A Division of Tongues (I)

Some stanzas from a series I’m working on about the Tower of Babel and Solomon. From a section on the motif of the Division of Language in the Tower of Babel story.

The idea of language coming apart is a fascinating one no matter how you look at it: mythological, psychological, social, mental.

I have been trying to think through this idea that there is something that a word means and when it stops meaning it the word still exists and still acts as a label for that something which it’s not anymore. Sometimes new words are made for the occasion, but sometimes not. Sometimes words are borrowed to understand what they were never intended to. This is the problem of the sign and its referent, whatever that means.

Words are planted, and grow, and do not stop growing. When I mean words here I also mean phrases, ideas, thoughts, ways of thinking.

The problem of language
is the problem with
the engine stalling out
or the microscope
that cannot see
all the way down.

When there’s no other way
of saying something
we must say it
the way it sounds
though it may not be
how we meant it.

We’re locked tidally
to the manner of the
language that’s spoken,
just as we cannot know
beyond our science
without some hoping.

So build it up and out.
Fine tune instruments.
Build them large without
and more precise within,
so we can mean only what 
we mean, and no more then.

Tomorrow we cure
through technology
death and disease
and reverse entropy
by taking measurements
absolutely accurately.

Today we say something
knowing full well it is
not what we mean,
to know it ourselves,
so it may come to look
like what it seems.

Extremely Online

You were trying to remind yourself

what it was you were doing on here.

Seeing if you saw yourself in each post.

You and the phone are two objects,

des atomes crochus, orbiting like

a binary of heavenly bodies:

what the screen shows you to be,

and what, in reality, you are.

At the barycenter, an identity.

What you were trying to get at

but which always seemed to be too far.

Now one of you is gaining mass

while the other is losing it

when you decide whether

to keep scrolling or to quit.

On the Similarity of Squirrels and Ciliates

As I write this I’m at my standing desk looking out the window into my backyard. A squirrel has found the bits of corn in the birdseed I scatter every morning. His movements are sudden and discrete over large distances, but once he’s reached the corn they become more fluid and exploratory. Perhaps his entire territory is within my backyard. Today, he seems willing to test its boundaries more than I’ve seen him do before. I think it’s because he’s in love. Earlier I noticed him playing with a second squirrel. He was rolling around in the dirt and sniffing the other squirrel’s erect tail. They would spontaneously chase each other in tight circles, then break off and stare at one another, their play brief and excitable. I think my squirrel is happy to introduce his territory to the other squirrel. He’s got plenty of food here to share, and a spot underneath the shed, safely away from the nosy pawing of my dog. After the other squirrel leaves, my squirrel seems emboldened enough to more closely inspect the wall of my house, and underneath the porch. He’s been made brave by love, ready to expand his boundaries. Then he stands on the tallest rock in the backyard, seemingly looking for where the other squirrel has run off to.

In between watching the squirrel in my backyard and writing, I’m also watching a YouTube show called Journey to the Microcosmos. It’s a science documentary show that looks at microscopic life. It has the dramatic feel of a BBC Nature Series, but instead of narrating a big cat’s hunt, it tells the story of a ciliate or a rotifer searching for food. Hank Green is the narrator. It’s a great show. Animalcules of all sorts living out their lives in the span of a smudge on a glass slide. The video quality is such that you can see these tiny creatures acting out many of the same plots that happen at our animal kingdom’s scale. There are predators and prey. There’s hunting and scavenging. Boundaries are explored. Safety is returned to. Mistakes are made, tricks are fallen for. There are lucky escapes and unfortunate accidents. Random walks. Tried and true strategies. The same relationships between object and environment at very different scales. Brief but excitable moments.

I’m struck, going back and forth between watching the squirrel through my window and watching the ciliate and rotifer on my screen, at this similarity across size and scale. It inspires a sense of awe, of something just beyond the horizon of my understanding. I feel dumb just to be aware of it.

It reminds me of a poem I wrote a few years ago called “Emergence.”


I am Thy body 		biological.
I am that which binds 	membranous guilds.
I made my pact 		with the protist
and tended my grex. 	It was in my house
they fed together 	becoming multicellular.
I divide alike 	and make equal under
the sacred worship 	of my plasma.
Who are you to ask 	of my origins?
I hold the nucleoid 	at the very center
threading spools of acids 		like a seamstress.
It was my cunning 	that yoked the great
mitochondrion 		into my environs.
It was I who organized 	the organelles
blessed them with 	waxy lipids
to smooth their tissue. 	Thou art all of me.
I beat Thy heart 		that begets Thee.
I make Thee eat of the earth 	beast and flora
and it thinks for Thee 		Thy metabolic thought.
Thou seekest me? 	I am the mucous offing.
I circumscribe and make 	all accoutrements.
My craft is chemistry		my materials elemental.
Who seeketh invitation	 to my abode
will find it everywhere 	with walls enclosing.
I am the eggshell 	        of a cell and its carton.
I am the swirling arms 	of a solar system.
I am Thyself too 	organ upon organ
a sense of wholeness 		and want of union.

If you’re wondering about the odd form of the poem, the reason why each line is broken up into two parts has to do with the fact that I was interested in Old English poetry at the time. Old English poetry often had bisected lines where each half had a set number of syllables, and the halves were connected by a sound pattern. They were usually sung I think. I can’t remember exactly now, but I was trying to imitate that style in this poem.

The impression, however, the real genesis of the poem, was the same one that I’ve had again today, just now, staring out my window and writing, and that I have quite frequently, especially when I watch science videos about the very big or the very small. A desire, born of awe, to try and give shape to that awe, to whatever force it is that manifests these relationships at different scales. Is it a force like the scientific forces of electromagnetism and gravity? Is it a force, like Thomas Dylan says, “that through the green fuse drives the flower”? Why does life have this fractal quality where patterns repeat at different sizes and scales? Why does being aware of this repetition fill me with awe, and make me want to write about it and give shape to it?

Thanks for reading.



You think one day “What happened to

that band we listened to in high school?”

Instantly a song breaches the surface,

not music but memory, out-of-focus.

God that was years ago. When it played

at the fall dance, some squealing,

some groaning, some with a wry look.

Each of us knew it in our own way.


It turns out nothing happened to them.

It happened that weekend in LA

you drove to see them, there before

the thousands, strutting between the lights.

They lived it, and you saw, and until

now had forgotten, and that was all.

R Charboneau