On the delicate art of translation

Excepted from Tales of a Misanthrope.

As all itches are inevitably scratched, I endeavor to burden the reading public with yet another translation of Boris Leonidovich Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. This is partly in response to Pasternak’s Sestra moya Zhizn’ having so affected me in my youth and having left upon my better and younger self a prolonged impression.

Translation is a colossal undertaking and is frequently under appreciated. Not only must the translator understand the historical and social realities which underpin the original work, he must so fully respecting the sensibilities of his intended audience, an audience unfamiliar with the cultural exigencies of another set of distinct life-affirming values; furthermore, it is of singular importance to pay close attention to every crease and fold in the fabric of this untidy drop cloth known collectively as language. It is often said that poetry is untranslatable, which only heightens the difficulties one must face when broaching Pasternak, the poet and novelist. Is a true translation even possible?

The question burning on your lips–those lips, pouting slightly, cranberry red, moist and inviting–is probably why now. Why do we need a new translation at this time?

The answer is that I am bored. But rather than dwell on such a grievous admission, let us jump headlong and unguarded into the text of the translation itself, which was incidentally influenced by a previous translation and found by means of crawling dirtily inside a series of caverns under the echoic halls of this great institution, in an underground library, built on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis and modeled after the catacombs in Lima, all in the hope of preserving books and drug paraphernalia collected from Peruvian gangsters over the course of one particularly fine decade.

And as the front and back covers, and a beautifully illustrated frontispiece (apparently replete with fat cherubs dressed in thin raiment) were repurposed as bedding material for the birthing of merry moles (which, after having read said book, interpreted it as a menage a trois featuring small mammals with bad eyesight) the translator’s name is undiscoverable. Only the date, 1968, remains legible, thus situating its publication after the universally-adopted 1957 translation.

Concomitantly, my interest in moles was piqued, and I did some extracurricular research, learning that moles are the most literary of the burrowing animals, evincing high intelligence, especially as compared to rodents, which are dimwitted and generally offput by the humanities.

And now, without further ado, let’s figuratively get our hands and knees dirty, taking care not to inadvertently crush an opium pipe in the damp floor litter, and look at the text, starting with the 1968 translation:

Lara, Babe, pass the suture.

As a craftsman and man of the times, I wanted the new translation to be more hip hop friendly. For example:

Lara, what a ho. Your Adidas walk through hospital tents.

Those who floss twice daily or who curse mainly at inanimate objects, may posit that a worthy translation must obligatorily start with the text in its original language. And here I beg to differ. Too much of the author’s baggage can taint the fledgling manuscript (here I use ‘manuscript’ as a synecdoche). Best to commence from a sensible English translation and then contextualize.

The scene where Zhivago looks across the Suez Canal and is seen by a gangrenous-looking fellow on a motorcycle who yells, “Who are you?”, should be re-situated near a strip mall, thus functioning, metaphorically, as a lament for the death of such commercial spaces. Small detail, but highly important. Besides, what was Zhivago doing in the desert? A felicitous blunder in the original, I suppose, which was finally corrected after several translation passes. There is nothing like the disinfectant of multiple rewrites.

The complete translation is soon to be available for purchase on Amazon. I contacted Jeff Bezos directly. He wrote back saying he was tied up at the moment with a personal matter. Then he launched into a tirade, incoherent at times, about exchanging goods or something peculiar as that. My honest opinion: Jeff has spent too much time in shipping. He ought to work his magic in one of those glass penthouses, the ones with a motorized bar and satin bed sheets. Are you really telling me you can’t find a place for a new translation, I thought to myself, now displaying evidence of an ague fit. Who are you, Jeff Bezos, just a guy who wants to have current events whispered lovingly into his hungry ears by a professional news anchor? (Money does not buy happiness, but rather encourages it, like a desk lamp encourages the hatching of a mysterious egg, brought to your attention by unsupervised children in the community, and where surprise is the key component.)

And here I end this Faustian tale with a direct plea to JB. Please make room for ‘A New translation of Dr. Z’ in one of your sub-zero temperature warehouses. Hasn’t the public had enough of meat dehydrators or those electric bars used to heat bath towels?

