May 7, 2009

Putang Syntax by Sarah Vap

Sarah Vap is the author of Dummy Fire, which won the 2006 Saturnalia Poetry Prize, and American Spikenard, which won the 2006 Iowa Poetry Prize. She is co-editor of poetry for the online journal 42 Opus, and lives with her husband and their two sons on the Olympic Peninsula. Her next book, Faulkner’s Rosary, is forthcoming from Saturnalia Books in 2010.


Infanticide, said the nun, and I spelled it.

Love yourself,

she said, I was afraid.
Putang, whispered a child,

but I refused. Trust yourself, Lugnuts, I agree.

I agree, I agree, I hurt people.     Brother,
I’ve hurt providence,

I agree. Two secrets compete
for my attention— flush, Sister, you could know.

You could know, said Mother,
that it hurts

in the small, very

fevered circle
that I have flushed out of life.


During graduation week, my six roommates and I made an ouija board by magic-markering the alphabet, the numerals 0-9, and the words Yes and No onto a piece of cardboard. We used a shot glass for the planchette.

We were calling up Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, our dear one, we invite you here with us. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, angel, please come here and talk with us?

We were, all seven of us, English and American Literature concentrators. During our senior year we’d been living together in half of an absolutely enormous house in the old neighborhood next to Brown University. We lived on the hill that overlooks the city of Providence. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, we knew, had lived in Providence when she was our age—she had, we heard, lived in our own neighborhood. Her providence, we imagined, was linked with our own.

My friends and I had just spent years together— feeling capable and incapable together, feeling loved and unloved together. We had been, during this time, our most generous and our most hurtful selves. We had felt our most desirous and most rebuked selves. During these past years, we had seen the glimpses of our most magical and our most tender selves. We needed a message before we could go. Before we could leave each other, and leave that place.

If anyone could tell us anything, it would be her.

Cathleen and Kristin placed their fingers on either side of the shot glass. I thought of the yellow wallpaper, and what it would reveal, surrounding us at that moment.

The shot glass moved in a small circle.

Is this you, Charlotte? The glass moved to Yes. Do you have a message for us? The shot glass circled the cardboard, and then returned to Yes.

The last message I’d received from an ouija spirit was in eighth grade. A friend I rode horses with was given a board as a Christmas gift from her parents— it told me I would be raped and killed when I was seventeen.

Charlotte spelled out only two words for us: “Love yourself”. And then she left.


My brother Andy and I were playing upstairs. I must have been about two years old. For my whole life up until that point, David and Andy had chased me, bossed me, and chosen all the games. But for no reason that I could tell, on that particular morning, Andy turned tail and started to run away. He was letting me chase him. I knew he was only pretending to be scared—Oh no! Sarah’s going to get me! — and I knew he was running slowly so I could chase him. But holy crap, I was excited.

I screeched, and ran after him. He looked over his shoulder with a terrified expression and ran down the hall. I squawked and kept running after. Oh no, she’s close! He turned the corner and started down the wood stairs, fast now, as if the game were over. I was too little to run down the stairs, and he was getting away. I didn’t want the game to end. I bent down to pick up the toy on the top stair. It was a wooden clock, with a wind-up dial in the center. It played different songs, depending on how far you twisted it.

The clock was big and it was heavy, and I threw it, as hard as I could, at Andy’s head. It knocked him down, and sliced his head open.

I waited on Andy’s bed until he came home from the hospital with dad. My mom waited with me, cuddling and rubbing my back. He was getting stitches, we knew, because dad had telephoned. She told me what stitches were. She said to me, You were playing with Andy, weren’t you?


I wasn’t sure what had happened. I knew there was blood, I knew that Andy was hurt, and I knew that I was involved.

My mom wasn’t angry. She still understood, after only two years of my life, exactly what I did know, and what I didn’t yet know. She made the connection for me: Sarah, when you throw something at someone’s head, it hurts. She pushed the hair out of my eyes and turned my face to face hers. She said, You hurt Andy.

