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Making metaphor from scratch

Mary Reufle begins at the beginnings. She offers “Metaphor as time, the time it takes for an exchange of energy to occur … if metaphor is not idle comparison, but an exchange of energy, an event, then it unites the world by its very premise.”


When we make metaphors in literature, we do so to convert the abstract into the concrete, the sensory, and the tangible—how loneliness is sometimes a human-shaped crater (Haruki Murakami), and the classroom is sometimes a jail of other people’s interests (Ta-Nehisi Coates). And with matter as with language we only have so many elements at our disposal from which to incite an event, to make something happen. So many letters in the alphabet. So many noble gases on the periodic table.

But what about when, as it happened back in January, whatever committee decides these things votes to add four new elements to the table? How does language adapt, balloon to meet a world—or even a universe that becomes more knowable, and simultaneously, less familiar, or even viable, the longer people live in and of it—the more we name what these elements are and what they can be used to make, what they can be used to fuel, and who they can be used to burn?

Brian Harnetty is asking some of those same questions in Shawnee, Ohio.

What does fracking sound like?

When I was sixteen, fracking was not yet accounted for in my reservoir of words. By the time my grandfather was twenty, “atomic” and “bomb” became indelibly fused in his. Bomb for every generation thereafter as something it had never been before: building block, integral, elemental, necessary.


Material changes in the environment, technologies dividing that which was previously sutured, necessarily transform our metaphors. What students in an Ohio classroom have sensory or emotional context to add tangible meaning to fracking? To deforestation? Nuclear power plant? These concepts for many of us despite increased access to almost instant definitions remain cloaked in abstractions. We know, but do we know?

This week, I asked my roommates (who are assuredly NOT poets) to be guinea piimg_0012gs for an exercise in knowing/not knowing. I asked them to listen to four sounds I found online, a minute a piece. Each participant knew the origin for half of the sounds, but not the same half as the other participant. While they listened, they freely associated on notebook paper. I asked them to try to avoid writing “about” the sound, and instead, to write inside of it, using whatever they heard and what it evoked to fill in the gaps of sensory information. The four sounds I played were:




After the four minutes were up, we talked.

Everybody agreed that they felt their writing had “better direction” when they knew ahead of time to what they were listening. For instance, Lane, who was told that the latter sound was a recording of the atom splitting, wrote about a lesson he once sat through on Chernobyl.

Lizzie, who didn’t, wrote,

“Running rampant, earth can’t speak.”

Taking those words, voicing them aloud over the track of the detonation, sets hair on the back of my neck on edge.

A living metaphor.image1

Now, imagine having the chance to extend this lesson further, to take the knowing and the not knowing and fuse them together in the classroom.

What events could we co-conduct, I wonder?

Looking forward to your thoughts.


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