The Space of Lived Time in the Prose Line: Talking to Jessica Fisher

When might prose best trace the distance between the most private and most public aspects of one’s practice as poet, scholar, mother, citizen? And then what range of embodied, interpersonal, nationalized, international engagements might we find between those poles? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Jessica Fisher. This conversation, transcribed by Nicole Monforton, focuses on Fisher’s Inmost, winner of the Nightboat Poetry Prize. Fisher’s first book, Frail-Craft, was awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Having competed her doctorate at UC-Berkeley, Fisher fluently fields wide-ranging questions, shifting seamlessly from linguistics to modernist painting to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lyn Hejinian, and Caroline Bergvall within a single response. She is an assistant professor at Williams College, and an astute conversationalist.


ANDY FITCH: Could we first consider how prose plays out across this collection, hopefully as entry point into more micro- and macrocosmic elements of the book? For example, “Hurt,” the opening piece, offers a prose with sound and pacing if not preeminent then quite close. A spacious, overture-like ambience presides. This differs from more familiar forms of disjunctive prose poem. Then by “Listen,” not so far into the book, we find an immersive, unpunctuated prose line or prose flow releasing us into language without sturdy footing. Then by “Firebird” we get something more like an essay’s paragraphs and a poem’s stanzas. We can’t clearly differentiate between the two. Then variations on such possibilities recur throughout the rest of Inmost. So what type or types of inquiry do you see such sequences offering, either individually or as we progress through the book and encounter different prose modes? And should we here discuss Gerhard Richter, in terms of constructing a simultaneously abstract and representational practice?

JESSICA FISHER: Thinking through Gerhard Richter was really important both for Inmost as well as for my first book, which has one of his paintings as its cover. His work matters to me precisely for the reason you just mentioned — he was among the few contemporary artists who could really play the relationship between abstraction and representation in the way I wanted to. For me, the simultaneity of those spheres is crucial in thinking about what constitutes poesis. I tend to subscribe to Roman Jakobson’s definition of the “poetic function,” in which we feel language’s materiality as well as its referentiality. That fascination with the materiality of the medium, even in seemingly representational work, first came to me through my study of painting, and only later did I begin to find analogues in language for how to indicate that form of duality. I was also really influenced by Lyn Hejinian’s claim that “the language of poetry is a language of inquiry, not the language of a genre.” That insistence on poetry as a thinking structure brought the work of poesis into line with the work I was doing as a scholar — essayistic investigation is woven throughout these poems.

My interest in the relation between representation and abstraction didn’t dissipate as I began to write the poems for Inmost, although my reality had changed utterly: as a new mother, I found myself embodied in a very different way than I had previously known. I had been studying with Lyn, and was inspired by My Life to think towards forms of prose that would express the prosaic nature of my days. I wanted to find a way to indicate an interest in that flatness, and to transform it not by elevating it, but instead by tracing its movements along a horizontal plane. These poems are committed to measuring the space of lived time in the prose line, and to finding a way of having the poem move via the constant interruption and distraction that characterized that time. That’s one imperative.

But I also wanted that interest in the daily to exceed the personal sphere. In the first poem and the book more generally, the question was something like: how close are we at the moment of our most intimate lives to the horrors of war and other global concerns? For me, collapsing the distance between the personal and the public was a small act of civic responsibility. I was interested in tracing how many steps away I was at any moment from what was happening elsewhere, and it seemed that a segue between sentences for example could measure the distance. That’s the play there.

Another aspect of poetic making that I really wanted to explore in this second book was sound. Gerard Manley Hopkins was a key inspiration for several of the lyric poems. I was also listening to a lot of Caroline Bergvall’s work, and indeed both “Listen” and the later poem “Ride” were composed listening to her recordings. That was one of the happiest coincidences for me when the book was taken by Nightboat, that this person whose work I loved so much was also on their list. So there the sort of unpunctuated space in those two poems is really trying to describe or emulate what it means to be within a sound medium purely, and to register the breakneck speed of thought within that interval of time.

In any case, the question of prose is a really good one. To me, prose is as lively and varied a field as is poetry, and it mattered to me to be able to probe its various forms.

