Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941)

Jennifer Kronovet
Whorf worked in insurance, studied the causes of fires in the files: faulty wiring, lack of air spaces, a problem of materials. 

Additional patterns emerged: Workers took great care around gasoline drums, but not around empty gas drums. 

Empty: put your hand in there. Can you feel anything? When the night sky is empty there are still. When the mind is empty there are still. When drums are empty there are still vapors more flammable than gasoline. They are English empty—waiting for the spark. 

Limestone considered safe from fire because of the stone. Watch it burn. Watery can’t catch fire, but it does.

These discoveries become a metaphor about language—whip back to being language language. Language shapes experience and kaboom. We classify instead of swarming in the undifferentiated waters of the unsaid. Drown or the risk of fire. But when the habits of category fail: the burnt structure of there once was speech here—faulty. And paperwork, of course.

More by Jennifer Kronovet

With the Boy, with Myself

He has thoughts he doesn’t
think about. Birds might wake him
but they don’t. My thoughts 
feel like speech—how one animal 
makes nature—until I speak to him.
We use words like a tree uses light: 
there is a process we don’t see but do.

A kid I don’t know hits another
I don’t know. I say stop stop 
to myself. Speech keeps
happening against me. 
The boy wakes to cry.

Father Tongue

Each issue of Blade magazine describes a man and how he came to be a person of knives. There are veins of metal in rock and in a family and in one person’s diorama. Some is mined for weaponry, some for language. Some knives are photographed like ladies in a nudie magazine, hovering above place without a human to hold them. Their blades reflect nothing like the back of my mind when I look. Blade at the dining room table, in the bathroom, on the couch, throughout my striated landscape leading to leaving. 

The language of knives includes: quenching, hilt, damascus, hollow ground, skeleton handle, balisong. “Song of Myself” has: loveroot, souse, killing-clothes, chant of dilation, fallen architecture. Whitman was too late to sow me as an orchard for harvesting the hybrid fruits of our thinking. I had held my father’s knives and could feel how they fit him, and he was multitudes to me by being different from himself. Whitman was merely me, but different. I am still waiting for my mind to fit a language the way a knife can fit my hand. I want to wield them together to cut my past down, the opposite of screaming.

With the Boy, Outside

Twigs collect 
by the side of the path.

Wild flowers space 
themselves. Pigeons 

respond instantly to being 
chased. The ground rises

to the tree. If I look 
through the boy—to loss, 

to a future, to else—
nothing is enough 

to hold the ground 
into one place. 

This is your foot,
I say. But people don’t 

talk like that. 
I watch people gather 

their faces into 
thoughts I can’t 

hear. This is the space
between us, I say 

while waving my hands 
to make the distance.