I remember very clearly how it felt, before she said those three words, and how it felt after.

What I mean is this: I remember how it felt to be alive, and never in my whole life to have hurt anyone in this world.


I attended Catholic schools until I graduated from high school. St. Margaret Mary’s, then St. Joseph’s, then Loyola Sacred Heart. I went to mass every Friday and every Sunday of my life until I left for college. I received the three school-age sacraments in groups with other children— confession, communion, confirmation. I performed in the Christmas play year after year, always, joyfully, as an animal. I voted each month for Christian of the Month by secret ballot, and felt badly that I never once was selected. My uncles were priests, and my father had been in the seminary before he dropped out to marry my mom, his high school darling. I was born into, and raised each step of my childhood, with Catholicism. I deeply knew, and I loved, its stories and babies and holy days. My upbringing in this faith was very dark, very rich, very loving.

In eighth grade, at St. Joseph’s School, I won my all-school spelling bee. In the last few rounds, it was just me and a startlingly good fifth grader. He missed saxophone. I spelled it. I had to spell the next word correctly, I knew, and then I’d not lose to a ten-year-old. Mrs. Walden, my favorite teacher, was the announcer of the words. She’d been teaching us theology and history for the past three years. She was strict, pretty, and kind. She had the most beautiful clothing of any of the teachers. She turned the page for the next round in the spelling-bee book she was following—and hesitated. Mrs. Walden adjusted the fur-like collar on her cardigan, and clicked her brown high heels on the stool. She checked the word with Mr. Klein, the science and gym teacher, sitting next to her. He shrugged, jerked his head sideways, as if to say, “Let ‘er rip.”

Infanticide, she said.

Definition? I asked. The act of killing an infant. Repeat, I said. Infanticide. Definition again? The act of killing an infant. Part of speech? Noun. Repeat? Infanticide. Could you use it in a sentence?

No one should commit infanticide.

Infanticide, I said. Infanticide, I said again, on the stage where I’d been a donkey, a lamb, and a barn owl. I-n-f-a-n-t-i-c-i-d-e, infanticide.


I was enormously pregnant the spring that I taught poetry to a group of seventh-graders in central Phoenix, just a few blocks from our home. It was only March, but already well over a hundred degrees every day. I walked to the school in the morning, when the temperature was in the nineties, to spend an hour or two with the kids. Then I walked home at lunchtime, starving, burning up, waddling, and exhausted— hopefully to fall asleep until evening.

The kids were, in a word, heaven.

They were seventh-graders, most of them eleven or twelve years old. They were still little kids, and yet, at least compared with me at that age, very sophisticated. And they had complicated feelings about my pregnancy. On the one hand, most of their moms or aunts had recently been or were currently pregnant. They had baby cousins or brothers and sisters—and they knew and loved these little ones. On the other hand, most of them came from Mexican Catholic families… and they knew that I wasn’t married.

My big belly was a complicated tension, unavoidable, unignorable—built into my presence each day in their lives. It was sexual, but not. I was an adult, but not. Teacher, but not. Poet, but not. Is this official? One student asked after a couple of visits. Are you an official school person, or are you just here? he clarified. I was official, but not.

One morning, a couple of weeks into the residency, I simply wanted to know what one of their favorite words was. It could be their favorite word, I told them, because it is so terrible, or a favorite because it is a pleasure to pronounce, or a favorite because it reminds them of something important, or…for any private reason at all.

I started to fill the whiteboard as they called out their words. Bruise. Chandelier. Strawberry. Jaundice. Some of the kids knew their words right away, and their hands flew up. Some didn’t want to be limited to just one word. Qualify. Hiccup. Pajama. Ping-pong. Some of them needed to think really, really think hard…. and they needed more time. Can you come back to me? Galapagos. Gemini. Tinker. Asteroid.

