Lightering Words

I made a notation on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary today under the “lighter” entry. I’ve liked this word ever since I first heard it working on the Alaskan coastal waters 20 years ago. Previously, I thought a lighter was kept in your pocket and was brought out to light a cigarette or start a fire to keep from freezing. Imagine that, it had another meaning, a meaning I was unaware of the first three decades of my life.


I used to pull 36-hour shifts for a barge company monitoring fuel transfers to and from barges on St. Michael Island on the Bering Sea. It was long, cold and anxious work. In a severe sleep-deprived state, you had to stay vigilant so as not to over fill and spill fuel oil, gasoline or highly volatile aviation fuel. If you fell asleep the other guys on the crew would tie your shoe laces to one another or do some other practical joke like scream fire!

Anyway, the managers at the time called moving the “product” from a super tanker 8 miles off shore by barge to the tank farm as “lightering.” The workers called this hell (sleeplessness, diesel fumes, ocean swells and the damp air black with mosquitoes) but it paid well. The word is forever seared into my memory, along with the amber light of the low hanging subarctic sun, and the a red bore tide — a wave of red seaweed advancing through the water like an alien invasion or earthly miracle, depending on your state of mind.

The word lighter came into English by way of the Dutch lichter or lichten meaning to unload.  The dictionary says the noun can refer to a large, flat- bottomed barge. (Our barges held 250,000 gallons fully loaded, leaving but a couple feet of freeboard.) The word is also a verb meaning to convey something by barge. I don’t know how the meaning of lighting cigarettes got mixed up with loading freight, an incendiary idea, but stranger things have happened in English etymology. 

The idea of conveyance is pretty much how lightering was used on the Western Alaskan coast. As I noted in the comment section of Merriam-Webster, we might say, “We’re going to lighter the fuel.” The word lighterage meant the loading, unloading, and the transport of cargo by barge. Each sense of the word logged some nautical miles in our speech.

What’s all this got to do with poetry. Well, I’m glad you let me ask this rhetorical question. All words with multiple meanings make good poetic fodder. If I say Yeats lightered words I mean he transported words into your soul and then out again into the world when you shared them. I’m also saying he unloaded his words into this great barge of the world and to this day we are still lightening them around.

Good poems are chocked full of words pregnant with meaning. Here is an example I just made up for the occasion.

The fly was loose in the room so I nonchalantly scrambled to shun the thing
before the buzzing guests knew what was loosed upon them. 

So what kind of fly was loose –a zipper, an insect, something else or all three? A poet will never tell. The verb might give an indication or perhaps not depending on where the rest of the poem might take the reader. Poet’s might be reluctant to tell for another reason. They may not want to dampen the chance the poem will lighter the reader to other destinations.

Ambigious word play can be fun, even profitable, but taken to extremes can be a bore and bore hole in a poem large enough to sink it. Even straight forward words, whose meaning is relatively fixed, can influence a poem’s meaning if played at just the right time. Poetry seduces, it says the right word at the right time, to surprise and delight with unexpected associations. Theodore Roethke uses one word to great effect in the first stanza of My Papa’s Waltz.

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

He “hung on like death.” Death seems out of place here. The poems opening seems to be about an intoxicated father and his son at horseplay. As we move our eyes through the third line our mind makes ready to hear “heck” or “hell.” Heck, this is the word we Michigan boys used a lot in the post World War II — Vietnam War era.  ‘I hung on like heck.’ Or. ‘I hung on like hell.’ Heck is a word I used instead of hell, a word I spoke in my grandmother’s house once and for which she washed my mouth out with soap. Roethke slipped in death to avoid the obvious and expected hell or heck, which echos the rhyme of the first line. This particular use causes us to breathe and hesitate, just a moment, before moving on. He’s controlling not only meaning here but motion and cadence. He is also creating depth or mass. Death is as close as one’s breath. The father’s breath could “make a small boy dizzy” and a single word could easily set off a drunk father to violence. We are close to death by breath and word. Donald Hall, American poet and critic, said poems are more like sculptures than paintings. He was critical of poems that loitered on the surface image — the photograph poem, the poem that forgets to breathe. Good poems have volume, depth and mass, created by the tension between the surface images, formal and informal diction, the cadence, and the artful use of line breaks, to name a few tools in the poet’s bag of tricks.