Just tracing that threshold a bit, and returning to your idea of what a segue between sentences might offer or measure (fusing intimate with public, global, potentially horrific events), “Mortar” seems a good piece to consider. Obviously that title “Mortar” contains both a sense of binding and of exploding. Though then each sentence unit, again, seems to deliver its own lucid content, so departing from some Max Jacob-style cut-up. You don’t offer a prose poem per se in that way, but these sentences do tend to point elsewhere or beyond themselves. They sometimes just signify an abstracted directionality. We encounter an iconic indexical finger pointing for “here” in the third line. A sense of metonymic adjacency and its gaps emerges in subsequent lines, where the piece refers to what comes after “N,” but then declines to offer “O,” instead characterizing this subsequent element as “An exclamation or a sigh, a sound that extends indefinitely.” This piece keeps moving around the unsaid, though not necessarily the unspeakably traumatic or the repressed. No key or code arrives for how everything ought to fit together. “Mortar” just operates as language itself does. It gestures. It makes an approximate calculus. So could we talk about language processes within “Mortar,” and tie these to your interest in segues between sentences — suggesting some sort of guilt by association perhaps, or our implication amid any number of social/historical processes, or tracing how first-person subjectivity, too, might offer, at best, a rough approximation of a linguistic calculus? I could see, for instance, this piece overlapping with an exploration of what it means for children to practice language, for adults to rethink their own language practice.

In this poem, and indeed in the book more generally, I was concerned both with language’s desire to be indexical (like that pointing finger) and with the myriad and inevitable ways in which language fails. Here, as you mentioned, the most obvious way in which that concern plays out is the way a single word or sound can mean its opposite, as in the case of “mortar” and the homophones “raise”/”raze.” The difficulty of signification is of course only heightened when part of the scene being described is far away and in some sense unimaginable, as it is in this poem. The gap between sentences, for me at least, gets at the kind of abyssal quality of trying to link one thing to the next, an abyss one feels when confronted with information that one can’t really access in a certain way, and yet one must. What do we do with the form of responsibility that we have toward, for example, a bombing we hear about in the news? Just as in a conversation over a distance, like you and I are having, there’s a sort of silence or missed moment of response built into the question — with the possibility of language both bridging that and also not. So we get forms of approximation, the way that the letter “O” is only a way of getting at what an extended form of grief would sound like. That seems to get us into these questions about how language itself functions to signify. That’s the child’s question: “Why, why, why, why, why?” That was part of a child’s game, and indicates her ceaseless wonder, but it’s of course also the adults’ question when confronted with senseless violence. The words are the same, though the tenor couldn’t be farther apart. There’s this kind of cognitive gap that one has to occupy to get between these two forms of inquiry.

For one related instance in which a quick linguistic pivot opens onto broader experiential questions (both of concrete parental experience and of an abstracted epistemic inquiry, and how those can play off each other simultaneously), I think of the piece “Derive.” With etymological concerns running throughout the book (exemplified in lines such as “Names for a bird named for an ear of wheat”), I might think of this word “derive” in terms of looking backwards, tracing origins. But again, amid the potential for an infinitude of semantic or metonymic adjacencies, I also think of the French-inflected “dérive.” So we have here questions of our own physical (from parents) and social (through language) derivation, but I’ll also sense this dreamy reverie of wandering, let’s say, as practiced by Situationists. So again cognition, selfhood take on this status not too far from the dream. So alongside this book’s pressing political critique, I’ll sense a broader critique contesting our supposed steady grip on consciousness. Sometimes I’ll sense such elasticities of address within a single word from Inmost.

Yes, absolutely. You’re seeing exactly what I hoped the various forms of that title to do. I really wanted to draw the seemingly discrepant energies of the two together, to bring serendipity into play alongside questions of etymology and origin, and to uncover the contingency of the past as well as of the present. I often experience writing as a sort of Debordian dérive, and the movement through the line as a series of accidental encounters — that’s the excitement of it. It’s also the excitement of being alive — that, as a character in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves puts it, “all is experiment and adventure. We are forever mixing ourselves with unknown quantities.”

This poem was composed in part by wandering through the Oxford English Dictionary, following the lead of etymology and reference. But just as frequently in my work the lure is visual rather than linguistic. Here and in “Refract,” which I feel to be a sort of parallel poem, light becomes another source of derivation, with one image leading to the next. Both poems are dominated by figures of movement: of the car driving down the wrong side of the highway, for example, or of explorers lost on the ice, whose destination turned out to be an optical illusion. In such moments, the conceit of the dérive becomes more embodied.

