A distinct personal vocabulary by Audrey Molloy
Audrey Molloy is an Irish-Australian poet based in Sydney. Her debut collection, The Important Things (The Gallery Press, 2021), received the 2021 Anne Elder Award and was shortlisted for the 2022 Seamus Heaney First Collection Poetry Prize. Ordinary Time, a collaboration with Anthony Lawrence, was published by Pitt Street Poetry in 2022. She has an MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from Manchester Metropolitan University. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, Cordite, Overland, Magma, The North, Poetry Ireland Review, Mslexia, and Stand.
A distinct, personal vocabulary as a key device in creating intimacy in the work of Natalie Diaz and Nii Ayikwei Parkes
How does poetry draw you in? Are there certain poems you feel you inhabit, almost as though you have lived them? Questions of intimacy in poetry have always intrigued me. When reading poetry, it’s possible to simply enjoy the effect, without having to lift the curtain to see the mechanism at work. But in order to write intimacy well, it is useful to understand various techniques that can be employed by the poet.
Emotional intimacy, or closeness, in writing, can be created using a range of tools, including tone, imagery, syntax, and, as I intend to illustrate here, vocabulary. This is exemplified in two recently-published (and personal-favourite) poetry collections, Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem (Faber & Faber, 2020) and Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ The Geez (Peepal Tree, 2020). Throughout these works, each poet uses a distinguished and highly personal lexicon that effectively communes with their subjects and conveys intimacy, not only with the body (of the self and the beloved), but also with family and with the land. This has the effect, in both works, of crystalising and heightening desire – as well as loss – of parent, lover, home, identity and family.
These themes overlap with much of what I explore in my own work. As an Irish emigrant living permanently in Australia, on Gadigal land, I believe that my transnational experience of dislocation and restlessness, and my search for identity and home, are relatable to other people of diasporic communities – those who spent their childhood and formative years in regions far from where they now live, and who never lost the early programming of their cultural heritage: flora and fauna, seasons and weather, music, food, traditions and rituals, languages, untranslatable words, i.e. everything that adds up to a sense of home. My physical distance from my original home has heightened the emotional value of these various elements of belonging. I was struck by how much the poetry of Diaz and Parkes resonated with me and, through my close reading of their work, I became acutely aware of the key role their distinct vocabulary plays in the poetics of bringing the reader close to the subjects and obsessions of these two poets.
Richard Hugo, writing in The Triggering Town, makes a distinction between two kinds of poet – the public and the private – with these two categories having little to do with the poets’ themes, and everything to do with their relationship with language itself. With the private poet, he says, ‘certain key words mean something to the poet they don’t mean to the reader.’ Citing specific examples of vocabulary choices such as William Butler Yeats’ gyre and Gerard Manly Hopkins’ dappled / pied / stippled, he argues that a poet ‘emotionally possesses his vocabulary’ and that a poet’s obsessions, or ‘triggering subjects’, curate a lexicon to generate his meaning.
Jane Hirshfield, in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, says that the ‘voice’ of the poet is as distinctive as their fingerprint, and identifiable as their unique instrument. While there is more to ‘voice’ than lexicon, for the purpose of this essay, I will focus on the specific, hallmark vocabulary of Diaz and Parkes – the words that have particular meaning to them – and how, in these collections, this allows the reader to get to know the poets and understand their obsessions.