As we read these first lines we get time to squirrel away this word play in our brains while we dance through the rest of the poem. I won’t spoil the remainder of the poem for you, but I wanted to suggest that what poets do is more akin to lightering words around to give shape and substance to what is normally empty experience. We are all creatures of movement. Words, like our bodies, are busy moving from one place to another and we have our becoming in each moment of movement. Stop moving and you are dead or soon will be, like so many retired people who quickly decline.

I am bi-vocational (that should be a category on a census form) like the vast majority of poets. Currently, my government job title is Engineering Equipment Operator, which means I smartly operate dumb heavy equipment — god-sized  excavators and bulldozers. I’m also a poet and find myself at odds when filling out online profiles where occupation is the question. The first thing I write is Engineering Equipment Operator, (that’s where the money is and the government job title sounds so impressive), then a slash is made before turning to my other chosen vocation, poet.

The only problem is the term poet is rather a cliché and needs a makeover too, so recently I wrote, Word Lighterage Engineer. I figure this phrase will give some pause to the reader and hopefully cause them to pause and consider the word and why its there. Then they can decide if I am a certifiable eccentric or completely bonkers. Either way, they will find Word Lighterage Engineer a play on words. If sufficiently curious, they will discover this word has more than a few meanings when applied to a poet.

A poet moves words around and, at their best, offers a way out of predictable thinking. You could say, I enjoy swilling the milk of moonlight, surely the preferred intoxicant of poetry lovers everywhere. 

Word play anyone? Leave a note in the comments.

“SELFIE” MAKES THE OED: rambling thoughts on self-portraits

Finally, the Oxford English Dictionary has given recognition to a word used in our family for years now. The OED’s online version made “selfie” its Word of the Year for 2013.

Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide took this selfie from space in 2013

Well, it’s about time. Selfies have circled the world a billion times in this past decade. In the information age that’s close to ancient news. The popular word for mobile phone camera self-portraits was introduced years ago to this troglodyte by his teenage daughter who is a selfie aficionado.

I love that the OED is keeping up with words born of the Internet. It is my go-to dictionary when I really what to get the goods on a word.  Each entry is extensive, including the first recorded occurrence of the word and subsequent examples of how the usage changed over time. That’s a boon for any word nerd.

Though the word selfie is fairly new as far as language goes, the camera self-portrait is as old as the portable camera. Following the invention of the Kodak Brownie box camera in 1900, people have snapped photos of themselves in every conceivable pose. An English Edwardian lady and Russian Duchesses are seen in this Wikipedia article. I can even remember one of my aunts with a Poloroid Instamatic camera shooting photos of herself and laughing hysterically. She had a wonderful sense of humor and drama. She was always fun to be with because she laughed all the time and didn’t take herself too seriously. Had she lived into the cell phone era I think she would have produced great selfies.

The Grand Duchess of Russia, Anastasia Nikolaevna, is shown here taking perhaps the first teenage selfie using a mirror and a Kodak Brownie camera.

OED tracked the first use of the word selfie to an Australian online forum in 2002 . A man described his drunken fall and picture of subsequent dental injuries. “Um, drunk at a mate’s 21st. I tripped ofer (sic) and landed lip first …on  a set of steps…sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”  In 2004 the word appeared as a hashtag on Flickr. In 2005, Photographer Jim Krause used the word in his book, Photo Idea Index. The word became widespread in the mainstream media by 2012. According to an OED infographic, selfie won the competition by growing in usage 17,000 percent this year alone.