Well again in terms of French overlaps, and returning to the topic of parenthood, and now moving on to light: it makes perfect sense that readers have emphasized Inmost’s investigations of mother/daughter relations, and maybe my perception here gets tarnished by some acute gender-jealously, or some narcissistic childish identifications — but I also get struck by how much Inmost’s accounts of the mother seem to get mediated through Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. In Barthes’s book, discussions of language, discussions of representation often and perhaps always raise questions of mourning, and sometimes Barthes’s own mourning will surface much more dramatically, and sometimes Barthes’s writing will become much more conscious of this duality. During certain stretches, Barthes will offer an emotionally saturated prose in which the author, experiencing mourning, senses mourning everywhere. And that sense of saturation, or at least of intermittent saturation, returns me to Inmost, with its depictions, as you have said, of bodies sometimes not feeling that distinct, and then gradually becoming more distinct from each other — or with its complex linguistic processes and writerly investigations sometimes mimicking, sometimes examining/articulating supposedly nonverbal or non-reflective states. But more broadly, does Camera Lucida provide an interesting point of reference for you and, if so, could you discuss Barthes’s place in this book and/or in your poetics?

I feel myself seen completely. Barthes is one of the most important thinkers to me, and certainly was foremost in my mind at the time that I was writing Inmost and finishing my dissertation, which explored the linguistically created forms of subjectivity constituted within lyric practice. In any case, I love Camera Lucida especially because desire and mourning are the active terms in it, and because it refuses to separate feeling from the work of thought. My sense of what is aesthetically interesting comes directly from Barthes: work marked by duality and disturbance, work that can’t be passively received. Locating what makes art “vacillate” is in large part the work of Camera Lucida.

I wasn’t conscious as I was writing Inmost of how deeply indebted it is to Barthes around the question of the mother, though now that you mention it, it’s hard not to see the parallels! I guess one might say that my book’s title poem presents a version of the Winter Garden photograph that is at the center of Camera Lucida. And certainly both projects work to discover the past and persistent reality of the mother, whose body is for the child always a space of the uncanny — though in my book, part of the work is to mark my own body as that uncanny site, open to an intimacy that the infant cannot but forget. You know Barthes quotes Freud on the maternal body: “there is no other place of which one can say with so much certainty that one has already been there,” and yet the child won’t retain the memory of that experience. It is the most intimate relationship imaginable, and yet loss punctuates presence, insofar as one knows already that the moment will pass, as it always does, but also that the work of remembrance will fail to recover it. I remember being very conscious of that dynamic when my first child was a baby.

And yet this book is really not so much about being the mother of a daughter, as it is about being a daughter who is the mother of a daughter. I’m not really sure how to put this, but when I was a very new mother, I was so tired and embodied in such a strange way that it seemed absolutely natural to wake up at dawn and not to know whether I occupied the body of the mother or of the child. In some sense it was the only time that I had a concrete imagination of what it would have been to be an infant, my first experience of the mother’s body. You see this parallel shape on the bed, and you’re not sure of which side of the mirror you happen to be on at that moment.

In the writing of Inmost, the term from Barthes that I kept consciously pondering is that of the “punctum” — this is the name that Barthes gives to whatever pricks the viewer, creating an emotional resonance, an expansive blind field which undermines the photograph’s claims to unity and self-coherence. And in the poem we were just talking about, “Derive,” I feel like the question of the punctum is literalized in the image of the thin throat of the pale girl punctured by the star pendant. So what is going to hurt you? What gets at you? What gets to whatever is beneath the surface? I feel like maybe in my punning way I was trying to find an image that would literalize that idea of the punctum.

Sure could we stay with “Derive” for one more minute, just to get a detailed sense of this fluidity of subjecthood, both individually and in a relationship (or in multiple relationships with different directional vectors)? I do feel all of that playing out quite clearly. So if we could look at one mini-sequence, first we get the stark vivid scene: “We saw the red car headed into trouble, the snowy mountain that rose from the desert.” Then we get the elided, and in fact pretty enigmatic statement “Danger was part of its beauty.” Here, for me at least, some sort of pronominal or grammatical smear occurs, a smear like in an otherwise-representational Warhol silkscreen. What does “it” refer to? Is “it” the red car, the troubled scene itself, the mountain, the desert? I like that I can’t answer that question. But then following those ambiguities comes an entry that crystallizes the power of descriptive denotation, “The thin throat of the pale girl, the pale throat of the thin one,” which seems much more imagistic in a classical sense. Then we reach this concrete, embodied, existential and/or lyrical fact: “A causeway of veins running blue under her skin.” Here could you describe the importance in your poetics not only of reaching these varied registers, but of swiftly threading them all together?