I went from kid to kid, and the list on the board gained momentum. Pepper. Chlamydia. Recipe. Chrysanthemum. Honky-tonk. Adorable. Pink-eye. Jelly-jar. Balloon. Popinjay. Incisor. I got to Jeremy. He was the littlest guy in the class. He was very quiet, very tiny, and very serious. He was trying to figure out his word. Can you come back? Chantilly lace. Armpit. Goose bump. Straddle. Guadalupe. Nevaeh— it’s heaven backwards. Masticate. (Gasps from the other students.) That word from an almost-bearded seventh grader. And, then it came, from his counterpart… the word that would be the centerpiece of my weeks in their classroom, the word that would appear in at least a quarter of the poems that they each wrote... Lugnuts. The class falls silent—will she write it on the board? Of course I do. It’s a fantastic word.

Lugnuts, needless to say, got a lot of attention. A lot of twittering, and a lot of admiration from the other kids. I went back to Jeremy….. he was still thinking, still thinking. Dumptruck. Renovate. Itsy. Salamander. Grapevine. Go back to Jeremy…. he was still thinking. Now the kids were giving me their second or third favorite words. Gigolo. Crank. Peony. Roughhouse. Delight. Twinkle-toes. Slippers. Uranus. Mortuary. Everyone was feeling a bit freed-up by lugnuts and masticate, so the words were flying. Back to Jeremy…still thinking.

I knelt down beside him, and whispered, Any word, Jeremy. Any word you like… it doesn’t have to be your favorite word forever… just any word you like. So he said what he’d been wondering if he should say all along, whispering it into my ear without making eye contact… and with a definite question mark at the end: Putang?

I made a quick, no-win judgment. I imagined my boss, a dear friend and poet, laughing understandingly when I told him the story. I tried to picture Jeremy’s teacher, or his principal, after I wrote “putang” up on the board, or published putang poems in their end-of-residency class anthologies that the students would take home for their parents. But in front of me at that moment was Jeremy, earnest and tender, having just taken such a brave risk.

Aaah, I whisper back, I love that word, Jeremy. Pu-tang is an absolute gem of a word. But I can’t actually write it on the board. And that’s what he’d been wondering… if it was that kind of a word. He was immediately ready with the next one.

Miraculous, I swear to God, he said out loud.


Your cousins are coming today, my mom whispered, and lifted me out of the crib. Cousins are coming! Dad stuck his head into my room as my mom was dressing me. My two older brothers were thrilled, and repeated, holding my hands and dancing, Our cousins are coming, Sarah! Aren’t you excited?

I didn’t know what a cousin was.

In my entire life, we’d never had anything for breakfast like the plastic jug of passion fruit juice, or the tin tray of cinnamon rolls wrapped in cellophane from the grocery store, which were sitting on our little kitchen table waiting for cousins. In my entire life, my dad had never gone out to buy flowers in the morning, and my mom had never worn lipstick and perfume to breakfast. But that morning, everything was different. Everyone was different. We weren’t us. And cousins were coming. I was nervous. I was very nervous.

When the doorbell rang, I peed my pants.

But when my dad opened the door, the only thing that happened was wonderful—Becca and new Baby John were there, and so were my aunt and uncle. I didn’t see any cousins, so I asked my brother David, backing into the corner of the hallway, Where are the cousins? I was still a little worried, and now also ashamed.

Becca is a cousin, David said. Baby John is a cousin.

Now I wasn’t worried. I was only ashamed.

I locked myself in the bathroom by the kitchen. I was new to toilets, but I had been using them for a little while and knew a thing or two. I took off my pants and underwear, tossed them in, and flushed. I watched my little orange corduroy pants, with the bright yellow duck embroidered on the back pocket, spin around in the toilet. Then they disappeared.

And then the toilet began to fill, and fill. Water overflowed the rim, and spilled onto the floor.