Selfie beat out “twerk,” the word referring to the attention grabbing fad of gyrating like mating dogs in public. The term’s familiarity shot up after being made infamous this year by the young entertainer Miley Cyrus. Shirking and deliberately stripping off her sweet 16 teen image, Cyrus has done her part, as so many pop diva’s do, to dumb down the love-making dance symbols of western culture. She’s got nothing on the Tango.

The popular word selfie was introduced years ago to this troglodyte by my teenage daughter. I call her the Selfie Master, though she is typical among her peers who create selfies at the drop of a hat. There are workout selfies or “welfie,”  hair selfie or “helfie” and shelf, sweater and shirt all getting the moniker of shelfie. Her cell and mine are populated with hundreds of these selfies. They are expressions of ongoing exploration of her emotional life: sadness, elation, depression, delight, anger and humor, anxiety and seduction. Some are sent out in texts, others are archived as the stock photos ever ready to help illustrate a future mood. I wouldn’t delete any of these images because they are much like a child’s early drawings and school crafts that reveal snapshots of her developing self-image.

My daughter's bathroom selfie from a few years ago. It's all about exploring a pose.

My daughter’s bathroom selfie from a few years ago. It’s all about exploring a pose.

The selfie is a variation of artists’ self portraits. Who can forget Warhol’s blank face in various colors or the dozens of haunting Van Gogh mugs. Today every person under 30 is a photo artist with enough self portraits to fill a couple dozen photo albums, (though few keep hard copy photos any more). I wonder how many digital selfies the world’s web hubs and computers can store?

Despite the name, seflies are not only about the self. There are social selfies that show our life in social realm. I’ve made a few family selfies. Here’s one with my family on a day hike.


A selfie of my family on a day hike in the foothills of the Alaska Range near Healy, Alaska

To me selfies are more fun when you are in a group. The spontaneous dynamics of three or more people seem to always be captured by the camera lens, even when the lighting is dim and the hamming meter is way off the charts.



The word rantics is a merging of rants and antics. I call these compressed words. They would be compound words if each word survives the merger. In this case, the words combine like human x and y chromosomes. What emerges is not a carbon copy of the parents but a word with similar characteristics. 

Telling someone off

The idea of combining the two words came to me the other day. I was channel surfing television news (a futile endeavor, I know) and stopped for a moment on two channels: Fox News and MSNBC. The two channels are miles apart ideologically but closer to each other rhetorically than a pair of star-crossed lovers.

On Fox there was the irrepressible Greg Gutfeld‘s satirical antics. He was jabbering away on the border of libertarian disgust. On MSNBC was Rachael Maddow in the midst of a venomous liberal tirade worthy of an undead schoolmarm. Both were so entrenched in their rhetoric they left their topic spinning meaninglessly in the dust. God help us all.

I think I’ll stick to poetry and literature in general for all my timeless and relevant news. 

In honor of my late grandmother, who invented many lively words, I christen the word “rantics.” I define it as ‘a feverish debate dependent on dramatic diatribes and lacking common sense.’  I could also add that demonstrative body and facial expressions are also evident. The word is new and flexible enough to be applied to politicos anywhere on the spectrum who take their arguments too seriously and will stoop to any level, even that of a childish taunt, to deliver ‘all the news that’s not fit to listen to.’

Not So Original

Rantics is new enough not to be in my spell checker. I did find the singular form when I Googled it. Appearing at the top of a long list of obscure sources and names, the word showed up in the Urban Rantic had three definitions: 1) strong and rebellious attitude, 2) hyperbole, gross exaggeration, even hypocrisy, used when (emotively (sic)) expressing extremist religious and/or political views, and 3) a very small penis.

Definition number two seems to fit best with my use of the word. UD even cited Glenn Beck as an example. I could think of liberal examples, including the aforementioned, but the Urban Dictionary seems shy of naming its own. Number three I’ll take with one very small grain of salt.

Are you ever rantic? What gets your rantics on?