That way that modification can clarify, even as its referent is doubled or obscured, feels to me like some sort of reverse side or mirror image of how derivation itself works, how etymology works. That linguistically we can signify this kind of plurality fascinates me. That same kind of mirror play comes in the sentence “The thin throat of the pale girl, the pale throat of the thin one.” Are they the same? What’s their relationship? What’s the sort of parallelism set up in the poem?

So you’re within this place both of the most definitively descriptive language, and of everything always falling away. The ground on which you’re standing is always moving, and so how is it that you can be in a space that feels referentially complete? I guess that’s for me the primary excitement of being in worlds made by art. It’s certainty the excitement of the Richter smudge paintings for example, but it’s exciting to me in all kinds of ways. It matters to me that this space feel habitable, because while this effect is heightened in art, it’s not unique to art — we live within that instability all the time.

I’d mentioned overlaps with French that we could explore. And just to stay on this topic of semantic adjacencies that arise in your work, the adjacencies of English and French often provide particularly useful rhetorical and perspectival pivots. But given Inmost’s political concerns, such gestures also got me thinking about the historical origins of this English/French entanglement. Does it seem pertinent to your project that a legacy of military invasion, of colonial occupation and cultural hegemony get stamped onto English via those French inflections?

I came across French as a very young person, so I’m not sure how grown up my thinking about it is. I wish I was smart enough to have seen that connection as I was writing the book. However, articulating the projects in a book and the act of making a book feel to me like really different cognitive spaces. It’s not like I would sit down and say I want to write a poem that brings in this or that illusion to Barthes or to colonial histories of language or something like that, and yet the connections are always there in some sense, since the interactions with those works and histories have irrevocably shaped me.

I think what’s interesting both at the level of language and at the level of history and politics is how quickly occluded things become — that we don’t in fact think very often of the relations between events. We don’t think through the implications of any sort of discrete historical incident for us, or we don’t think about our responsibility in any very distinct way generally. If we did, we would be living in a radically different world. So with this book I wanted to try to collapse the seeming distance between things that aren’t in fact distant, and to sort of scrub away a little bit of whatever the occlusion is, whatever keeps the resonances from resonating.

Again, amid the collapsing of distances and scrubbing away of occlusions, arresting flips or inversions recur throughout the book. In the familial piece “Familiar,” your parental formulation of the need not only to love what leaves you, but to create additional nutritive space by learning to leave what loves you, stands out. In “Refract,” the “I’s” body becomes a screen for cinematic projection, and a filmed figure becomes the agent, the scene’s animating presence. In “Remove,” we encounter a child “singing to her doll, / happy for the fiction, / she was the fiction of happiness / or was a doll I made, carried” — so again these oscillating, shifting points of vantage, which here seem not so different from “The Idea of Order at Key West” and singing beyond the genius of the sea. So I’ll sense complicated examinations of parent/child relations, but also of reader/writer subjectivities. “Via,” for instance, reaches towards those broader epistemic questions. After one formulation of words “lifting the body like / a stringless kite,” you offer the repeated question: “How do you feel? How do you feel?” First when I read that I hear an emphasis on “feel,” like how am I feeling right now. Then as the question repeats, I hear something more like “what is your method of feeling?” And then I also should mention the aptly titled piece “Spell,” which provides more maximalist vertiginous wordplay than any other piece in the book, particularly on “I” and “eye.”

This book is all about those inversions. It’s about how things become one another, but also how figure and ground can change place. Your mention of the screen in “Refract” brings that play especially to mind. In that image, the question of where the projection exists is really interesting to me: where does it take on being, and what is the support that makes it visible? This question parallels that of “How do you feel?”: what is the ground for your feeling? In the act of reading, as in the act of seeing, we become the vehicle for another’s being. And yet this interaction transforms both parties — it matters to me, for example, that the hand which becomes the cinematic screen also interrupts the flow of the image world, breaking the otherwise seamless projection of the image and forcing it to become skewed.

And then for “Spell”: it’s funny, because after one writes a book (I don’t know if you feel this way), there are only a few poems that you still like later.

If a few.

This one I think I still like.