And so, there you have it, related to me practically at gunpoint, the first person account of one of my colleagues at the sanatorium, who exudes from every pore the chill sense that his work is not being taken seriously. He maintains that his next English translation, that of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, coincidentally another framing narrative, will be the one to launch his career into the thermosphere–his word–so that he too may join the pantheon of writers who are too mentally unstable to recognize their true worth in society.

 

Ponytales

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For Cynthia (as promised):

About 500 years ago, I was presented with a choice: Beaucarnia recurvata or Beaucarnia stricta. Naturally I chose B. stricta, as I could foresee (having charlatanism in my blood) that B. recurvata–the so-called ponytail palm–would some troublesome day become quite popular as a potted houseplant, and I was having none of that.

So I planted my light-emitting Beaucarnia stricta seeds and went on a journey (called Odýsseia). Upon my return, I saw that my castle had been renovated several times by Mr. Wind and Mrs. Neglect (though these two were never technically married (living in sin for millennia), they spent a lot of idle time together and I use the Mr. and Mrs. ruse as a matter of pure though spectacular convenience).

Being a cad, I disguised my identity while ambulating around the scarcely familiar castle environs. From behind a giant cabbage-like plant, a giant hedgehog edged his way forward. He looked at me with doleful eyes, wagged his tail, and died instantly of a cardiac arrest (I guess he had a pickled egg for a heart, Sue). He was a puppy all those years ago when I had absconded with the company funds and was forced to leave the Ithacan island of my birth. Poor rodent (editor’s note: are hedgehogs really part of the rodentia order?).

In my grief, I heard, in the abstract distance, a panflute melody (based on the ionian scale, if I am not mistaken). Must be a group of lazy farm laborers, I thought. I was wrong. It was Gheorghe Zamfir and I told him to get off my land.  But later, under a halcyon sky, amid a field of buttercups, near a willowy windmill, I was disturbed by a rogue group of farm hands, and forthwith I told them the story of my life (leaving out all the bits of truth wherever possible). Mesmerized by their impassive faces, I regaled them (regale: windy again ) with long, epic-poem-like tales of crop failures and, in a compassionate moment, the benefits of good dentistry. One farmer (like Neptune, I mused) held a pitch fork so steadily I quivered. I bid them good day and wiped the miscreants from the page with my Pink Pearl eraser.

Once at the castle, I was met by my former housekeeper Goneril (a bastardization of gonorrhea, I suppose) and she died instantly of pleurisy (if you’re counting–that’s a second untimely death in a few paragraphs, Bruce). But her sister Cordelia recognized me instantly. I swore her to secrecy (not about her rigor mortisizing sister, but about my identity). (Note rigor mortis is not a verb–under normal circumstances).

The third sister was missing and Egon was put on the case. But this long preamble is to inform you that my Beaucarnia stricta was mislabeled and is most probably, recklessly, frustratingly the common Beaucarnia recurvata.  Some readers will no doubt make the connection between a man hiding his true identity and a Beaucarnia seed doing the same ( being recurvata while pretending to be stricta). That is epic.

P.S. you will notice the marionette strings operating the ponytail puppet (in truth, if you can believe it, designed to keep Mr. Wind in check).

Intertextually and at your peril, you may wish to visit:

Sue, to learn all about condiment hearts
https://redosue.wordpress.com/2016/04/13/god-is-a-good-kisser/

Cynthia, to bask in the glory of  epic poetry
https://littleoldladywho.net/

Bruce, for the science of untimely deaths
https://weaveaweb.wordpress.com/

And Dagmar, for the adventues of Egon, master detective
https://tomorrowdefinitely.wordpress.com/

Also this –

The Exorcist

Spring

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Ham

Old Flames

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Old Flames

Double

Adenium flower

I know many of you think I’m a rising star in the hopelessly crowded field of wannabe writers, mostly because you’ve been inured to the suggestion by my constant I’m-an-unrecognized-genius refrain.

And yet the proof is in the proverbial pudding (and oh how I love crème brûlée), as the folks at 101words.org, through some clerical error, are publishing a story of mine. But now that I think of it, can being a New York Times Best Seller be far behind? 101 words today, 100,001 tomorrow. It’s a mathematical certainty (for the genius-in-waiting).

Just so you know, it’s a story told (lavishly) in 101 words. Impossible? Practically, given my average sentence is longer than a stretch limousine.

Please leave your comment on ‘Double’ at 101word because it’s the right thing to do.