DIAZ’S OPENING (AND TITLE) POEM – ‘Postcolonial Love Poem’ – sets the tone for her vocabulary throughout the book. Her lexicon of both unusual and recurring words is so rich and varied in this poem that I have organised it into a number of categories: wounds, water, minerals, desert country and skies, the body, light and colour, and Spanish, Mojave or other Native American words:
• bleeding /war /wound /hurt
• lagoon /thirsts /Drink /drought /flash floods /current /hundred-year flood /rain
• bloodstones /stones/cabochon /lapidary /jaspers /geodes /feldspar /copper /diamonds /quartz
• wildflowers /heliotrope, /scorpion weed /blue phacelia / snakebite /desert wash
• skin / breast /mouths /ribs /shoulders /back /thighs /hips /throat / hand / bodies
• pale /silver /dark /green /red /light /rose /blue
• arroyo /culebra
All this in one poem! The following two poems, ‘Blood-Light’ and ‘These Hands, If Not Gods’, as well as ‘From the Desire Field’ and ‘Manhattan is a Lenape Word’ add the following words to the above lists:
• blood /knife /stab /bleed
• rivers / water
• white mud / mica / mineral / salt
• stars /scorpions /Orion /Scorpius / Antares /fig tree /nightingale /bees /nectar /sweetgrass /coyote / gold grasshoppers /honey
• bellies /heels /bone /muscle /wrists /knees /thumb /leg /heart /stomach /horns /eye /carpals /metacarpals /lunate bone
• yellow /black /blue-brown /white /rosen /green /gold
• alacranes /verde /bestia /sonámbula
Notably, the list of words for the body and the land grow most significantly. This pattern continues throughout the collection. Diaz knows her indigenous country in a way not possible to those who haven’t lived on (or off) the land. While specific words such as feldspar or cabochon may be unfamiliar to the average reader, the sheer variety of terms for minerals and gems builds a rich tapestry of the traditional land of her ancestors. Diaz also writes the body intimately, particularly the body of the beloved. Anatomical words in common usage, such as throat, shoulder, and hips, build their effect by the extraordinary frequency at which they appear in the collection. The word ‘bone’, for example, appears eleven times on one page of ‘Ode to the Beloved’s Hips’. This intimacy with the body and with land draws the reader into the poet’s world and conveys the personal significance of her subjects.
In an interview with Janet Rodriguez for Rumpus, when asked about the way ‘ingredients and materials’ used to make ‘Postcolonial Love Poem’ informs the whole collection, Diaz’s response was that no single poem is ‘the key’ to the others, but that they all work together. She says ‘they were built from my image system, my way of constellating languages and images.’ She talks about intentionally ‘leaning in’ to words that are emotional for her – her life, land, hour, pleasure, grief, lover etc. Diaz deflects what might appear as mere repetition of words in her personal vocabulary by imagining each time these words recur as a new beginning.
Irish author Manchán Magan writes, in Thirty-Two Words for Field, when discussing the decline and disappearance of Irish (Gaelic) words, such as ‘colpa’ – a word that describes the grazing potential of a piece of land (one cow or two yearling heifers) – that ‘thinking about the term even for a moment makes you reassess your relationship with land. […] It requires getting to know a piece of soil, spending time observing it before laying claim to it. To appreciate it you need to be outdoors, immersed in the landscape.’ According to a recent review of Postcolonial Love Poem in The New Statesman, Diaz has, like Magan, worked alongside the last living speakers of her indigenous language on programmes to preserve it.
Diaz grew up on a reservation where her language was ‘taken’ from her, writes Sandeep Parmar in an interview in The Guardian. ‘This theft of language, and the superimposition of the occupier’s tongue, is imprinted on her,’ she writes. In part 3 of her poem ‘The First Water Is the Body’, Diaz writes, of the traditional name for her people:
Translated into English, Aha Makav means the river runs through the middle of our body, the same way it runs through the middle of our land.
This is a poor translation, like all translations.
In part 7 of the same poem, Diaz writes, ‘In Mojave thinking, body and land are the same.’ She writes that the words for body (‘iimat’) and land (‘amat’) are both shortened to ‘mat’: ‘you might not know if we are speaking about our body or our land.’
