Published on Academy of American Poets (

Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941)

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.


From The Wug Test (Ecco, 2016). Copyright © 2016 by Jennifer Kronovet. Used with the permission of the author.


Jennifer Kronovet

Jennifer Kronovet was born and raised in New York City. She received an MFA in creative writing from Washington University in St. Louis and an MA in applied linguistics from Columbia University Teachers College. She is the author of The Wug Test (Ecco, 2016), which was selected by Eliza Griswold for the National Poetry Series, and Awayward (BOA Editions, 2007), which was selected by Jean Valentine as the winner of the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize. She also cotranslated Celia Dropkin’s The Acrobat (Tebot Bach, 2014) from the Yiddish and is a cofounder of Circumference, a journal of poetry in translation. Kronovet, who previously served as the writer-in-residence at Washington University in St. Louis, currently lives in Berlin.

Date Published: 2016-01-01

Source URL: