After Colville

The title of this exhibition of new works, “After Colville,” refers both to the fact that the photos were taken by the artist immediately after viewing an exhibition of works by Alex Colville and to the evident influence of Colville on the works themselves: in their mood and composition, they may be seen as a sort of homage to Colville’s work – “After Alex Colville,” as a museum placard would say. The title is also a reference to Tom Stoppard’s play After Magritte, an absurd and comical piece of theatre that avails itself of the same ambiguity. The artist himself performed in a production of the Stoppard play when he was a university student. The photographs and their commentary are also intended to raise questions of the interface between viewer and art and of the very place of art in modern life and the role of the gallery as an institution in an era when artistic production is a widespread recreational activity and the technology of small portable cameras supplants for many the essential quiddity of the carefully crafted artistic object, and they also form a critique of the verbal framing of art by placards in galleries.

IMG_1993_a

IMG_1993_a
Photograph
This first image presents us with a simple yet timeless ritual: the consumption of a small cup of perfect coffee in an artistic surrounding. The artist chose to represent the stimulation of viewing Colville’s art through the consumption of a stimulating chemical, caffeine. This image brings to mind previous similar photographs he took on earlier visits, with other cups and tables. The composition deliberately echoes the tight geometry of Colville’s careful paintings. The human figure that dominates each of Colville’s paintings is nearly absent here, however, represented only by one barely visible shoe (the artist’s own). The artist presents himself simply as a foot walking through the gallery, and an eye (that of the camera, echoed by the coffee cup). We are challenged by the erasure of the true human element: Colville’s paintings are of and by a human, but this photograph is from an era of electronics and objects when our very humanity is always already in erasure through overexposure via its hyperreal hyper-representation in “selfies.”

This photograph, like all the images in this exhibit, is named with a modified version of the image file name. The name format is a standard one and suggests to the viewer that the photograph was taken with an iPhone, that ubiquitous chronicler of modern anomie and narcissism. The artist, in this choice of medium, parallels the flaw in the edge of the table, suggesting a crack in the pristine surface of modern aesthetic life and the ultimate disposability of our images and experiences, just as the table itself is sure to end up in a landfill and probably sooner than later. The added “a” on each image name is a personalization and may stand for “altered” or “after” or perhaps, as with highway names (such as the Highway 1A that ran through the artist’s youth), “alternate.” The artist notes disingenuously that “I took the photos with an iPhone because it’s what I had with me,” reminding us that the logic of aesthetic preference is, like the coffee cup, inevitably circular.

IMG_1999_a

IMG_1999_a
Photograph

This photograph was taken through a window in the “tower” section of the Art Gallery of Ontario, on the fourth floor, where modern art is exhibited. The artist notes, “In the past half year the art exhibits up there haven’t changed any more than the view has.” The image presents the viewer with a juxtaposition of curves and straight lines, old and new; the angle of the window reminds us of perspective, which is not only a key element in representational art and mathematically important in Colville’s work but is also essential to the art viewing experience itself in that every viewer brings his or her own perspective. Colville’s work often presents an interface or conflict between the traditional and modern, and is tightly composed and cut off at the edges. This image would never feature in a Colville work, however; it is much too busy and it lacks a human presence. We see windows here, which present openings, but there are no people visible; the artist engages us with the perennial modern question: “Where is everybody?”

IMG_2002_a

IMG_2002_a
Photograph

The tilting and slight curvature of straight lines in this image make the viewer feel disoriented and slightly queasy. The artist has not corrected the barrel distortion present in the very-wide-angle iPhone images, and the slight tilt suggests haste, unsureness, or carelessness. The two figures in this photograph are presented only as legs, again as though the role of the viewer in an art gallery is only an ambulatory one: the seeing and thinking part of the person is erased, eclipsed. This is reinforced by the sign on the wall, “Walker Court.” The swath of wood across the front is the top of the containing wall of a curving staircase on which the artist was standing while he took this picture. The viewer is invited to consider the possibility of climbing over it and falling to the unseen floor below: the ultimate death for art. And yet the two unidentified artworks perceptible in this image look on as dispassionately as the sun and the moon.

IMG_2003_a

IMG_2003_a
Photograph

This photograph presents an encounter, but we do not know its nature. Is it a chance passing, a conversation, a confrontation? Arrangements of two figures are common in Colville’s work, sometimes with the face of one of them not visible, leaving us to follow the unseen gaze and reflect on questions of mortality and morbidity.