Garage sale heaven

Fall is the season to ply the avenues for garage sale books in Fairbanks, Alaska. Though sold all summer, books seem to occupy a higher ratio of items offered in the fall. I don’t know why this is so but I suspect the book worms are busy reading outdoors under the long days of the Midnight Sun. With 22 hours of daylight, plus two hours of readable dusk, what serious book reader would mount a full scale, time sucking, garage sale?


Probably only those forced to move

Throughout the summer a high turnover population of military and seasonal work forces, make the Golden Heart City a target rich environment for clothes and bulky garage sale items. On any summer weekend in Fairbanks, a working town and jumping off point for bush Alaska, there are 30-50 garage and moving sales. The clothes the kids outgrew, the vintage sewing machine, the worn love seat, and the engine block collecting bird dodo for half a decade are brushed off, carried and rolled into place on lawns and driveways. Traffic jams at garage sales are the norm. 

When the good books come out

Yet, as the days shorten and the air cools, the folks of Fairbanks know this is the last chance to clear that overstuffed book case of tattered paperbacks and unread classic tomes. In the fall, it’s the small items, like dishes and table wear and books, that tend to go on sale. They are easier to set out and can be gathered up easier under fickle weather.

My garage sailing book bounty

Last Saturday was a good garage sale day. S. and I left on our bikes in a slight drizzle. Just down the street was our first sale. Our elderly neighbor was selling out. A hand written sign at the curb read, “MUST GO — 30 years of accumulated stuff.” There’s nothing like a must go sign. It usually means the owners are ready to deal and bargains are to be had.

Their items were set out on folding tables under two square, white canopies. There was little that interested us but lining one side of the garage were six large boxes of books. “Yes,” I whispered quietly. I began to rifle through them and immediately found a treasure: Coleman McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, the first book in his Border Trilogy. The book was a National Book Award winner. I read McCarthy’s End Of The Road last year and wanted to read something else by him. It was a clean, large paperback edition, so I snagged it.

Then I spotted a book I’ve wanted in my library for some time. Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics, a hardback book on the corrosive political debates between the right and left. The jacket blurb reads, “Why the right gets it wrong and the left doesn’t get it.” Wallis has led the fight to bring more light and less heat to the debate dividing not only Christians but the all Americans.

As I went through the last box, a book with a dark brown cover caught my eye. It was a find, A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. It was old but in excellent shape. The copyright page gave the publication date of 1911. It wasn’t a first edition but it might be the first edition published in America. This book will go in my classics shelf next to my great grandfather’s first edition Huckleberry Finn and a hand full of other classics. We paid a total of three dollars and fifty cents, an unbelievable deal, and set off to our next sale.

We visited three other sales in quick succession not finding anything we were interested in. In fact, at a couple of the sales it was obvious some folks were selling sketchy items: yard rakes with missing tines and shovels with dry rotted handles. Some were repairable but some were total junk and not worthy of sale. We moved on to better gleanings.

Last stop and score

Our luck changed when we visited our last stop, a neighbor’s sale a few doors down from our house. The daughter and her boyfriend were moving to Maine and needed to get rid of a lot — I suspect whatever couldn’t fit in their small car. At the entrance to the garage S. spotted a sturdy coffee table with a few dings. It was stout enough to hold our 50 gallon fish tank. We have a koi and four gold-fish that we bring indoors for the winter and we needed a strong table to hold the tank. They wanted 50 dollars for the table. I talked them down to 25 and arranged to return with the car to pick it up.

Before leaving I found a table full of obsolete VHS tapes. I wasn’t interested in the tapes so much as seeing what movies these nomadic neighbors liked to watch. As I turned them over I found a hardback copy of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, all 676 pages of it for a dollar. I had read a few chapters of this book a couple of summers ago while on vacation and thought at the time I’d come back to it sometime. Here it came back to me.


Before you sample a garage sale this weekend, click over to my sample poem at Fresh Bean Sprouts.


