Friday, July 7

word quartets

in downtown Lafayette, there is this new sculpture-statue-thing. it's tall and shiny. two metal figures on tip-toes are holding an interesting metal version of the city flag.


you can't see it very well in this photo, but their stylized metal thighs have word-shaped cut-outs on them. I will list them for you here and ask you to pay attention to how the list makes you feel.

Trust
Kindness
Love
Believe

if I could format them all vertically, I would. you'll just have to imagine how they look going up and down these metal thighs in all capital letters.

we could put them in this order instead:

Love
Believe
Trust
Kindness

do you have any preference? did you or didn't you cringe a little bit at the lack of parallelism? does it feel different to treat "believe" as the misfit verb in a list of nouns, or "kindness" as the misfit noun in a list of verbs?

now that I've done a smidge of googling research, I have learned that the artist behind this piece is named Robert L. Barnum. the words were chosen by children involved with the Hanna Community Center and they are also the ones who named it "We Rise Above," which is how it is listed here on this list of other local public art.


as much as the inconsistency niggles and pokes at my hyper-educated writerly brain, I of course can't fault children for choosing this particular quartet of words without thinking about which parts of speech they all function within. most people do not automatically think about such things. even if part of my hyper-educated writerly brain things they probably should.

but the more I think about this sculpture and is misfit verb and its misfit noun, the more strangely grateful I get about how mismatched the words are. had they all four been straight-up non-ambiguous verbs or nouns, with no funky Venn-diagram of just noun, noun-or-verb, just verb going on, then I wouldn't have stopped to pay that much attention. if you just gave me a list of sappy-sounding nouns like

Trust
Love
Kindness
Belief

then that's all it would be and my allergies to sappiness would have kicked in and dismissed the whole thing.

instead, the funky Venn-diagram that these words presented got me pondering. how interesting it is that love and trust, simple little words, are both noun words and verb words. commandments and descriptors, both. but the other two, they aren't. they have to be one or the other. and it's simple enough to flip the verb believe into a similar one-word noun. not so simple with the noun kindness, though. why is that? probably there are linguistical, etymological word history reasons for which overlapping functions and orthographic representations match up or don't. I haven't looked into that yet.

I walk past this tall, shiny sculpture fairly often. someday it may lose its thought-provokingness for me. but until then the hodgepodge of words stir up lots of lovely questions. is this art speaking imperatively, or narratively? is it reflecting something the artist and his consultants see in the world, or is it praying for something they would like to see? are these virtues the sculpture asks us to admire in the world? to nurture in ourselves? are they efforts and actions we are supposed to take up, or are they knick-knacks and baubles we should collect where we can? or both?

of course it's both, probably. if they'd all been cut out in noun form, that wouldn't mean love and trust would lose their imperative vibes altogether. if they'd all been in verb form, with kindness split into its English infinitive, be kind, that wouldn't stop us from noticing the moments where those verbs swirl and collect around us into warm fuzzies to hold on to. and maybe our parts of speech are only one limited and insufficient way of chopping up language for storage. these four cut-out words have no context, after all. there is no frame for the list that they seem to make up. there is no sentence for them to live in. nothing outside this sculpture of words dictates how one is supposed to read the thing. that makes the hybrid noun-verbiness of half of them even more exciting, almost. you can interpret these words in multiple ways! and the unwritten noun and verb forms of the other half can perhaps haunt this tall, shiny art, hovering in the gaps for anyone who wants to notice them.

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