IMG_2006_a

IMG_2006_a
Photograph
In this photograph, we are both charmed and saddened by the mother-and-child pair. The child clings to the glass, for protection or with the aim of escape; meanwhile, the face of the mother is partially obliterated by her gesturing hand, pointing to questions of the effacement of the human person of a parent by the role of instructor. We cannot see what she is gesturing to, so we are invited to bring ourselves into the picture and view from her angle. The pink-jacketed person from IMG_2002_a is present again in this image; she may be museum staff, but she is looking away. In the doorway below the pair, we dimly glimpse a male body entering the frame: he is headless as of yet, a disembodied pair of legs representing the oncoming masculine dominance of the spectator-as-headless-ambulator to override the thoughtful feminine role. The daughter will soon have her eyes obliterated as the mother’s are, and ultimately will become a decapitated denizen of the institution of art as the pink-jacketed person is. This photograph was taken from the same position as IMG_2002_a, so we know, given the fixed focal length of an iPhone lens, that it has been cropped. The cropping of the top of the arch recalls the cropping-off of architectural elements in Colville’s work and the decapitation of the institutional bodies in this picture.

IMG_2007_a

IMG_2007_a
Photograph
This image is one of only two horizontal images in this exhibit. Horizontal images, once the default for photographs, have become the exception in images taken by mobile phones due to the standard orientation in which one holds them and the tendency to use them to take pictures of people. The sensuous curves in this image belong to the same staircase as is hinted in IMG_2002_a, a staircase designed by Frank Gehry for the museum’s expansion several years earlier. The photograph thus becomes an appropriate of the architect’s work into the photographer’s oeuvre, reminding us that architecture is not considered by many to be a fine art and inviting us to take part in its “legitimization” through re-presentation. At first, this image appears to be devoid of human figures, but the dark dome in the lower left quadrant, in front of the railing, on closer inspection is revealed as someone’s head. In this way we are shown how enveloping and containing the high walls of the staircase are, a preventative against hurling oneself over and into the void, but at the same time the person is headed towards a void: the forbidding dark archway on the right. The eyes are again invisible, calling into question the legitimacy of the act of viewing and also telling us that the person could not see that he or she was being photographed. The artist notes that “unlike a regular camera, an iPhone has the bonus of being silent when it takes a picture, so it’s possible to be entirely surreptitious and not disturb people or alert them to the fact that they are being photographed, which could affect their behaviour.” In this way he again implicates us in the scopophilia of the gallery, where humans become stalkers of the aesthetic image and of each other.

IMG_2010_a

IMG_2010_a
Photograph
This image swirls with curves interplaying with straight lines in perspective. Some of the curves are from the arches in the old architecture of the building, and some are from the newer curving staircase, which is the staircase on which the artist was standing when taking pictures IMIG_2002_a through IMG_2007_a. The careful and cropped composition echoes the compositions of Colville’s paintings. In a Colville painting, however, we might see a figure in the foreground, and perhaps a gun on the wooden surface; here, we see only a distant figure carefully placed on the left side of an archway, looking upward as he walks. On the right side, a sign is cut off at the letter P. Is this for Presence, or Perspective, or Photography? Or is it the beginning of the word Please, as in (perhaps) “Please do not place handguns on the ledge”?

IMG_2016_a

IMG_2016_a
Photograph
This image presents more cropped curves, a consistent theme in this exhibition. It is much more human than the others, however: it shows three women in full figure, one gesturing forward, one holding her hands to her eyes, the third just entering the frame. The cropped-off foot of the bottom figure repeats the theme of cropping present throughout this exhibit, and may be a repudiation of, or answer to, the disembodied foot seen in the first photograph of the exhibit. It is answered by the bust in the centre of the photograph (a bust of a pope, identified in recent years as a Bernini and consequently moved to a place of pride), which has very the top of its head cut off by the door frame. The triangular composition of the three women is reminiscent of the careful geometry of figures in Colville’s paintings. The artist invites us to join these women to enter and explore the gallery – but is the incipient decapitation of an old paternal religious figure a portent of what will become of them?