Erotic intimacy is taken to new heights in Postcolonial Love Poem through the startling array of words for the beloved’s body that Diaz employs. Open any page at random and you are likely to encounter the words mouth, thigh, body, skin, thirst, river, bone, etc. The poem ‘Ode to the Beloved’s Hips’ takes this motif to another level. Here, we get hips, throat, pelvis, sacrum, femur, mouth, ossa coxae, ilium, ischium, thumb, tongue, coccyx, bone, thighs, teeth, belly, legs, iliac crest. (Diaz admits, in an interview with Abigail McFee in The Adroit Journal, that one of her earliest images of obsession was the image of hips; her grandmother, with whom she was very close, was a double amputee. ) The reader cannot come away from such a list of anatomical words without being affected by it, without feeling close to the subject. The final poem of the collection, ‘Grief Work’, comes full circle, repeating many of the words from the opening poems – horns, hip, lips, mouth, red, thigh, hands, throat, breast, sweet, river(ed).
By weaving her collection through with traditional – often untranslatable – words as well as Spanish words for her locale, such as arroyo or alacranes, the poet weaves herself and her people into Mojave country and carries the reader with her. And by excavating the river, desert and skies through her familiarity with the vocabulary relating to gemstones, rocks, minerals, bones, the body parts of animals, star constellations, flowers, and so on, Diaz demonstrates her intimacy and kinship with her traditional lands, and her profound grief at the loss of not only her people, but of their proud stewardship of the land and river, and even the sustainability of the land itself.
NII AYIKWEI PARKES’ COLLECTION The Geez also builds emotional intimacy through several techniques, not least his novel 21-line poetic form, the gimbal, which evolves from logical to emotional thought, pivoting around a central axis. He employs an intimate tone from early in the collection, as in the opening lines of ‘Frankenstein’: ‘You know that Kareem Abdul Jabbar hook / shot, right?’ Parkes frequently uses intimate imagery, as in ‘a vaselined smile beckoning in the corner of a club’ in ‘Hangman’. But the focus of this critique is his distinct and personal lexicon, and how that private language conveys emotional, physical, sexual and spiritual intimacy and invites the reader to share his experiences, understand his vulnerabilities and become close to his subjects of family, loss, romantic love and cultural identity.
When examined in terms of specific word choice and frequency, there are similarities between Parkes’ collection and Diaz’s. Parkes also explores the body – especially the face – using recurring words such lips, smile, laugh, kiss, and mouth, in many of his poems. The series of nine poems that make up ‘Caress’ are peppered with words like thigh, skin, hand, shoulder, chest, flesh, heart, tongue, hair, neck, head, lap, ear, cheekbone, fingers, arms, and limbs.
There is also some similarity in words relating to sweetness. While Diaz, in ‘Ode to the Beloved’s Hips’, uses sweet, honey, sticky, nectar, candy, and cake, to evoke erotic intimacy, Parkes uses similar words to conjure sexual intimacy in several poems, most notably ‘Bottle’ (on my tongue the dance of her /sweat and the sugarcane’s trapped burn), ‘Break/Able’ (the berried tip of your left breast), ‘Dark Spirits’ (with the burn and treacly aftertaste of dark dark spirits) and ‘Caress, iii’ (how sweet it is to be loved…It is easy to forget in those treacle-sweet moments).
But there are clear distinctions that make Parkes’ vocabulary uniquely his. The counterpoint to sweet is salt, and the word salt, along with its cousin, sweat, recurs in Parkes’ collection. Starting in the last two stanzas of ‘One Night We Hold’ (We are salt separating into its elements…we are sweat without words), and recurring in ‘Bottle’ (the dance of her /sweat… the salt-charged taste of her), ‘Defences, ii’ (our first sweat-/ heavy coupling) and, in the following extracts from ‘Defences, iii’, salt prevails:
• thinking about the sheen of sweat that brewed /on your skin
• has sweat / far less salty than yours
• how you can never tell how much //salt hides in a tear /or a drop of sweat
• how much salt // will sour a heart?
We can almost taste it. Parkes, in an interview with Toni Stuart, when asked about the recurrence of salt in the collection, replied that he wasn’t aware of the extent of its recurrence, but that his family were fishermen and close to the sea, and fish, and all the salt that goes with that, as well as sweating a lot when he was growing up in Ghana.