Now, I had been taking swimming lessons, and I was pretty good. But as I watched the water cover the floor, I knew how I was going to die. The toilet water was going to completely fill the bathroom and rise up to the ceiling. I was going to float up as the water rose (because I had learned how to float on my back at swimming lessons), but when the water reached the ceiling, that was when I was going to drown. That would be the end of me, and I was starting to get sad for myself.

My dad knocked on the door. Sarah?

He was going to be sad, too. I began to feel very, very sad for my dad and my mom.

Sarah, he said through the door. Did you potty in your pants, and then flush them down the toilet?

Well, Holy Christ! How the hell could he know that! Was he magic? I was stupefied, I was beyond astonished.


His voice was low outside the door, as if he were squatting down with his forehead resting on the doorknob. As if he were kneeling down next to me. You probably don’t want anyone to know about this?


If you unlock the door, I’ll fix the toilet, change your clothes, and clean everything up. We won’t tell anyone. Then you can go play with Becca and Baby John and your brothers.

Well, that seemed so much better than dying. It was an option I’d never even imagined possible.

This magic, the magic of being completely understood, completely taken care of, and with my dignity and life restored… this is a magic that both of my parents have repeated for me many times over the course of my life.


On David’s seventh birthday, we went out to dinner. I don’t remember going out, but I do know that he ate crab, and then grape ice cream for dessert. I know this, because I remember him waking me in the middle of the night.

I remember my two brothers dragging me by the armpits over the side of the crib, and all three of us walking down the stairs to the bathroom. It’s incredible, he whispered, just wait. For quite some time, in the middle of the night, we admired the globs of grape ice cream and the little bits of crab, brown and pink here and there in the purple swirls. We were wowed! We were mesmerized. We’d never looked this closely at puke. And this puke was beautiful.

David had always been a generous older brother, and we were getting to the whole reason he woke us up: Let’s flush.

Can I? asked Andy.


Okay, you flush. It’s your birthday.

No, David said. Let Sarah. She’s the littlest.

Both of my brothers have always been nice to the littlest. So I flushed. It wasn’t disappointing. It was, truly, a pinwheel of crab-and-grape-ice-cream glory.


All this time I have spent with you, telling you some of my personal stories—this has felt like a risk. I feel, almost, as if I should apologize to you.

It has been… indulgent, self-centered even, to have asked you— strangers, who don’t owe me anything— to spend this time with me unpacking, just slightly, story by story, a few of the words from the poem at the beginning of the essay.

I do this because my poetry has sometimes been called difficult, and because many of the poems that I love most in this world I’ve heard called, again and again, “inaccessible.” This is, I suppose, an effort on my part to dissolve the question of “difficulty,” to dissolve the question of “accessibility.” And to share with you, from a non-poem angle, something of my personal syntax. To share a bit of my private etymology— the ways a few of the words of a poem resonate for me only, or have a history with me only.

This was, in other words, an effort to share with you some of the private references within the poem— things you couldn’t have known unless I told you.

Though you probably already know this: I still haven’t told you any of my most-private references. I wouldn’t, and I couldn’t tell you, outright, these stories. It is for this inability that I write poems.

What I am trying to reassure you of is that this time with you, though perhaps selfish, has been an effort at sincerity.

In contemporary American poetry culture, we are accustomed to, and we are warm to, cultural and historical and literary references within our poems. Yet we’re usually warned against using private references in our poems. We are warned that a poem full of private references is a waste of time for an audience who will have no chance of ever understanding the poem. We’re told that it can feel like a trick to the reader, who will earnestly attempt to parse the poem, having falsely assumed an intention on the author’s part to allow them access. We are told that including too many private references is a teenager’s impulse, is an illusion of mystery and wisdom— but which is, in actuality, simply a boring and incomprehensible exercise for the reader. A poem filled entirely with mysterious personal reference is, someone said to me once (shaming me, and breaking my heart), a breach of faith between the poet and the reader.