IMG_2018_a

IMG_2018_a
Photograph
This photograph was taken in the Art Gallery of Ontario shop. It prominently features kitchenware and other housewares, which may seem out of place in the store of an art establishment; it asks us to consider whether there is a true dividing line between the aesthetics of houseware design and that of paintings and sculptures, two realms that may be joined in the middle by the ostentatiously aesthetic yet functional architecture of the Art Gallery of Ontario edifice itself as seen in the previous pictures. The colours have had their saturation enhanced, as though the world of functional objects is more vivid than the etiolated and withering sphere of the pure aesthetic object. The image features a strong single figure, as in many Colville paintings; he is facing away from the camera and apparently unaware of his role in the aesthetic production, simply a faceless mute personage, deafened to the world by his headphones, who might as easily have wandered into a housewares department and looked up to find himself in an art gallery, wondering what the difference was. The human figure partially conceals a mannequin bust, which brings to mind the first painting that Colville felt was truly successful, showing his wife looking out an attic window while a mannequin bust dominates the foreground. The glow at the top of the picture invites us to the heaven of consumerism while at the same time reminding us that we are in the world of the real and dirty – we may assume it is present due to smudging on the lens of the phone, which is heavily handled.

IMG_2032_a

IMG_2032_a
Photograph
In the last image of the exhibit, we find ourselves entirely away from the gallery and into the real world that the art supposedly represents. This is St. Patrick station on the Toronto subway, the closest station to the Art Gallery of Ontario. The photo of an oncoming subway train taken from the platform is one of the great clichés of Toronto urban photography, but at the same time it too recalls Colville: the obvious and perfect perspective, the pensive figure in the foreground, a hint perhaps of the horse and train from Colville’s most famous painting (which appears in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining). We are unsettled by the anomie and the faint suggestion of suicide. At the same time, there are people in the background, a normalizing presence reminding us that a person walking around with a cell phone cannot always control all elements of the composition; as pure as it might have been not have had them there, the photographer could not exactly shoo them away, and he did not wish to digitally alter the photographs – other than adjusting the colours and levels, which leaves us to ask ourselves whether those privileged silent alterations are less altering than the erasure of other details.

An overall note about the exhibition 

The presentation of the text in the captions for the artworks contains many sections in strikethrough, a style that preserves legibility while at the same time signifying deletion. This presentation imbues the work with a chill of censorship and a suggestion of the evanescence of the written word, and it begs questions not only of the “legibility” of artworks themselves but of the erasure of the critical voice, the disappearance of the reflective approach to artwork in a time when so much is dictated from “above” and the the curator’s presence is not only obsolescent but in fact always already self-erasing at the moment of utterance through the perpetual requestioning of thought. It can also be seen as an expression of the artist’s view that “there is a lot of onanistic bullshit written on gallery placards that doesn’t enhance the understanding or appreciation of the artwork for anyone other than the people who write it, and possibly not them either. Interpretation of artwork is an enjoyable sport, but it’s a game that each viewer should get to play for him or herself over and over. Some placards are like fully-played gameboards lacquered into place: the critic has had his fun and you don’t get to. I’d prefer to know details of the context and material and the work’s place in the artist’s oeuvre, things that help me understand it better, and maybe get a few thoughts on the content presented as simple suggestions, and not be told what I’m looking at or how I’m reacting to it. Also, sometimes they just use too many words.

kerfuffle

Oh boy, did Toronto have a big kerfuffle today. A flurry, a fluttering, kaboom, kerplop, kabibble, kerflop… anything other than a careful card shuffle. Between 1 and 2 in the afternoon: Mayor Rob Ford dropped out of the mayoralty race. His nephew withdrew from his candidacy for councillor. Rob’s brother Doug – after difficulties with the paperwork – registered to run for mayor. Rob registered to run for councillor in his old ward, where Michael had just dropped out. And Michael registered to run for school trustee. My Twitter feed was scrolling like the electricity meter on the side of a house that was hosting a party in March for fourth-year university students.

Ah, kerfuffle. Such a good word. It sounds like a cat that has accidentally slipped on a stack of papers while padding across a desk and has fallen in the shuffling fluttering folio foliage to the floor. What you know for sure is that something has abruptly gone off the tidy norm and much ruffling has followed. Even the shape of the f’s in this word gives a sense of floppy things flapping and flipping.

So where did this word come from? Yes, yes, imitative, I know. But there are many ways to imitate the kind of set-to, to-do, ruckus, hurly-burly, hoo-hah, or whatnot that this word signifies. So why kerfuffle? Well, we know that the ker- is common enough; we see it on kerplop, kerflop, kerslosh, kerthump, and so many others, and its related ka- on kaboom, kabang, kapow, and so on. It’s the backswing on the action of the verb, the backdraft before the explosion of fire. But this word did not begin its life as a ker- word.

