Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Pismire Oration

Online here, with audio!

When I read this, I was struck by the distinctive voice, which came through clearly even without audio. The reading didn't sound quite the way I pictured it the poem in my head, or quite the way I pictured Griffiths in my head (I imagined both as less fairy-like and more warrior-like). Nonetheless, I thought the reading was well delivered and fit the poem beautifully. I would totally elect the bearer of that voice as queen of my troupe of magical fairies. (I'm glad Griffiths can't hear me, or she'd probably be inspired to barf on my shoes.)

The poem is written in the voice of a queen ant, whose anthill has just been raided by birds. She explains the situation in S1, and admonishes the workers for failing to give the alarm. In S2, she encourages the surviving troops to clean up the anthill, and promises to tell them rousing tales of their formic heritage. In S3, she tells off a caterpillar! And in S4, she gives a little pep talk.

While I discerned the basic outline of the poem quickly, I had to think hard to work out the details, thanks to all the puns, portmanteaus, obscure words, and neologisms. Here's a list of puzzling words, in the order in which they appear in the poem, and my best guesses as to their meanings.
  • pismire: an archaic synonym for "ant"
  • kreck: onomatopoeia for the noise the Plumeys make
  • Plumeys: ant-eating birds
  • valley-balls: eggs. Pun on volleyballs.
  • lupes: pupae
  • liplap danglers: larvae
  • mussled: portmanteau of "mussed" and "tousled"
  • distrayed: portmanteau of "distressed" and "disarrayed", with a nice coincidental "strayed" inside it.
  • "oakmost": something like "farthest". A portmanteau of "oak" and "utmost", but there's no meaning that lives halfway between those two points.
  • larum: an archaic synonym for "alarm"
  • beware: is not technically a transitive verb, but there's poetry for you. "Warn" wouldn't have worked as well in this context.
  • mordered in our buds: murdered in our beds, obviously. "Buds" is a pun, because you're more likely to find an ant in a bud than in a bed, and this poem is filled with nature imagery. (They're actually in an anthill, not in buds, but let's not kill it with excessive literalness here, eh?) "Mord" is an Indo-European root meaning, basically, "die". We get "murder" and "mortality" from it.
  • simlings: a portmanteau of "similar" and "siblings". Other ants are not exactly genetic clones of the queen: the workers are produced by sexual reproduction with drones and reproducing females, while drones are haploid and produced from unfertilised eggs (so really, they're sort of half-queens).
  • heedance: archaic word for "listening". (I'm reluctant to say "synonym" because they're a bit too different grammatically. I think it's standard but weird English to say "gather round in heedance", but you just plain can't say "gather round in listening".) I'm not sure whether "heedance" was ever common in actual usage, or whether it's one of those fake archaisms.
  • bellish: archaic synonym for "embellish". Again, I'm not sure whether it's a real archaism or a fake one.
  • bloomheads: blossoms; this one is just a new compound word.
  • sparkish: bright like a spark. Also, sparkly. This one breathes new life into a dead metaphor.
  • cusp and susp: Cusps are pointy bits. I don't know what "susp" means, aside from "suspend" or "suspension". I suppose the ants are going to stop at the top of the anthill to listen to stories?
  • trell: I don't know what this means, if anything. Urbandictionary says "trell is a term given to the most beautiful woman", which fits, but Urbandictionary is not a reliable source. Roughly "queens and trells and hellent warfor" must be kinds of ants.
  • hellent warfor: I'm lost here too. "hellent" sounds like "hellbent" and "warfor" sounds like "warrior", which makes the hellent warfor sound like brave soldiers. "Hellent" also sounds like "Hellenic", which gives this story a classical feel. "Warfor" sounds like "warfarin", but that's used to poison rats, and I don't think it has anything to do with ants. So I'm puzzled.
  • fattyfiller: caterpillar
  • seggy bodments: body segments.
  • munge: munch. Literally, though, to munge something is to muss it up.
  • Peel off: a pun--both what you do when you leave quickly, and what you do when you remove a caterpillar from a leaf.
  • mandicate: portmanteau of "masticate" and "mandibles"
  • clingdom: portmanteau of "cling" and "kingdom"--I suppose it's our kingdom that we cling to.
  • heapsake: portmanteau of "heap" and "keepsake"--I suppose it's our heap that's a keepsake.
  • sylvan lea: woodsy meadow. But also, I think, put there to set up punning resonances with "silver sea".
  • rejuice: portmanteau of "rejoice" and "juice". (I picture them clicking drooling mandibles.)
  • avids: aphids, but literally, to be avid is to be keen.
  • fallage: portmanteau of "fallen" and "foliage".
  • mead: can mean either "honey wine" or "meadow". I think it's meant literally as the latter, but intended to resonate with the former too.
  • ground and gladly: Obviously, in broad outline, this means "good", but I'm not sure what else the words are doing. Ants like things on the ground, and not, I suppose, their enemies in the air.
  • Magog: a name that occurs in the bible numerous times, under numerous guises. (It's not entirely clear whether Magog is an individual or a group.) Pretty sure it's basically an enemy of God--and therefore, a fitting enemy for plumey things that live in the sky.
  • smart: smite. Also, sting.