I find myself agreeing with much of this. All of it, in principle.

But I also understand that a poem must be written, on the deepest and first level, for the solitary desperate attempts of the poet. “I write for myself,” many beginning poets say, and many mature poets are too trained to say. But if we don’t…. I’m simply not sure I agree to the poet-reader contract that won’t let me pull my own heart out of the swirl of sweet and hellish memory without regard or product for my future reader.

Art has numerous purposes, many of which are deeply personal.

So I understand that I’m going against good advice when I suggest that you shouldn’t even bother to use a word in a poem unless it has a great deal of private reference for you. In fact, if you have little intimate relationship with a word beyond the context of the poem, I suppose I’d suspect its presence there. I’d wonder if it would fall flat. I wonder if I can smell out those words and parts of poems that don’t haunt the author with layer upon layer of personal reference, of personal history.

This isn’t something I can know. It’s only something I can suspect.

When I wonder why a poem has just, as Dickinson says, taken off the top of my head—if I try to analyze what about the poem has done this to me, I am almost never able to answer that question for myself. These times make me wonder if I am responding to years of, if not a secret, then a very private syntax for the poet.

Again, this isn’t something I can know. I can only suspect.

What I’m suggesting is this: The most powerful poetic vocabulary might be the one made up of words which, by the very uttering of them, clench something in the body of the poet. They clench (wonderfully or terribly, strongly or mildly) wherever he or she happens to test the trueness of words before they write them down… the gut, sternum, throat, groin…. The word should grab, and then unearth for the poet— whatever it unearths for the poet.

What I’m also suggesting is this: The most powerful poetic syntax might be the one in which the logics, patterns, arrangements, shapes, and relationships between the words in this vocabulary are measured against our childhoods. Because it’s children who approach the world ready to believe their experiences, their feelings, and the hidden and impossible things. It’s children who understand language by the essence and the echoes and the shadow behind what is actually said. It’s children whose language is most personal, most approximate, and most honest. And because it is children who gather their words, one by one, only after having had intimate experience with each. Mama, Dada, hurt, cousin, flush, love.

Perhaps I’m also suggesting a rigorous nuancing of the personal syntax guidelines of our poetry culture. Give us your poem, I say. Give it to us any way we can access it— by narrative, image, sound, tone, texture, literary reference…. then haunt the poem, and haunt the reader, in ways we could never parse, with your most personal, most private, most resonant, most secret syntax.

I could speak with you for many hours about the word infanticide… about its resonances for my life. I could tell you the stories and memories and sounds and colors that I associate with this word. Flavors, feelings, shades, images I associate with this word. I could speak with you even longer about the word “flush,” and longer than that about the word “pinwheel.” You could probably spend as much time telling me the ways in which the words “brother” or “providence” or “pregnant” resonate for you. Those kids in Phoenix could have spent time telling me why chandelier, why lugnuts, why chlamydia, why jelly jar, why slippers, and why pu-tang?

But in this essay, I have shared only a few stories with you, about a few of the words. You now have a tiny window into my private syntax, and my private vocabulary. The rest of the stories and references will simply remain echoing and embedded within the poem, or within your heart, if you accept them. And if I’ve done my part— if the poem has walked its halfway to you.

During a workshop in graduate school, a fellow student once told me that he couldn’t connect with my poem. It remained inaccessible to him, he said, because he didn’t have brothers or sisters. He was an only child, and my poem entitled “Brothers, sisters” was, indeed, about my experiences as a sibling. He tossed my poem with one hand onto the table in front of him, in sadness and sincere frustration.

I was, and I remain, baffled by this.

To be fair, I had been told many, many times up until that point, by other workshop members, by instructors, that some poem or other of mine remained out of their reach, remained too personal, too inside my own head or heart. I understood what they meant. I could see what they were pointing out to me every time, and it seemed true. I needed to crawl up out of my private syntax and into the syntax of the world around me.