No, kerfuffle is a modified version of curfuffle or carfuffle, matched by analogy to all those other ker- words. Curfuffle comes from Scots English; as a noun, it dates from the early 1800s, but there is a verb curfuffle that is seen as early as the late 1500s. It means (per the Oxford English Dictionary) “to put into a state of disorder; to ruffle,” and it is born (with maybe a little Gaelic help) from simple fuffle, a verb, which means, again from Oxford, “To throw into disorder; to jerk about; to hustle, treat with contumely.”

Which makes the word kerfuffle even more perfect for the disorder, hustling, contumely, and jerking about that took control of the Toronto news stream for some time today.

tome

I pick the book up, its age-softened cardboard covers sweating dust, its linen pages foxy and feathering. It takes two hands to hold it. I carry it to the table and release it; the sound when it hits is percussive, then resonant: “tome.”

Tome. It is a grave word; it has the consonants of tomb and the vowel of stone. A tome is a book with the weight, size, and gravity of a tombstone; it is a hefty tome, a weighty tome, a heavy tome, a massive tome, a ponderous tome. It is also a dusty tome and a leather tome. A tome is the physical, bibliotechnical evidence of time; the candlestick of live words i in time is burnt down but leaves its fat printed wax o and that is this tome. It is the epitome of weighty learning, the last word in first words. Its morphemes lodge in your eyes as motes. It is age; it is words; it is paper; it is volume.

Yes, volume. A tome, in the first place, was a volume of a multi-volume work. It comes from Greek τόμος tomos, from τέμνειν temnein, verb, ‘cut’ (also the root of epitome, originally a cut-down account – a brief abstract). This is a sixty-four-ounce steak cut from the side of a beefy work. But we will not now call a paperback copy of one part of a trilogy a tome. A multi-volume work, in this image, is a great ancient encyclopedia, an august authoring imprinted in folio format. In modern times, of course, the requirement that it be but a part has been cut. Any two-hand book will serve.

This is a word kept in reserve for special occasions, a word that hangs in the closet next to your formal wear. Use it too much and you may tame its tone, but at least as likely you will simply look like a guy who wears a bowtie to a frat house party. Actually, I must confess, this word seems to me already somewhere in that direction: no more a genuine morning coat with tails or proper dinner attire; at best the adjustable rental waistcoat with elastic straps, and at worst the T-shirt with the waistcoat and tie printed onto it. It is used almost entirely by those who wish to assume on the moment an air of gravitas without having earned it. It serves as verbal clip art for journalists and feature writers and jokey friends and co-workers: “That’s a hefty tome you got there.” The word is a whilom duke’s carriage now pressed into service giving rides at a petting zoo.

Well, no mind. I have my tomes, and they are suitable to me.

Seriously, what’s the problem with sentence adverbs?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly

The English language is a very complex and powerful thing, capable of many nuances and quite resistant to simplistic attempts at tidying it up. Sadly, not everyone realizes that. Worse still, many people take very narrow and inconsistent views, focusing on pet peeves while letting parallel instances of usage pass unnoticed. It’s as though a self-trained self-appointed “master chef” opened a cooking school and taught, among other things, that salt and anything containing sodium can only be used in savoury dishes, never in desserts. The cakes may all be horrible and heavy and the puddings insipid, but goshdarn it, they’re culinarily correct!

Adverbs give us a good example of this. “An adverb modifies a verb,” some people say, “so it must always directly modify the main verb of the sentence. If someone says ‘Hopefully, they will be here tomorrow,’ it can only mean that their presence here will be hopeful.” And yet the same people will not be seen declaring that “Seriously, it will be very amusing” must mean that it will be amusing in a serious manner, or that “Frankly, you’re being evasive” must mean that your evasiveness is frank, or that “Clearly, someone has muddied the water” must mean that the water has been muddied in a clear manner.

If the “hopefully” peevers were to take note of how these other sentence adverbs function – using the adverb to give an attitude or setting for the entire sentence – they would be forced to allow the same role for hopefully… or perhaps they would decide that all those uses must be wrong, well established though they are (some date from the 1600s). But let’s say they allowed them. The next thing the forced-tidying mind might do – like the robot maid tossing out both the cat and the master of the house – is decide that only single-word adverbs can fill this role. Never mind that one may modify the action of a verb with prepositional phrases and participles; they’re not adverbs, so (the reasoning might go) they can’t be used as sentence adverbs. Sure, you can say “Hypothetically, he could resolve it with a clear statement of fact,” but you must not say “Speaking hypothetically, he could resolve it with a clear statement of fact”…!