But more importantly, you are supporting the folks at 101 who are in turn supporting writers (some of whom are potentially geniuses, but I repeat myself).

And while you’re there, read a few stories, heck sign up!

The story is called Double and you can find it here:

http://www.101words.org/double/

Prospero Dae

(Pictured on top is the vainglorious Adenium obesum, with doppelgänger.)

Ana (Part 4 of 4)

The grandfather clock’s arthritic and age-spotted hands indicated, by inscrutable conventions set ages ago at the first watchmaker’s council, that it was 8 o’clock—rather ironic seeing as though the clock had stopped discharging its duties for months now and was presently correct, but only by chance. A house waking. The usual hullabaloo. Spears of latticed light escaping from the blinds and tattooing themselves on the heliotropic parquetry. Everyone had assembled in the kitchen, except for my sister, whose irrepressibly golden hair, having probably just been coerced into a tidy chignon, seemed to demand the same undying attention that daylilies, for want of a fresh face, sought from morning sunbursts.

I sat on the wobbly stool and the irregular rat-a-tat of its helter-skelter rocking seemed to annoy everyone. Though it was reasonable to expect that all chairs were blind at birth, this one gave the sonic impression of a white-tipped cane continuously probing unfamiliar surroundings. Unperturbed and still somewhat mystified by the opium of sleep, I jotted down the raised eyebrows and disapproving faces and slipped the notepad and pen into my knapsack to avoid detection.

“Where’s your sister, Mandy?” asked my mother, as she surveyed my clothes for starry specks of lint, an improvident crease, or the slightest hint of imperfection.

“I don’t know.” I turned to my father and said, “I hope she ran away.” And with the palliative glow of a sudden revelation, I understood that whereas a hypnotist might repeatedly incant some subliminal mantra, I enunciated my prosaic observation too frequently, and it seemed to me then a grave strategic error since the constancy of the utterance was more likely to blunt its meaning than to tunnel itself into my father’s cerebral cortex, and as though to prove the point, the honey-lipped giant ate his butter and Manuka toast, payed no attention to my soliloquy, and all the while ruffled noisily the pages of his newspaper. “In case anyone is wondering, I saw her in front of the hall mirror.” He paused, took a sip of black coffee and added, “Why do we have so many mirrors in this house?”

“You have two daughters, that’s why,” said my mother in a disconsolate tone of voice.

I sat warming my hands on a bowl of oatmeal. “Are you daydreaming?” asked my mother, flitting around the table like a bee chancing upon a blossomy field of buckwheat.

I noticed a few strands of previously undetected silver-gray hairs on my mother’s temples. “Do you have to go to work?” I asked with solemn desperation. My mother’s mauve skirt, clear complexion, slightly turned up nose, coiffed hair, and eight-handed approach to kitchen duties were incontrovertible evidence that this morning, like so many before, was a thrall to modern domestic efficiency. She finally stopped for a moment and pulled up a chair next to me. “I already explained it to you, my darling. I have to. And I’ll see you tonight. A little later than usual. Okay?”

The reasonableness of her words hung heavily like a leaden sky. “I want you to listen in school, Amanda. No more making up excuses for not doing your homework. And no more stories. Do you hear me? No more Ana.” She touched my hair as a small child might touch an angel’s wings. “You know what Mrs Handly said, having an imaginary sister was not healthy. And that you have to learn to live outside of the world of fiction. Wasn’t that what she said at the meeting?”

“Yes, mother.” I lowered my head and stared at the frothy milk and porridge that was, it seemed to me, making gossamer clouds.

Ana (Part 3 of 4)

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When Ana awakened from her concoction of sleep and mock-sleep, she was clutching the white dress, and her spiral-bound notepad, suddenly taking flight, carefully negotiated tall, snow-capped pines to manage a skillful crash landing in a lucky-to-be-found clearing. It was now nearly midnight and Alexa had vanished. Ana, feeling lightheaded, put down the rumpled dress, picked up the notepad, and, with a few mincing steps, made her way to the door where, pressing her elfin nose to the glass, she stared listlessly into the semidarkness. She looked in desperation for the would-be thief, while her imagination, fleeting across the candlelight paleness of the snowy terrain, was trying to produce tangible traces of a lost prince. She quivered in dim hope for some sign of the boy. After a time she grabbed hastily the coat from the back of the chair, put it on, and, leaving it unbuttoned, opened the door. A stream of cold air rushed in and wrapped itself around her like a boa wraps its prey.