“Spell” offers a really concentrated dose of the inversions we’ve described, as if showing us what Inmost as a whole does, or as if pushing you beyond this book towards other future projects.

This book, as we have discussed already, considers the relation of violence and nurture, often seeing them as two sides of the same coin. In “Spell” the two are even more intimately linked, as the poem considers the place of coercion in pedagogy and parenting. At every moment you’re teaching the child, and yet what is it we’re teaching? The work of differentiation is key to that process (the poem’s triggering memory was of trying to learn the difference between “yolk” and “yoke”), but obviously identity is formed through these distinctions as well. And yet such separation is not a guarantee of freedom, as the image of the yoked oxen hopefully indicates.

That version of being is what the poem wants ultimately to work against. In one phrase I quote, “yoked by violence together,” Samuel Johnson is complaining about the Metaphysical poets, whose excesses, he writes, include “discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” And yet it seems to me a responsibility to seek such resemblances, or at least not to look away from them. The question of how to bridge that distance without the force of the yoke remains the problem, I suppose. But I can’t help but think there are other viable modes of relationality.

And it’s in trying to establish an alternate ethics that the quoted line from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves comes to bear: “the weight of the world is on our shoulders; its vision is through our eyes; if we blink or look aside…we inflict on the world the injury of some obliquity.” The relationship between seeing and being is happily indicated in English by the homophone between “eye” and “I,” and yet what the poem ultimately wants to suggest, through that amazingly trippy passage from Woolf, is that the eye might serve not to secure some monadic ego, but instead might be the vehicle for our connection to the world. In the realm of writing, where worlds are literally made through words, at least, Woolf’s claim is entirely true. And I like to think that the relation of the writer to the reader, which you asked about earlier, also occupies such a position — the writer guides the reader, of course, but the book’s vision actually exists through the reader’s eyes, since it’s only in the act of being read that the world of the book opens.

The relation of the reader to the book is in some ways just a metaphor for me of what it means to find oneself in language. Throughout this book, I am aware that we’re always created by language, that it preexists us, and that just as the language is inherited, so too are the ideas and feelings it bears. So the question “How do you feel?” becomes, in some sense, how do you take on feeling as a form of mediation?

On these topics of identity inherited through language, of inherited affect or learned forms of feeling, I had asked about mourning earlier. I wonder if we could look at “Elegy,” as another piece where some of the aphoristic elements from previous prose sequences seem to coalesce — amid the interpretive space created by silence perhaps, or by layout, or juxtaposition (or by a silent pause that seems implicit, soothing, amid purportedly jarring juxtapositions). “Elegy” first posits a “pre- and post- / Idyllic,” then asks “Or was it only Eden after.” Here again Barthes’s punctum comes to mind, the prick that we get perhaps only after the event that produces it. So this experience of reading “Elegy,” with this poem’s gaps in place, reenacts or represents uncanny aspects of our lived experience, forcing us to ask the question you ask here: “What were we thinking / When we weren’t thinking.” I love that rhetorical question, and when I say “uncanny” I mean in the classic Freudian sense — the mechanistic nature of our lives, of which we sometimes suddenly become aware. To me, that seems related to what you were saying about inherited language or inherited affect or feeling. So anyway, I’d love to hear more about how “Elegy” makes us aware of rushing ahead towards something and then realizing we lost something, and so now we appreciate what we’ve lost.

The breaks mid-line that you’re referring to here draw on the tradition of the hemistich, which at times has served to indicate a speaker’s distress, but which also, as you suggest, creates a form of lulling. To my mind, the act of soothing always suggests some disturbance (otherwise there would be no need for it). The work of the elegy is of course especially interesting, since it has the double imperative to mourn and to praise — but it nevertheless can never make up for the loss. The wound remains, and grief expands from that point. Similarly, there’s a way in which the broken lines, like the patchwork of forest to which they refer, ask to be sutured back together, and yet here again the imperative to heal whatever has been ruptured unfortunately cannot be met, at least not through poetry. What poetry can do is “to see in the dark” — this is the premise of the book more largely, and indeed the idea of vigil is central to many of its poems. Such watchfulness, which does not purport to do anything but see, is work frequently done, both literally and metaphorically, in obscurity. I’m particularly interested in this poem, and in the book more generally, on the question of belatedness: what does it mean for something to be only afterwards apparent, and therefore to be known only through the scrim of its own loss?