It is interesting that these formative influences find their way into a poet’s vocabulary whether they realise it or not. In this instance, the tropes of the body, sweetness, and salt, build an intimacy and eroticism that seduce the reader and open up the lived experience of the poet to the uninitiated. In the Stuart interview, Parkes says, when asked about writing through the body in a visceral way, that, for him, ‘experience of the world is very much to do with my senses’. Stuart responds that ‘there is definitely a sense of living through a poem, like we are with you, in every breath, standing next to you.’ A key device in achieving this effect is the particular word-bank Parkes uses.
Parkes’ lexicon also reveals his obsession with ‘darkness’ and its relatives – dark, darker, shadow, night, blackness, blacken, ebony – all of which feature prominently throughout The Geez, not least in ‘A Gimbal of Blackness’, which includes blackness, night, blackens, darker, night, a dark thing, dark thoughts, black liquid, blacken me. The recurrence of these words evokes the frequently dark colonial history of the African continent. This family of words recurs notably in ‘How I Know’ (darkness, ebony), ‘Locking Doors’ (night /and darkness), ‘Dark Spirits’ and ‘Obscura Y Sus Obras’ (meaning shadow play), which contain the words blackness, charcoal, darker, dark, black, night, dark, black and nights. The effect is to communicate a closeness with, and understanding of, Parkes’ subjects – grief for his dead father, or for his country and extended family left behind.
Balancing and highlighting the dark trope deftly is the vocabulary around reflections. Shine, gleam, burnished, sweat, lustre, slick, sheen, and similar words are scattered throughout the collection. In a grisaille-like effect, they serve to highlight the images of darkness and dark skin, such as in stanza 2 of ‘Hangman’:
Round midnight, when the faded lip of the rim still
gleams from the desperate reach of a weak streetlamp,
like a vaselined smile beckoning in the corner of a club,
Tenderness, a key aspect of intimacy, is conveyed throughout this book via the specific vocabulary of Parkes’ cultural background, such as the shea butter mentioned first in ‘Ballade for Wested Girls Who Want the Rainbow’ (‘shea butter in dark male hands, fingers in grandmother’s hair’), again in ‘How I Know’ (‘the smell of almond and shea butter in the warmth of an embrace’) and for the third time in ‘Caress, iii.’ (‘and it absorbs sun, hatred, fire and shea butter’). Including these specific words in the collection builds an intimate picture of home life, and vulnerability, that brings the reader close to the poet and his subjects of family, home and love. That Parkes is close to his family – his immediate family, diasporic family, and the family left behind in Africa – is clear. This closeness is conveyed through the sheer variety of slang words for addressing family members – Brer, Anyemi, Omanfo, Manyo, I’naa nabi, Money, Ma, Ace, Abusua, all of which appear in ‘11-Page Letter to (A)nyemi (A)Kpa’.
‘Caress’ is a poem sequence where certain words are repeated like a motif, building a sexual intimacy: bud, fruit, flower, blossom, seed, as well as feather, tenderness, fondle, caress, kiss. There is also a concentration of anatomically erotic words that appear throughout the collection: heart, tongue, lips, shoulders, limbs, mouth, thigh, skin, hand, ear, shoulders. In the nine short poems that make up ‘Caress’, key words appear in greater frequency than in regular language, most notably, bud (x5) flower (x10) and fruit (x13). These words, along with petal, blossom, lily, stamen and pollen, create a combined effect that is erotic, sexual, tender and delicate. Humour, warmth and the enjoyment of kinship, or closeness with family, are similarly conveyed through an oral lexicon that includes smile, mouth, laugh, and giggle.