“I’m still on duty,” said the gelid voice from the darkness. There was a brief silence till Ana whispered, “My soldier boy!” Tiny flecks of snow landed on the wings of her nose and he entered timidly, noticeably ashamed at having stayed out for so long in the bitter cold. He cupped his hands together and tried to warm them with his ardent breath.

“I don’t even know your name,” she said, tensing her thin, dark brows.

He dusted the snow from his sleeves, squared his shoulders, and said, “Peter, Peter Menard, but my friends call me Frankenstein.”

Ana stood on the tip of her toes to see if there were in his eyes rumblings of a bellicose monster. “That’s a strange thing to call someone!”

“You see, my father was a tool and die maker, and he now owns a hardware store. I help out on Saturdays,” began Peter. “And since I always played with nuts and bolts as a boy, the name was a natural.” He turned to her, and seeing as if for the first time her bright eyes, was immediately struck by the queer impression that her satiny black hair was that of a proud gelding in the early light of day. Ana folded her arms and sighed. “So that was from your father’s hardware store. And to think I accused you of being a thief,” said Ana, reproaching herself for having reached an unjust conclusion. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Would it have made a difference? People believe what they want to,” said Peter looking deep into her eyes.

“I would have believed you,” insisted Ana leaning indolently on the bookcase by the window. “You never asked me for my name, though. It’s Ana.”

“I know. Anna with one ‘n.’ I saw it before, on one of your notebooks,” said Peter, smarting from his early discovery.

“You’re a spy, then. Sent from some unscrupulous government. But I don’t care. I still have your feather,” said the girl, lowering her suddenly doleful eyes.

“It’s very late and now that we have properly introduced ourselves I must go,” said Peter darkly. They had been moving closer and closer to one another, and Peter touched her milky cheek with the unexpected warmth of his sunfilled hand, after which, in an unbearable sweep, he turned around, opened the door, whence there blew a whirlwind of frosty pollen. And as though the razorlike cold of the night were his true mistress, Peter left silently and without a trace.

Ana (Part 2 of 4)

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They stood face to face, and after a prolonged moment heard the sound of footfalls coming from behind Ana’s bedroom door.

“You have to go,” she said in a muted tone. She reached for the icy-cold door handle, opened it and, gingerly yet resourcefully, pushed him onto the balcony, saying all the while, “Go back into the darkness. Go now.” The deathless wind transformed the snow into a sandpapery sheet, and once the door was closed, an eerie silence blanketed the room.

Anna crossed the room. “Can I come in?” said the shrilly soprano behind the door.

Having at once recognized the voice she rolled her eyes and said, “Yes, Alexa, come in.”

The door opened slowly and the unwelcomed girl stepped into the cocoonlike room, made her way to the bed, and sat down on the quilted duvet (the one whose colors reminded her of the riotous russet hues of autumn).

Alexa had her sleek black laptop tucked under her arm. “You’re going to do your homework here?” exclaimed Ana, unable to conceal her desperation at the thought that Alexa should choose this evening, the one with an august moon and a frozen boy waiting hopelessly on the balcony, to commandeer her room.

“I have an essay to write. Do you mind if I work here?” said the tall-as-a-skyscraper girl, pushing her hair back and exposing a snow-white ear, the other still sequestered behind a lavish curtain of gold.

“No. I mean why can’t you do that in your room?” asked Ana, her face reddening with an access of fury.

“I don’t want to sit in the dark,” replied Alexa, pausing and then smacking her lips..

“Couldn’t you put the lights on? You’re such a putz,” said Ana incredulously, after which she stood up and started pacing the room like a caged bobcat.

“Don’t ask so many questions–besides you wouldn’t understand,” continued Alexa, well aware that the small but important difference in their age gave her the upper hand in matters of fashion, for one, but primarily in the sanctimonious arena of unassailable logic.

“I hate you,” retorted Ana, stopping directly in front of Alexa and stomping her foot with a thud.

“No wonder you get sent home from school a lot,” said Alexa in the authoritarian tone of a rosy-faced dictator.