I struggled for years, and I struggle today, to find the exact spot on the language continuum for each poem (for each word), where I feel true to my personal sense of and history with language, and yet where I also maintain a connection to the more common language with which I can share something with others. I aspire for the exact point that these two experiences of language— personal and common—will meet and maintain their integrities.

Because I do want to share, and I want to be received.

So this advice that I had so often been given, to nudge my poem toward a more public language, to forfeit some of the personal syntax in favor of a warm and commonly shared language-bridge, had stopped surprising me— until that moment.

It was when my dear and brilliant friend threw my poem to the desk that I knew it was not my failure to stretch my personal syntax toward the common syntax where people can feel, if they wish, more assured of sharing something with someone, or of receiving something from someone. This was a failure of his syntax. He didn’t have a brother or a sister, but he should have had (and did have), nonetheless, an endless number of stories, feelings, images, longings, wishes, vacancies, colors, murmurings, examples from his life, and from the world around him, with which he could have approached and read my poem. With which the words sister and brother could have held deep emotional resonance for him.

It is the syntax of the reader which is perhaps the most crucial and variable element in the life of poems. In my life, I will read far more poems than I will ever write, thank God. I will grow, become a better person, become a comforted person, a haunted person… much more by what I will read than by what I will write. I will be given the gift of an endless number of poems in which I can approach, embrace, guess, feel, and experience some of the endlessly private syntax of the person who wrote that poem.

If everything goes well in the reading of a poem— that is, if I have arrived at the poem with an opening in my heart and my mind to my own historical language, and if the author has written the poem with an opening in his or her heart and mind to their historical language— and if bridges have been crossed by both of us so that we intersect somewhere on the big continuum of language— then, I believe, the author and I will meet in the space of the poem. And in this meeting, our private histories with language will change forever. And so, because of this, we will also have to change.

I recognize when I have read a poem, and this meeting has happened. I also recognize when I have read a poem, and this meeting has not happened. I don’t believe in fault—I think it’s simply a failure. Of mine as a reader, or of the author’s, or of the moment— our lives are simply not lining up right then. And I think this is fine.

But perhaps the sole reason that I do read and write poems is for those times when this meeting, this dynamic meeting, does occur. This has been, to me, magic. This has been, to me, love.

There are many words I’ve used freely in this essay that I don’t entirely believe in. Words that are quite complicated to me, or that when I say them, I mean also to include several contradictory ideas within them. Words like “private”, and “history”, and “overflow” and “common” and “sad” and “change” and “create”. Words like child. Words like God and mother and father.

But when I used these words today, it was with the belief that the world is created and changed by these interactions of private histories with words (me reading your poem, you, listening to my stories). It is with the belief that when private languages bump up against, trash, uphold, invert, destroy, and create each other— that these small explosions change all of language proper. And it is with the belief that, materially and spiritually, the world changes each time language changes. It is with the belief that the world might change each time a poem is read.


Writing this essay, I have held close certain other memories. When I was a child, I was told that God was blowing kisses to the miscarriage babies whose graves were marked with pinwheels in my family’s corner of the graveyard, just behind my grandparents’ house.

When I was a child, I was told that I had no privacy from God.

When I was a child, I was told that baby Jesus knew all of my thoughts, and all of my feelings, and that I could make this baby laugh or cry without doing a thing, without saying a word.

When I was a child, I was told that God created the world with a word.

You should know that when I use the word “God,” I believe anything for the world is possible.

And you should know when I use the word “child” that I will believe anything that a child says. I’ll hold in the arms of my history of language anything that a child remembers.


et said...

"Art has numerous purposes, many of which are deeply personal."

Darn tootin.

Beautiful piece, Sarah.

Martha Silano said...

Wow, Sarah -- this is wonderful. Reading your prose is like dipping a spoon into honey. Keep going, keep going, until you have a whole book!