In her interview for the collection’s launch, Toni Stuart puts to Parkes that the intimacy in The Geez spans continents and generations – ‘parent and child, friends, self and world, self and history, continent and diaspora.’ This last intimacy (between the African continent and its diasporas) is transmitted in a subset of recurring words around pairings: twins, reflections, boomerang, mirror, echo chamber, and echo, such as in ‘Caress, iii’:
your very intestines are echo chambers
of dreams swallowed under an umbrella of whips
Like Diaz, Parkes has access to a language other than English with which to explore his experiences. As he says in his launch interview with Toni Stuart: ‘if we only have the language that colonised us, we are never going to be in a good place to speak about these things.’ Parkes incorporates some unique words into the collection, including ‘geez’ from its title. In an online tweet in Dec 2021, he has elucidated the derivation of this word: ‘My use derives from 3 sources: the ancient script & liturgical lang(uage) of the Eritrean/Ethio orthodox church, a play on the resultant homophone ‘gaze’, & the first letters of the book’s sections.’ The poem title ‘Lenguaje’ also provides the aural clue that ‘geez’ is how the word ‘gaze’ sounds in a West African accent.
I WRITE THIS AS AN IRISH emigrant-by-choice, coming from a country where the indigenous Gaelic language, Irish, was forbidden under the British by the Penal Laws of 1695 and never recovered. Even into the early 20th century, school children were whipped if they spoke Irish (Franks, 2015) . Growing up in Ireland in the 1970s and ‘80s, where English was (and is) spoken as the first language by almost all citizens, the Irish language was learned reluctantly and spoken rarely by many schoolchildren, despite being a mandatory subject. Reading the works of Diaz and Parkes has reinforced to me the importance of preserving indigenous language and, in particular, ‘untranslatable’ words. The Scots Gaelic word ‘scrìob’, which has no English equivalent, features in the opening line of the title poem of my collection, The Important Things (Gallery Press, 2021). While the overuse of non-English words could possibly confuse or even alienate a reader, judicious inclusion of such words can bring the reader closer to the cultural identity, heritage and personal obsessions of the writer.
The reader becomes more intimately connected to the work when the poet places trust in them, exposing vulnerabilities, revealing secrets and writing their own truth. As the work of Diaz and Parkes illustrates, the use of a highly personal vocabulary is one way a poet can invite the reader into their world. The discovery of the personal lexicon of Diaz and Parkes has emboldened me to permit a broader usage and greater repetition of personally-significant words in my own writing in order to better communicate my own vulnerabilities and passions. Uncommon words appearing in The Important Things, such as the verb ‘fossick’ – to rummage or search for – and the nautical term ‘leeward’ (both in ‘Curracloe Revisited’) can serve to not only place the work in location and time, but to bring the reader closer. I’ve also become more aware of the build-up, through my own collection, of a personally-significant lexicon of scientific and anatomical words (pudendum, gular, scapulae, mandible), fabrics (shantung, rick-rack, silk, velvet, taffeta, gingham, mohair, chintz, toile), colours (veridian, sap, olive, emerald, rose-madder) varietals of wine and other alcoholic drinks (vermouth, Negroni, tequila, whisky, Sauv Blanc) and so on. All these words, by the fact of their variety and repetition, highlight and share, intimately, my own subjects: the sea, the heart, female identity, family, diasporic dislocation, heritage, and home.
1. Hugo R. (1982) The Triggering Town. New York: W.W. Norton, pp. 14-15.
2. Hirshfield, J. (2015) Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. New York: A.A Knopf, p.
3. Diaz, N. (2020) ‘Ways to become unpinnable: talking with Natalie Diaz.’ Interview with Janet
Rodriguez for The Rumpus, 4 March 2020
4. Magan, M. (2020) Thirty-Two Words for Field. Dublin: M.H. Gill, p. 123.
5. Diaz, N. (2021) ‘Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem: a powerful reckoning with violence.’
Interview in The New Statesman, 31 March 2021
6. Parmar, S. (2020) Interview with Natalie Diaz ‘It’s an important and dangerous time for language.’ The Guardian, 2 July 2020
7. Diaz, N. (2020) ‘A conversation with Natalie Diaz.’ Interview by Abigail McFee, The Adroit Journal,
8. Parkes, N. (2020) ‘The Geez Launch 1: Nii Ayikwei Parkes chats with Toni Stuart’
9. Franks, M. (2015) ‘Ireland and the Penal Laws’
10. Molloy, A. (2021) The Important Things. Oldcastle: The Gallery Press