The things we use to say what we need and how we feel, with poems by Tony Howarth, Sophia Rivkin and Tim Gillespie.
7 minutes


April 13 is National Scrabble Day. To commemorate it, three poems from Passager Issue 71 about words.  

First, a poem about trying to remember words . . . and more. Tony Howarth said, “This morning my wife asked me if I wanted to go to Salinger’s; I thought for a moment and asked, ‘Who is Salinger?’ Her answer – ‘Only the orchard fruit stand we’ve been going to for 25 years.’” Here’s his poem “Conversation Is, Is,” 

Conversation is, is,  

treacherous I want to say that talking while old is  
like walking through a, through a, oh, what’s  
somebody whispers, maze, 
right, a maze, well no, but I’ll settle for it; like I’m  
watching Jeopardy, the clue is “the fruit on the 
the Spanish flag that gave Persephone so much trouble”  
and I know the word but I can’t dredge it  
until the contestant comes to my rescue, pomegranate  
like I’m in my poetry work 
shop discussing a 
poem one of us has written, and I want to suggest her  
word, despair, is maybe not  
but the words don’t keep up with my thoughts, so all  
I do is I 
I splutter, a problem that I  
In the middle of nothing for no explicable 
I remember I couldn’t remember the 
word I wanted to remember but by now 
I can’t remember what it was I was trying to  
trying to say maze, maze is a playful  
while labyrinth is, is 
somebody whispers, ominous  

Tony Howarth, “Conversation Is, Is,”  

A seemingly unrelated aside: In last week’s podcast when I read a poem that alluded to Persephone, I said all that was missing was the pomegranate. And Tony’s poem that I just read included an allusion to Persephone and the pomegranate! Wow! 

Sophia Rivkin said she plays with words like a child plays with blocks – word by word to build a mood or emotion. Here’s her poem “Potpourri.” 

In l685 Charles II, ill with v.d., was treated 
with purgatives and enemas, fed a potpourri 
of chamomile and beet root, fennel and cardamom, 
cochineal and aloe. The doctors offered cowslip flowers, licorice,  
absinth and anise, mixed with cherry water, 
melon seeds and slippery elm. They anointed him 
with peony and lavender dissolved in pearls – 
body language and botany entangled in a potpourri 
of explanations, contradictions, garlic premonitions  
peppery ablutions  
like what my twin says I am vanishing into – verbal potpourri:  
outer space and in-your-face, sexy cars and sexless drivers,
the hard of hearing listening to the hard of speaking, 
and the heart of darkness, precious and precarious  
entangled, bilious and libidinous  
with melanoma and melancholy, miasma and viagra,  
ready cash and Johnny Cash  
O, plethora and pleasure,  
my brain is a scalded pudding or an old TV,  
dots and spots, stripes and plaid, a wall of snow  
with sun behind it, mouthing melting –  
passion, privilege, prudence, purgatives 
powerful illusions 
and the war, the whore’s war, error-terror, Iran-Iraq,  
rocks the brain, the bough bends, breaks,  
the baby falls, 
and the mind’s a melange 
of smells and stinks and slippery elm,  
umbrage, collaged, triaged  
to ancient garlic premonitions,  
chamomile, fennel, beet root, anise,  
while the soul, the devious dazzled soul  
dissolves in pearls.  

Sophia Rivkin’s poem “Potpourri.”  

Tim Gillespie said, “Standing in the aisle at my neighborhood Do-It-Best store a couple of years ago, I was struck by how many words we have for words we don’t have (gizmo, whatsit, whatchamacallit, etc.), words I needed that day to describe complicated hardware for my home. Later I thought of all the words I don’t have to describe the complicated software of my heart.” Here’s Tim’s poem “Searching the Shelves at the Hardware Store.” 

I know what I need but don’t have the words. 
I try to describe items from my list to 
the guy in the green Do-It-Best carpenter’s apron:  

a hose spigot insulator thingy, 
the whatchamacallit that holds off  
the pneumatic screen door rig, 
a better doohickey for finding studs  
behind old lath and plaster.  

The green apron guy helps me find what I need,  
sends me home with the right gizmos.  

But now I need stuff for harder projects.  
Do-It-Best guy, from your stool in nuts and bolts,  
can you tell me if any of this is in stock?:  

a doojigger to ratchet down the rage 
that keeps tightening me up, a thingamabob 
to help me square up the hard facts of our time  
but still have hope, a whatsit to peel apart 
a stubborn three-ply veneer, layer by layer:  

the urge to tear it all down, 
the wish that I could fix it all, 
the hard acceptance that everything  
broken can’t be mended. And finally,  
a dealy-bob to keep surrender 
bolted down, and whatever 
else it might take not 
to damage this fragile 
old home, and all of us 
who live here, 
and me.  

Tim Gillespie’s “Searching the Shelves at the Hardware Store.” 

All three of the poems on this episode about words were from Passager Issue 71. To buy that issuesubscribe to or learn more about Passager and its commitment to writers over 50, go to passagerbooks.com. You can download Burning Bright from Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts and various other podcast apps. 

For Kendra, Mary, Christine, Rosanne, and the rest of the Passager staff, I’m Jon Shorr. 

Due to the limitations of online publishing, poems may not appear in their original formatting.