Recently I was hacking away at the thickets of social media and found I was named a Top Poet. This is great because now I have something I can add to my “poet bio” besides being ‘the holder of a thousand rejection slips.’ You don’t have to worry about me getting a big head or lonely at the top. The list names 5,000 other Top Poets.
The list was created by Bryant McGill, a self-described motivational speaker, human rights activist, and author of the bestselling book, Voice of Reason. McGill has 30,000 followers and more than 13,000 tweets. I have yet to reach above 300 followers, so I feel a bit like a guppy in an enormous pond.


I was surprised when the message came that I was added to his list. I suspect that one of more words of my tweeted words were absorbed by some algorithm McGill subscribes to. McGill is a one man industry. He is a compulsive Twitterlister. His lists include: Top Analysts, Top Divas, Top Reporters, Top Environmentalists, Top Lawyers, and Top Innovators. McGill tweets like a madman, up to twenty a day, with positive proclamations that identify Western culture’s dark holes. “We have been trained by a culture of violence and we are all agents of passive violence.” He advocates changing our thinking habits and negative life patterns so one can work toward a new life. McGill is like Benjamin Franklin on digital steroids.

Yet McGill’s mega listing and tweeting raises the question of language. Does Top Poet mean anything at all, even in the rarefied of air of the Twitterverse. If there are 5,000 Top Poets in his world then nearly every poet is a Top Poet.
For me a Top Poet would be anyone who points out the industrialization of language and the subjugation of words in the service of selling, especially in social media. I think this use of language (like Top Poet) caters to flattery and falls under the sin of vanity. It is also subversive to flatten the meaning of a word like “top” to mean any and all things. This kind of talk renders words meaningless. It is also self-serving.
So the question is what would be a better name for a list like this. Here’s my suggestions: instead of Top Poet how about simply Poets or Poets I Follow. Or maybe Poets Who Should Buy My Products.


Here is my picture quote for the first week in September.

Fall Pond 2010 004 pactch of ground quote

I took this photo a couple of years ago.  I was living near Denali National Park where I had worked a long day. After dinner I lifted my coat over my head and down my arms and went for a stroll. The Alaskan sun was hanging forever in the sky. Geese were calling for warmer climes overhead. I came upon a half-frozen roadside ditch lined with Eskimo Cotton  (also called Alaskan Cotton). The air was bracing but no deep cold yet.  A breeze was moving the cotton gently back and forth as if they were swaying to a song. I felt warm and content wrapped in my coat. Gratitude welled up in me for the great gift of life, all life, and moments such as this in which I was able to witness the incredible natural beauty of creation.

That evening I snapped a few photos with my cell phone: the long-setting sun colored red by the smoke of wildfires and the geese overhead with their whooshing wings, and my little ditch. The I knew it would be impossible to reproduce in a photograph either the live scenes before me or my feelings — (the geese were but specks on blue). Still, It seemed fitting to couple this photo with an admission that a poet could spend a lifetime and still not exhaust the possibilities inherent in any given patch of ground, even a small drainage ditch garnished with varicolored grasses and wild cotton.     

What inspires you?  



Nothing is as it appears to be.
What is this aging? What am I to make
of these pale, brutal numbers? For a moment I’m fourteen.
from She, a poem by Jim Harrison

I recently acquired photos of my grandmother that are very dear to me. I posted one picture of her on Facebook to share with family members who live out-of-state. Her great-grandchildren were astonished by the photo. I was too.

scan0018 grandma cropped

Suddenly, here in my hands, seven years after her death at 100, was my grandmother, resurrected as a charming, fresh-faced teen, full of life.  The juxtaposition was startling. The pictures of her in my memory are of a white-haired elderly women, full of energy, opinions, and hard-scrabble wisdom. (I wrote a poem about her later years here.) Now I’m holding her youthful visage in my hands. It is stunning to see her look straight into the camera with just a hint of a smile. It is an era of her life I never knew, nor will I ever know.