Now, of course, there’s a perfectly good reason not to use the latter sentence – it has an ambiguity that could make the reader snicker (I like to say such sentences have a high SQ, or snicker quotient) – but ambiguity (and high SQ) is not the same thing as grammatical error. There are many instances of prepositional phrases, participles, and infinitives being used to set the scene for a sentence: “To give an example, he is disinclined to use illustrations”; “Going forward, all cars on the ferry must have their parking brakes on”; “Among other things, it is located on an empty treeless plain”; and so on. These do not generally raise the ire of the particular – although some can be awkward – and they are not ungrammatical.

Hopefully, as editors, we have eyes more finely tuned to such structures and can discern the many places and cases of their use. Going forward, I would like to suggest that we all keep our eyes open for every instance where an adverbial construction of any sort is used to give a setting for the entire action of a sentence rather than to modify the main verb directly – and, if we dislike it, ask ourselves whether it is truly ungrammatical or simply ambiguous. You may find yourself having to come to some surprising and possibly discomfiting conclusions.

staple

A staple item is an essential, something that holds your life together. Sort of like a staple holding sheets of paper together.

Thirty years ago, starting university, I bought a stapler and a box of staples. I still have the stapler; it looks almost new (as many things and people do at 30 years of age). I still have the box of staples too. Haven’t finished it yet. But when I need it, I need it.

Some things can be staple items and yet not get used often.

Later this month I’ll be going to a 30th anniversary reunion for my high school class. It will be the first time I will have seen most of the people there since we graduated, though from their Facebook pictures I can see they seem to have held up well. I do not think we will all just pick up where we left off. Actually, I hope we won’t; we’re more mature now, and I for one have no intention of being the dweeb I was then. We’ll all be back in Banff, a place I only get to every year or two now – but a place that is still essential for me. It’s reasonably stable, though it changes, and it is a staple of my existence: it’s holding the sheets from the 1980s together with the sheets from now – and years to come.

A staple is something stable, or something that keeps you (or other things) stable. Or both.

Are staple and stable related? Not etymologically. But staple and staple are. They both come from the same original Germanic word, stapel, meaning ‘pillar, post, block, beam’. How does a pillar become a standard good or a bent bit of metal? The history is fasten-ating. It proceeds in two prongs from the original.

On the one side you have the pillar or pillars associated with the marketplace; by way of Latin stapula and French estaple and back to English you get a word for an emporium or mart, and from that a name for a town or place where by royal authority the merchants had exclusive purchase rights on a certain class of good for export. From that, the principle industry or output of a place; from that, an essential commodity or basic foodstuff.

On the other side you have a pillar or post, and from that somehow you come to a U-shaped piece of metal driven into a pillar or post to serve as a hook-hold or rope attachment. Make this big metal staple a somewhat smaller item meant for driving into things to hold them together and we have that staple of offices and university rooms. Everyone has them, but they don’t always use them. The stapler on my desk at work is used every couple of years. The one at home is used more, mainly by my wife (whom I have had for half as long) for invoices and such like. But yes, it is still on its first box of staples.

Words travel together sometimes, commonly collocated as though bound with a staple. What word is seen most often near staple? You may think it’s food, but it’s not – though that’s a close second. It’s become.

Become? For something that holds fast, that is so stable and essential? Yes: what is now essential was once unknown. Tomatoes are a staple of Italian cuisine, and chili peppers of Indian, but both were imported from the New World; they gained their staple status within the last few centuries. Here are some examples from various publications cited by the Corpus of Contemporary American English: “huge paydays have become a staple of American corporate life”; “mocking the fans’ choices has become an annual staple of the baseball writer’s schedule”; “dollar menus have become a staple of many fast-food restaurants in New York”; “Gesell devised what would become a staple of parenting advice books, the illustrative anecdote”; “Crime has become a staple feature of many cities in Latin America”; “This image has subsequently become a staple of tribology lectures and overview articles”…

So what is a staple? Something ubiquitous, expected, standard, perhaps almost hackneyed at times… A thing has become a staple if it has gained an essential place, if it has moved from “that’s a new thing” to “of course.” It can be something monthly, even something annual (though I don’t know about tridecennial), perhaps even something sporadic but expected. Something you were once unaware of but would not now do without: it holds the pages of your life together, even if not needed often. Something that has been around for 30 years but is still new, or something that was unknown three years ago but is now pinned prominently on the bulletin board of your day. A stipulation. A staple.

ash

Where there’s ash, there’s been passion.