Ana was in no mood for vacuous pontifications. “Mind your own business.”

Her elder sister’s long lashes now dithered as she typed on her wafer-thin keyboard, and the silver barrette in her spring-garden hair shone brutishly in the light. “Do the kids at school still tease you? You don’t make it easy on yourself, you know.” The rumor that Ana had made an impolitic remark while at school swirled around the neighborhood like water draining from a bathtub. “You should really learn to hold your tongue,” added Alexa impassively.

“I’m the most popular girl in my class,” chirped Ana.

“In your dreams!” exclaimed Alexa, who lay curled on the bed like a soulless sultana. And with the swing of a malevolent arm she pushed a stuffed rabbit onto the flat weave carpet saying, “You’re fifteen. Why do you have children’s things?” Ana sat silently on a burgundy chaise clutching a soft percale dress that needed mending.

“You know, it’s freezing in here,” said Alexa. “Aren’t you cold?”

“No. But if you’re so cold you can just leave.”

“I told you, I have work to do,” said Alexa with frustration. “And why do you keep looking outside? You’re making me nervous.”

Unaware that she was interposing in her younger sister’s affairs and that, apart from anything else, reading aloud a short passage with the dull intonations of a librarian would only serve to heighten Ana’s belief that the stars, pinpricks in a dark, unmanageable fabric, were actively conspiring against her, Alexa nonetheless persisted in her recitation: “The Eloi are meek artisans that live on fruit and the Morlocks, who live underground, surface on moonless nights to feed on the Eloi.” From a comfortable repose, Alexa slid her feet from the bed onto a dense carmine throw rug. “Where are you going?” asked Ana with growing alarm.

“I’m going to see if there’s a moon out.”

“Don’t you dare,” objected Ana. “I told you there is one. Can’t you see it’s bright out?”

Alexa marched defiantly to the glass door to see the moon for herself. Unseen specks of snow at her feet, whose propinquity to the glass door kept them intact, were improvident and glistening reminders of Ana’s stolid secret.

“You’re right. I see it now, behind a cloud,” said Alexa, returning to the warmth of the bed. From that time on not a word was spoken, and sleep drifted stealthily into the room like a curled puff of smoke, and the insufferable bliss of having been given a magnificent feather was for Ana suspended over a pool of limpid dreams.

Ana (Part 1)

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It was early evening, and a thin band of tawny brightness stretched across the sky. For some time already a powdery snow had begun to fall. Ana, a porcelain-skinned girl, sat idly on her bed and gazed out of the French doors, which gave boastfully onto the soft ivory of a winter garden. At the far end of the property there stood an iron gate, and, in the dim light of the moon, the snow looked like a wavy quilt of fine silk. She cast a glance at the swanlike elegance of the wintry trees, and with a sudden turn of her head noticed a strange agitation near the cedar arbor where, out of the shadowy depths and into a rectangle of pale light, stepped a tall, sinewy figure. He disappeared again into the shadows, and to satisfy her curiosity, Ana, somehow believing she had seen a ghost, warily opened the door.

“If you stand there with the door open you’ll catch your death of cold,” said a voice that resonated in the chill air. It belonged to a young man in a black duster coat and an ivy cap.

“Then you must come in,” said Ana “but be very quiet. My father is a reasonable man, but would probably kill you if he found you here. And there’s no telling what my mother would do.” With great clarity Ana went on to explain how her mother had enthusiastically developed a hierarchy of punishment, where death by a poorly aimed pistol, for instance, was of lower standing than, say, the slow loss of vigor by secretive means. “But these methods are more or less dated and mother seems obliged to find new ones.”

She spoke in hushed tones, yet the boy was mesmerized by the animated girl who stood before him in a flowing white nightgown, like a sylph, and with the dry squeak of snow under his feet, he took a step forward.

“I don’t normally let strangers into my room,” she said hesitantly.

“But I’m not a stranger. I know your sister. Well, I’ve seen her here and there,” said the boy in a cheerful tone.

His voice had the freshness of a windswept field of buttercups, yet it seemed caught somewhere between the plush of boyhood and the diamond hardness of adulthood, and the first thing she noticed, as he stepped through the door, was a dusting of snow covering the felt of his mid-calf boots.

“Well, here we are, “ said Ana with a smile.