  1. Ack, this was a rough one for me. Can't say I share your enthusiasm for this unique voice. I'm not big on fantasy airy fairy material for starters, but w/out your handy dandy glossary of weird wordages, I couldn't much make heads or tails or mandibles, well actually I knew what a mandible was and that's about it. Oh, and Magog, as used in OT Bible prophecy is about the area that is now Russia. took a quick google and ran into some info from the perspective of a Muslim researcher, who also quote the various Bible as well as Quaran ref. and they seem to coincide. Its not so much as an enemy of God ref. as lumped in w/ different countries that will one day culminate in Armaggedon. Here's one of the more concise sites I could find on Gog/Magog. http://www.prophecyupdate.com/gog_and_magog_identified.htm

  2. Wow, you worked for it, didn't you, with this one. Speechless with admiration.

  3. Actually, some people find wordplay enjoyable. That's why it's called wordPLAY and not wordWORK.

  4. Without all the hard work you went through, I would have just read it like nonsensical verse, like The Jabberwocky. The way she handles the language, the reader is able to get the jist of the story, same as with Jabberwocky, even without knowing all the word meanings. I think that speaks to the poet's skill. Not an easy feat to pull off. Speakless admiration to your skill and patience to wading through all the words and word roots.

  5. (cont'd.) The comments here strike me as overly earnest and laborious, as though you had all had your love of poetry killed by too much education, or not enough children's books. It's a delightful poem. Whimsical, but of course this kind of "fantasy airy fairy" poem plays off human behavior, which gives it another layer of meaning. You do get that, right? It shouldn't be hard work. You should be breezing through the poem, enjoying the wordplay and imaginative scene-setting, while at the same time conscious that there's something else going on below the surface.

    The fact that there needs to be a "poetry reading month," that poets need to exhort each other to read poetry, is depressing. The appointed month arrives, and a few dutiful types read poetry out of a sense of obligation, without really getting it or enjoying it. Better not to read the stuff at all than to approach it like a good little boy doing his homework.

  6. Anon. whoever you are. I think I can speak for all of us here when I say that we read poetry, for enjoyment all the time. Most of us read and write poetry everyday or nearly. We are interested in the craft of poetry, as well as reading purely for enjoyment. Different people read poetry, just like short stories, novels, news and anything else in different ways. For example, both my husband and I read political news items. He scans and I read for depth. often I will even follow links to get background. Nothing is wrong with either method anymore than there is anything wrong with the method you utilize versus the various methods any of us utilize in reading poetry. I would not criticize anyone's preferred method of reading anything. The important thing, in my opinion, is to read. I simply am pleased that people still read poetry. I wish more people did.

  7. Laurie, thanks for your response to Anon; that very nicely put, and I'm happy to cosign. (Big hello to Jee and Jeanne too--some proper attention to you two and your posts and comments soon, I swear.)

  8. *rrgh, that was very nicely put. I blame jet lag.

  9. Ok, fb...Which came first... reading this poem or writing Evening Falls Over Fig Tree Pocket? I feel some interplay going on between the two.

    Thank you for al of your research, what a great glossary.

  10. Jeanne, thanks for the link. I never understood much about Gog and Magog beyond the stock phrase--so I appreciate the opportunity to learn something.

    Laurie, there's Humpty Dumpty's explanation of Jabberwocky, but I'm afraid it's not much help.

    Jane, I read this one, then write Evening Falls Over Fig Tree Pocket, then wrote the analysis. So, they were in between each other, I think.

    You are all extremely kind.

  11. FB, thank you for this! You really opened things right up and the quality and thoroughness of your work is amazing!

  12. Of course! I had forgotten about that conversation between Alice and Humpty! And I have both the Alice books, too.