And may still be. Ash is evidence of burning; ash is dust of ecstasy, of transcendence of state. When you set the world on fire, you end with ashes; when the world sets you on fire, you end in ashes. Like phoenixes, we rise again from ashes; like all things, to ashes we return: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Ash is some of what wood wants to become when it is done being wood. All its life, it moves soft, sweet sap through it, and builds cells, and sprouts leaves, but in the heat of its last moments, it returns to its true fundamentals: the hydrogen and carbon in it want to join with the air around it more than they want to retain structure, and they recombine in a flagrant metempsychosis, free now to the air, releasing the heat captured and contained for years, and what is left is simply powder. If that wood is in a thriving forest, or built as boards into a house, the bacchanal of its burning takes much else with it unwillingly, painfully; if it is in a fireplace, it gives warmth, joy, comfort, romance, and perhaps it cooks your food too. And ash can fertilize as well; it is not inert.

Ash is sacred, the last dust of immolation and the fine white trace of incense that has been spent and sent to heaven. Ash traces hopes and prayers and despairs: not just the ashes of incense but the ashes that are worn with sackcloth, a sign of desolation. Ashes of a whole burnt offering, ashes of a holocaust. Chinese artist Zhang Huan has made paintings – even some very large ones – using temple ash as pigment. He had an exhibition two years ago at the Art Gallery of Ontario; on their page for that exhibition there is a video wherein he explains why he uses ashes. When you see the paintings, you see a country and its movements brought to life again from ashes.

Ash is profane, the traces of tobacco inhaled for effect; the old stereotype was of smoking a cigarette after intercourse – first the fire, then a smoke: passion and ashes. But the smoke tars your inside; ash is what remains outside, innocent… unless it is ash from a factory or a volcano, and you and your machines are at risk of intaking it and breathing less or no more. Or ash from burning garbage, still smelling of the toxic and greasy fumes of detritus reaching for its own redemption.

Ash is the final grade in the lesson of the moth. Don Marquis wrote that poem; I cannot quote it here in entirety – that would be an infringement – but you can read it on donmarquis.org, and you should. Let me quote just a bit:

but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while

Thus says the moth, seeking self-immolation, but the poet differs;

myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself

As a moth to a flame, seeking to become ashes. But what flame?

David Bowie found one answer to the question of what, and nearly burned himself out in an ecstasy of addiction that left him smoldering and ashen, singing “Ashes to Ashes,” wherein his famous Major Tom turns out to be not a self-exploring hippie but a drug addict. No, these passions are not what we want to burn us; confutatis maledictis flammis acribus addictis voca me cum benedictis (when the accused are damned and consigned to flames of woe, call me among the blessed). We want something that leads to true transcendence, not a blinding binding in the flesh, a burning from the inside that makes you a walking sack of ashes.

Ash is in fashion too. I do not necessarily mean it is a popular thing to use or to wear (who can keep track of the fickle flames of style and time? not I), but it is a colour. It is more than one colour. Hair can be ash. It can be ash blonde; it can be ash brown. It can be pure ash, as on my own temples. And to what divinity has the ash of those temples been burnt? Think of ash showing in the hair as evidence of flames of passion within, the divine and self-transcending existence, the joy of fulfillment and transformation. And the incense is not done burning yet.

Ash is a tree, too. It is a dioecious tree of the genus Fraxinus; its name meant ‘spear’ in Old English (æsc) and in Latin (fraxinus), because it is suited for making spears, bows, bats, and axes – by axes I mean guitars such as Stratocasters. Instruments all of passions good and bad. It is a coincidence that it has come to have the same name as what it will become when burnt; in Old English, the fire-dust ash was asce. Note that in both æsc and asce the sc was said as we now say “sh.”

And ash is a sound. Yes, “ash” has a sound of a voice of a person (“a”) walking through ashes (“sh”). But it is also the name of the vowel sound itself that begins “ash,” that word sound that hides in the middle of passion and emerges from it when the “pun” is burnt away. In the International Phonetic Alphabet, we write that word sound as /æʃ/, and the vowel called ash is æ. The letter æ, a digraph of a and e, is called ash because it represents the sound represented by an earlier rune, which in turn was named for a word that began with the sound: æsc, the tree. The tree that may rise from ashes and return again to them, having grown to burn and burnt to grow.

Can you let it all dangle out?

After a month off from writing for The Week – I was just too much otherwise occupied – I have published a new article, about dangling participles and other dangling modifiers and whether it’s ever OK to use them:

Everything you wanted to know about danglers but were too afraid to ask