While he closed the door she fetched a leather jacket from her wardrobe and draped it across her shoulders, gently tossing back her voluminous hair. A thin wisp of perfume circled the room and Ana stood stock-still, several loose strands of her bible black hair crossing her lips.

“Do you have any other sisters?” he asked narrowing his eyes.

Ana paused for a moment and began with a melancholy voice, “No. There was a time when I did, and I had wished for my mother’s fairykin to die, and one soulless night it did.”

“You’re a strange girl,” he said knitting his eyebrows.

“What were you doing in the garden, standing so still? Are you a runaway?” She paused and bit her lower lip. “I’d like to run away, but my parents wouldn’t allow it.”

“But that’s the whole point of running away—no one is supposed to know,” he said, suddenly remembering to remove his cap.

She gave him a crooked look. “I know what a runaway is. I just meant I couldn’t do it. I’m afraid of the dark, for one thing.”

“I’m from the darkness. Are you afraid of me?” asked the boy, secreting his black cap into an empty pocket.

“No,” she said, clearing her throat and then placing an indolent finger on her cheek, where he had but a moment ago seen a dimple.

Looking around the room he saw pictures of ballet dancers and bookshelves filled with exotic looking books, and on a small writing desk were a music box, an apple peel on a rose-colored napkin, a notebook , and a box of sharpened pencils.

“I have something for you,” he began. “You may remember me by it.” He thrust his hand deep into the other pocket, made a tight fist, raised into the light his hand and, unfurling his long, pinkish fingers, produced a delicate white feather. A broad smile extended athwart Ana’s face, but alas his impressive sleight of hand was soon brought to an end by a resonant clang.

He crouched down and picked up a dull piece of metal and returned it to his pocket.

“What was that?” she asked with the heedless curiosity of a bear cub exploring a newly minted world.

“Nothing,” said the boy sharply.

“Let me see it.” He hesitated and then showed her the noisy offender.

“That’s something of my father’s. You’re not a runaway. You’re a thief!“ exclaimed the girl.

Do you love me?

The sunset was a long, glowering strip of torrid horizon. I reached for her hand and we began to walk. “Do you love me?” I asked, squinting from the ruddy sun. The waves lashed the shore. Ash-gray gulls soared to harried heights. “Absolutely,” said the raven haired nymph, and we continued to stroll on an endless, iridescent beach. And, with self-shining eyes, she would stop and look back to count my footsteps–hers were invisible (untabulatable steps in the Book of Wickedness mean you are in love). Then I would again stretch out my now steady hand and beckon her to follow me, and in a low susurrus she would gently mouth, “absolutely.”

I will interrupt this dreadful half-start in order to do a little stocktaking. In fiction it is perfectly admissible to create a small world, and thenceforth, out of politeness, follow its small, and petty, dictates. Case in point: the woman only speaks one word: “absolutely.” Are we to take this literally? Is it possible that the man is vacationing and that the woman is a native of some tropical island knowing only one English word? And it goes without saying that the narrator, sometimes little more than a hairsbreadth from the author, has, by the use of the word raven, alluded to Poe’s most famous poem. This is clearly a tipsy, idiosyncratic instance where the author hectors the narrator into applying a telltale adjective—suffusing the voluptuous and featherlight beach beauty’s Aphrodisian hair with stark blackness, and seeking to draw a parallel between the usage of “nervermore” and “absolutely,” both stellar examples of one-word languages. The reader of Poe’s narrative comes to understand, after several candlelight dinners with Cole’s Notes, that “nevermore” is a pliable word that can, like a tailored suit, be made to fit any shape, from the thinness of a lath nail to the pudgy puffiness of a pouter pigeon.

And it should be noted that the unnamed “I”, John as it turns out (funny how that puts rather a different twist on things) is also somewhat inarticulate. He seems to only know four words. A modern love story, to be sure. This cautionary tale subtly exposes, by a very thin, almost imaginary margin, the dangers of how frail modern technologies such as texting stifle the natural floridness of a language (Poe was a visionary with his one word encapsulation of a self-serving plunge into the bathos of remorse). I am certain that some of you may feel that I have crossed the rubicon and landed in the daisy field of didacticism. Not so. Having a severely truncated language may after all be a good thing, as certain writers use by far too many adjectives. But don’t you love them? Don’t you love me.