Anne Atik

Notes Taken During A Grammar Lesson

All nouns wear masks, the adjective lives underneath:
moody, violent, sycophant, loud-mouthed, couth.
O what nouns get done to them! While only another noun
can move a mountain – “remover”, say, or “miracle” –
you can only climb it with a verb – or lose your breath.
But French nouns are much more social, perhaps fearful;
they don’t go out alone,
they hold on to a brother or sister, a Ia or le,
by their little hand (in Yiddish, hentele.)
Hold on as faithfully as q to u,
as I to (obs.) thee – a dearer you –
with as few other liaisons.

Where the single-gendered, patient adjective
never throws a tantrum in English, it’ll give
you trouble in French, if you don’t seat
the forest, never an it, but a she
and her sylvan attributes, near her own sex:,
or don’t put masculine fire near masculine tree.
Against their better judgment
and safety rules, they must agree.

The most redoubtable nouns, however, live in German,
robed in Capitals and Crises, prepared for the best and worst,
so that Chair is as dramatic as Throne or Wart
and a Wristwatch or Clock,
a Tongue or Cake strike
equal Beats and Terror to the Heart;
demand equal Protocol and Respect.

Punctuation’s tough on those who doubt:
a period comes to them like an execution.

They need more room for the contingent –
like James or Proust – for the hesitant, uncertain.
And tough on epistolary anarchists:
it creeps behind their enemy lines of exclamation
points, bringing law !!! and ORDER !!!! commas,,,,colons::::
merciless when it underlines
words in an otherwise unarmed sentence
for emphasis,
putting its iron bars on a window # or a lawn
to warn off those who doubt our sincerity and purpose.

Whereas parentheses are half-drawn ) ( curtains
like suspicion.

And what a relief to spot the wings
of quotation marks, an utterance
at last, a “conversation”
breaking up a page, like warblers " " " "
in a desert of description.

great thoughts can bear
full sunlight, full stops, question marks.
They can stomp or glide into a page with punctuation
stumbling in their train or even thrown
out the window. Yet like everything else,
no matter how pure
their origins, their progeny’s uncertain.

The astonishing truth about grammar
is that the underlying premise
is both mystic and existential:
its usage proves, linguistically, one
cannot speak alone.
One refers to the world as it
yet addresses it, or God, in the more intimate
and consequential
you, thus assuming there is a who, an I.
An assumption that’s common, but,
some think, controversial.

As is gender, now an affair of state.
Where once the two used to cohabitate
they keep two apartments, sometimes meet.
But it’s on he + she
hangs the tale of conjugate


ANNE ATIK is the author of three books of poetry, Words in Hock (1974), Offshore (1991) and In and Out of Season (forthcoming); Drancy, a special edition with the painter Kitaj (1989); and How It Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett (2001). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Literary Imagination, Pequod, New World Writing, The Nation, London Jewish Quarterly, American Poetry Review, Partisan Review, Ploughshares, and Fulcrum, among others. She has translated Aimé Césaire, Raymond Queneau, Apollinaire, Jules Supervielle, Gérard d’Houville and others. From the Hebrew, she has translated the poems of T. Carmi. With her husband, the late painter Avigdor Arikha, she has been the subject of articles in The New York Times, The Guardian, and other newspapers. She lives in Paris.