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The English Rat

ISSUE:  Fall 2004

Brioche. Barouche. And one of them you can still buy, by the dozen,
at the sweets stall in the weekend farmers market; the other
hasn’t been seen in a century (although they tend
to blend, to be conjoined twins, in my mind).
In a Victorian story I’m reading, a barouche conveys
a scalawag apothecary (baggaged up with plaister glop and leech jars)
to the bedside of some rummy doxy dear to the heart of a magistrate …
these words are only here with us by a lingering atom or two
of spoken breath. That his barouche has been instructed
“at the strictest adjuration” to proceed “with all alacrity” …
this language is a snick of time away from lying down
in the dust with its brothers and sisters: Scythian, Etruscan,
1940s proto-hipsterspeak. This disappearing language
and its world. On his Galapagos excursion, Darwin

witnesses “red scoriae”; the lizards “are not all timorous,”
and in their parted stomachs is a seaweed—”foliaceous.”
He assures us this is all “well ascertained.” Bone
to words like that, my father would have said in his
own corny jocularity: Arriver-dair-chee. Adioses, Moses.
(It’s a miracle the real 1940s proto-hipsters didn’t beat
the living shit from him, in his sweet, misguided attempts to “belong.”)
And now?—he’s down in the earth-roofed streets where
corner drugstore Sumerian gets spoken. (You’ll have noticed how I slipped
a secret “bye, bye” into the first line.) Darwin knows that language
stays in place no better than the English rat: he sees how,
in the islands, it’s been “altered by the peculiar conditions
of its new country.” Come down to the shore: there goes the Beagle,
over the azure-crested horizon. Toodle-oo. 


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