Angry for Meet
by Karen Hausdoerffer
The man meets the woman at the restaurant. Ten adults lean over the sentence in
their books, parsing the English phonemes.
“Meet?” Consuelo says. “Carne? Como steak?”
I picture the man in the story meating his date, smearing prime rib across her face and bare shoulders in some perverse American custom.
“Es diferente,” Georgina tells her classmates. “Pero se pronuncia igual.”
I write the two words on tag-board strips in big letters that smell like markers. I set the cards in front of Manuel. “Which one do you eat?” Manuel picks up M-e-a-t. “Meets the woman? Or meats the woman?” He chooses M-e-e-t. I tape both words to the wall.
Everyone copies meet into notebooks and guesses at definitions. Conocerse like nice to meet you or else reunirse, like have a meeting. Even without its homonym, meet has so many definitions that it does not translate directly into a single Spanish word, let alone into Cora, the indigenous language some students speak.
What about the past tense? Like the people in the story, Georgina met her husband at a restaurant. I cut the card, removing one e and reconstructing the word, met. But why m-e-t? They want to know. Why not m-e-e-t-e-d?
“Because,” I say, “English is a crazy language.”
Unlike children, the adults in my classes begin with mastery of at least one other language. English words are three times removed from the concepts they signify. The picture of meat becomes carne before it becomes m-e-a-t. My students teach me to see English from the outside, to see its rules as startling, rather than inevitable. As a writer, I so often float my hands over a keyboard without even seeing the letters. I like this chance to hold the words in my hands, pass them around the room, pronounce them until the sounds become meaningless even to me: meet, meet, meet, meet, meet. At times, the language opens up, revealing new metaphors invisible to me as a native speaker.
Manuel says, “Meat. Restaurant. Now I am angry.”
Georgina corrects him, “Not angry. Hungry.” She annunciates, so we hear the nasal bight of the ang, and the gut-longing of the ung.
I write these words on tag-board as well and ask everyone to practice with me: clutching our stomachs, we groan “hungry”; scowling, we shout, “angry.” In the spaces between the cards and the silences between the words, I feel the closeness of the concepts along with their signifiers. Anger. Hunger. Two desires that twist in the stomach.
At times, I am angry with English, the way it confounds my students, refusing to settle into regular patters of spelling and usage. But mainly, I am hungry for it, hungry for the language I have grown up in, the language I write in, the language I have ignored, as an insider. I want to devour English, like meat. I want to encounter it, and to join with it, like meet.
My inner poetic voice is quite a character. He bosses me around (and yes, he is a he) and he forces me to write, even when I think I don’t have the time. How does he do this, you may ask? He makes me feel miserable until I cave in. I check my emails, do the dishes, bang around the house, all the while wondering what the heck’s wrong with me? And then, finally, it happens.
So I start to write, and this is me, writing: I lean – hard – into the air in front of me, listening carefully to take a kind of dictation from the voice of this entity. Sometimes I get the words right on the first try, but usually I have to “try out” this word or that word, one line or another, and then I ask my inner voice, “Is that it? Did I get it right?” My best poems are the ones that come through the clearest, like FM radio.
And yes, I have a name for him, but I’m not going to reveal that here because it might upset him and then he’ll leave me and then I’ll be on my own and I’ll never write again. And don’t be signing me up for multiple personality therapy, I won’t go. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing wrong with hearing this inner poetic voice; in fact, in the Mary MacGowan Universe he is a national hero.
Mary MacGowan's bio: “Regardless of how busy I am, I write poems at the average couple’s lovemaking rate: 1-2 per week. I do this not through sheer force of will but mostly out of curiosity: What will I write next? And how close will I come to saying it right?”