no longer warmed by the sun, and the smell of gasoline and fresh-cut grass is not wafting through the window screens, what impression will it leave on us—and you—then?