It is certainly true that our past lives — the full telling of it anyway — recedes into an irretrievable past as each day passes. Snapshots reveal an image of who we were in a single moment of time. Soon after a photo is taken we are no longer that person. We grow out of ourselves like a tree adding layers each year. Fundamentally, the photos of ourselves are strangers to us now. As you look at any photo of yourself, the person you once were has retreated both into the maw of time and into the mysterious depths of yourself. These selves are nearly all but forgotten, save these photos.

I show my children pictures and tell them stories of my past. I am selective. I tell them what I think will help them in their life. I tell them my mistakes, my adventures and travels. I tell the things I am proud and not proud to have participated in. Yet, each time I tell them a piece of my story, I am painfully conscious of the fact that I am constructing my own narrative.  I know that even if they get the high points of that story, most of that story will be lost with me when I lie down for the last time.


So to with my grandmother. As my version of her life passes before me I can’t help but think I know only the high points of her whole life and but a smidgen of her early life. This portrait tells me that my grandmother was a beautiful young women. This is something she did not, nor would not in humility, tell us. Thus, I know nothing of how her beauty impacted her personality, how it influenced how men and women and relatives treated her, how it influenced her work life, or how it played out in courtship and her eventual choice of a husband. Neither can this portrait speak to me of how she saw the trajectory of her own life or if she ever felt cheated by circumstances or enlivened by her response to it. Looking at this photo, there is much that is hidden.

Holding this photo I begin to think that this young beauty is oblivious, as most of us are at that age, to the coming ravages of time. The Great Depression an event that would indelibly put its harsh stamp on her is but a few years down the road. So too is an alcoholic husband, a miscarriage, a divorce,  the death of four siblings, the death of a two husbands, and a long widowhood in a deteriorating neighborhood and home. I know that from the Great Depression on, poverty will be her constant companion. I do not know, nor will I ever know, the story of the precise moment when she would wake up to the realization that the lack of money would be with her forever.  She never told me that story.

I don’t want to suggest that her life was wholly preoccupied with the difficulty of money. Surely it was a constant and pressing concern but it never seemed to dampen her spirit. She overcame her meager circumstances with thrift. Her frugality was legendary. She stored and canned fruits and vegetables, clipped coupons, and always knew the stores with the best deals. She seemed to have a pot of soup always simmering on the stove. Her cupboards and pantry were nearly always full. She always had on hand enough food to last several months and would always give visitors food to take home.

Overall she lived a healthy and joyful life. She took pleasure in simple things: baking fresh bread, singing, birds, flowers, gardening. When I was a young boy she took me for weekly walks in various parks. She directed my attention to the beauty of the birds, the flowers, and the whisper of the lapping lake shore. In all the years I knew her, I remember her infectious laughter that often left me with side aches. She was generous with the little she had: lending food, her car, and crocheting an infinite number of hats, mittens and afghans for her children and grandchildren. She was a compassionate women: collecting and providing food and clothing to neighbors. She was an independent thinker. In her mid-thirties, before it was popular, she became a vegetarian and never touched a piece of meat again. She claimed it was the reason she lived so long. This was also the season of her life that she “found the Lord.” At the end of visits she would hug and kiss me, and tell me, “I love you and the Lord loves you too.” One of my most vivid memories of her is kneeling at her bed, hands folded before her bowed head, whispering. She prayed five times a day. I only wish I had a photo of her so kneeling. These are the memories I have of the person I remember; the person I knew best.

Over the years my grandma (whom I called Mum) told me many family stories for which I am grateful. Yet she never told me or anyone else I know the story of this fetching photo. Why she posed in that way? Who took the photo? Was it impromptu or planned? I can only guess how she felt at the moment this photo was taken or how she felt about it 30, 50, 70 years later. This saddens me. Had I seen the photo during her lifetime I would have asked her to tell me its story. I would have devoured the details of that story. Who knows, it might have put in perspective some family history or even explained some current family dynamics. Then again, maybe the telling of it would not shed light on anything but one day in her life when she was happy and young and full of promise. Either way, it would have been a good story to hear.

Do you take every opportunity to listen to stories from your elders?

Present self-knowledge is one thing but can we ever say we know who we were?