And could we return to one embodied element maybe too close to discuss — your return-of-the-repressed access to what it means (how it feels) to be a child?

Sure. Earlier in the conversation I was trying to describe the uncanny fact that the only access you have to the experience of infancy is through the body of another. Maybe I wouldn’t want to recover that experience of early childhood so much if my personal biography were different — my family broke apart when I was five, and I saw my mom just a few times a year for seven years. Because I have so few memories of the time before, it was as if those years of care were obliterated until I was myself a mother, and could for the first time really imagine what it meant to love a child day in and day out for five years. My mother’s presence was belatedly restored to me then, though my memories of her mothering were of a kind of absent presence or present absence.

This book percolated for a long time I guess. When I was newly pregnant, I remember Julie Carr and I were driving up to Tilden for a hike. She’d had kids before I did and was really excited for me, and super lovely and supportive. Anyway, she said that especially if the child was a girl, I should be prepared to relive that loss when the child turned five. I remember thinking at first This can’t be right. But as my daughter grew older I found myself bracing against that future moment, when I would grieve my past through her. The poem “Winter” is really an attempt to prepare for that.

Here could we also talk about processes of being taken, or of what it means to take, in relation to the concluding Keatsian “Taken” piece? Again, we could consider this piece elegiac in its own way. The poem starts with “This /    grasping,” with that extra space of course before “grasping.” Once more I sense both this grasping of ours for something, and also this “this” that grasps us — as an abstracted pronominal language, let’s say, eclipses tangible present objects. So as I read the piece, I sense how our writing takes from the world and how we get taken. I sense sustained life as a continuous carnivorous taking premised upon the possibility of death taking we ourselves away at any instant. Could you begin to address any of that by describing how or why this poem takes from Keats?

Yes. Here again, I’m really interested in the multiple valences of a word. The poem is literally taken from the Keats, and is also about what we take away from his work, so once more we’re into questions of inheritance. Most important, though (as is true of the poem “Spell” we were just talking about), is what it means to be taken by something, to be spellbound by it. It’s interesting that you note how the deictic “this” works both ways. I think that for me that indexical quality of deixis is what connects Inmost to Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. It is at once the moment of the encounter, and also where the subject slips away. Likewise, to “grasp” is both to hold and to grasp for something. It’s an attempt, similar to many other instances in this book, to describe what it means to take something to heart or in the hand. It’s also always a kind of trial, so that’s the essayistic nature of some of the poems — that trying to get the language to segue from one corner to its opposite as quickly as possible, so that the distance between things can be somehow reduced, seems to be held within this attempt as well.

Keats’s poem I’ve loved ever since I was a teenager, and I find it very moving to watch how it progresses from describing the embodied, living hand, “warm and capable / Of earnest grasping,” to, by the end of the poem, the authorial hand, which will live past the subject’s own death. So in some sense my poem is trying to reimagine a way in which the animate comes back or could be found again within the poem that narrates its own death. I mean, Inmost might be a depressing book to read or to have written, but the whole point is that it’s about making something that feels alive. I had thought about cutting this “Taken” poem at various times while the manuscript was with Nightboat. But I finally put it back in, because I think I wanted to be able to close there. It, like everything else in the book, is a form of grasping after something, of trying to isolate something that can be held or offered, that sort of Celanian moment that you want at the end of a book of poetry. What’s the difference between the poem and the handshake? There’s this way in which “Taken” wants to be an offering. So for those reasons I liked it well enough to keep it.

Well in terms of being taken, in all of that phrase’s resonant possibilities, and with everything you have said about dramatizing the mediation at play even in the most precise descriptive or instructive language, I had wondered if the term “quotidian” really derives from “quote,” or if “to bear” for sure comes from “ferre” (as in death). Or does “disaster” truly signify stars falling from the sky? When have I, as reader, been taken here, and where have you taken me?

Well, “disaster” literally indicates a problem with the stars. I connect the word with falling stars in particular because of Shakespeare’s description, at the beginning of Hamlet, of “Stars with trains of fire and dews of blood, / Disasters in the sun.” “Ferre” does predate “to bear.” “Quotidian” is not really derived from “quoted,” though both words draw on the Latin quota. There’s this way in which etymology and language games are so parallel. I’m not really a funny person, and it’s not a very funny book, but being obsessed with how language gets to be where it is, or where it comes from, in some sense parallels the energy of a kid coming playfully into language — they’re not too far apart.