Tuesday, February 24, 2009


By David Chorlton

The use of language is a deceptive enterprise. Words don’t necessarily mean what they were meant to. Take the rental agreement issued by a prominent car rental company for example, in which the customer’s pink copy bears the details whose ink already appears faded in the moment they are printed. Toward the upper right-hand corner the letters spell out: DAY = CALENDAR DAY. My wife, having had to rent a car for a few days, asked what this implied. Jeremy, the enterprising assistant, mumbled something about the date and sounded deliberately non-committal. So the renting of the vehicle ensued, and when time came to return it my wife, who has lived her entire life with 24-hour days, had her sense of time challenged. According to Jeremy’s calendar, a day is a day even if it doesn’t begin until 5pm or if it ends at noon. Put plainly, counting the calendar day rather than the number of hours enables the enterprise to squeeze an extra day’s fee out of the customer to go with the additional insurance charges.

Jeremy, I am sure, is simply an obedient soldier in the army of commerce doing what he is trained to do. So let us check in with some of the published comments the enterprise in question makes about itself on its Web site, starting with “Personal honesty and integrity are the foundation of our success” and continuing through the stated intent “to exceed every customer’s expectations.” Shouldn’t “foundation” be plural? Never mind, at least we can guarantee that the customer’s expectations will be exceeded when twenty-four hours turns into two days. This observation simply points to a corporate manner of communicating in a promising but ultimately uninformative manner. Political language is taught in the same schools.

Vagueness in speech is never as useful as when employed in circumventing ethics in behaviour. At least the seven deadly sins were listed with specificity. In our time, we need to be sharp enough to interpret what is said to us and especially when it is said by politicians, the natural allies of enterprising corporations. Take “an honest mistake,” as it was brought up as a defense of the nominee for the position of Treasury Secretary when the news broke that he owed $34,000 in taxes and was still the choice to oversee the IRS. What exactly is an honest mistake and when does it become a tax break?

Slogans are designed to raise expectations without ever stating exactly what it is we can expect. You could be considering a career with our unnamed car rental company, the one that claims, “We built our company around being honest and fair, and at the same time, incredibly motivated and entrepreneurial. This is where your potential becomes reality.” All the qualities mentioned sound just fine, but in every one of them there is some of what we may call wiggle room, enough to accommodate a flexible interpretation. This is an even more cozy situation for those who invest in themselves by describing themselves glowingly. Public relations and advertising are excuses for corporations to lavish the kind of praise on themselves that we, as individuals, would find arrogant and objectionable should we speak of ourselves in the same way. Therein lies the difference between language as we use it to communicate and the neatly processed phrases with all the spontaneity ironed out of them in conferences before they are broadcast to the rest of us.

Imprecise language is, sadly, a staple in foreign policy. Consider the number of times “American interests” abroad are mentioned by spokespersons for the administration in their appearances on TV news shows to justify actions of a military nature. If the word “interests” were replaced by “military base” or “energy source” we would hopefully be more suspicious. Developing a sharper ear for manufactured speech should be then first line of defense against being personally manipulated and ultimately being party to the policy of killing for profit and power. Jeremy might think about applying for one of those jobs with the administration; he’d likely earn more than the car renters pay him.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Two poems from Francis Raven

Editor's Note: These two poems are from Francis Raven's chapbook, The Failures, which was recently published by Chippens.

They Call it Wolfing

In the end I just knew there was no way
I could have eaten all those hotdogs.
It wasn’t my first competition, but what was I thinking?
I invited everyone, my mom, her husband
(Who I absolutely refuse to call my stepdad), my sisters
And their short-term boyfriends. The thing was
It was hot. Have you ever tried to eat a lot
When it’s really hot; it’s not that easy.
It’s sort of like the sweat restricts your throat
Or sort of pokes your uvula so you gag.
I puked. It was embarrassing, but it was puke or die
And in that situation you’d probably have chosen
Much like me: I didn’t die: I failed.
I thought they’d support me
But they really didn’t.
They all sort of made fun of me and made me
Watch them eat lunch at the after-party.
That’s why I don’t really have much contact
With my family

The Lottery

By God I’ve scratched; bought and scratched;
The minor wins merely pique the urge to scratch: I scratch.
I know it’s not in my best interest but
I don’t scratch for a minor boost
I scratch for a qualitative difference.
I scratch for a new car, and not just any new car
But a car I can’t afford now.
I don’t even know what car that is, but I scratch for
That which could scratch me up a notch
If only scratching could stop the itch
But it just brings my needs to a froth.
If only I hadn’t seen how the other half lives,
But it’s not just the other half any more;
It’s everyone appears to live the same,
Though they can’t possibly. Thus we’re all scratching
Futilely as the swisher under the bullet proof glass spins money
Towards a disgruntled employee who knows I haven’t won
Before I do. It’s in his eyes. It’s always in his eyes
Sort of like dust rigged against me.

Francis Raven is a graduate student in philosophy at Temple University. His books include 5-Haifun: Of Being Divisible (Blue Lion Books, 2008), Shifting the Question More Complicated(Otoliths, 2007), Taste: Gastronomic Poems (Blazevox 2005) and the novel, Inverted Curvatures (Spuyten Duyvil, 2005). Francis lives in Washington DC; you can check out more of his work at his website: http://www.ravensaesthetica.com.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Opposite of The Alphabet

Editor's Note: This week's post is an imitation of Jennifer Knox's poem, "The Opposite of Crunchberries." The Alphabet is a 952 page book by Ron Silliman.

The Opposite of The Alphabet

The opposite of The Alphabet is
a stylish pullover.
The opposite of a stylish pullover is
Brussels sprouts.
The opposite of Brussels sprouts is
fuzzy dice.
The opposite of fuzzy dice is
The Ivory Coast.
The opposite of The Ivory Coast is
a monster truck rally.
The opposite of a monster truck rally is
gel pens.
The opposite gel pens is
a cinderblock.
The opposite of a cinderblock is
a ventilation shaft.
The opposite of a ventilation shaft is
a bloodbath.
The opposite of a bloodbath is
a water landing.
The opposite of a water landing is
a retarded butterfly.
The opposite of a retarded butterfly is
The opposite of applesauce is
the General Lee.
The opposite of the General Lee is
an 18% tip.
The opposite of an 18% tip is
a perp walk.
The opposite of a perp walk is
a steamer trunk.
The opposite of a steamer trunk is
Jose Canseco’s jockstrap.
The opposite of Jose Canseco’s jockstrap is
a whale song.
The opposite of a whale song is
spurring a tumbleweed
away from unwanted octuplets
toward The Alphabet.

By Michael Theune and Chip Corwin

Michael Theune is Associate Professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University. He is the editor of Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns (Teachers & Writers, 2007). Learn more about poetic turns at his Web site, Structure & Surprise.

To learn more about the process used to write this poem, click here.