The Dandelion Clock by Daniel Tiffany. Tinfish Press. 64 pp., $16.00.
Daniel Tiffany’s The Dandelion Clock is a poetic-punk fusion of Middle English, contemporary spoken English, and lyric meditation in the form of six short lines set near the center of each page:
In my side I made hir neste
Trimmings settle axe
Laid to the root
The poems blend fragments of Middle English into Tiffany’s own lyric mode, using the fragments to serve, as Tiffany explains in a prefatory note, “as a kind of grace note for the poem it summons, calling forth and harmonizing with other idioms and dialects.” The shift from the fragments to the contemporary is striking, marking our shift from the past to the present.
Reading the first line hearkens back to memories of Geoffrey Chaucer and reading the opening lines to The Canterbury Tales. A cadence is formed that is in contrast to standard, contemporary English, one that rather than feeling cutting edge seems ancient and eternal. The interjection of “[l]ittle mound” breaks this cadence suddenly and completely, shifting from the singsong pentameter to a muddled single foot filled to the brim with accented syllables.
Tiffany reveals in his preface that the origin of these fragments are not literary texts, but rather that they “often survived only through citation in treatises condemning their vernacular origins.” Had these denunciations of the vernacular not been written, these glimpses of language would have been lost forever. Tiffany begins from this, the marginalized language act that is perpetuated by the very act of marginalizing. The revelation that these borrowed words were condemned is perhaps a surprising notion, as today we link knowledge of Middle English with being learned and well-read. Instead, the language presented is:
Unlawefully in light
I got out on
And it was nothing
Honey a little black and white
Tiffany’s verse presents the possibility that marginalized language has an ability to retain meaning in a way that accepted language does not. Tiffany does not explicitly reference the doublespeak and empty meanings that have permeated our contemporary use of language through the proliferation of political and advertorial speech. However, the poems do confront these uses of language, by insisting that cant and vernacular are routes leading toward a pure language:
Wordes slowe and slepy
Yet and yet was endeles
Nothing in it
Earth other earth
A rumbling must be someone
Slowly jumping down
These defiled words maintain the possibility of a tangible meaning by being excluded from common, accepted language. The rebellious, insistent nature of language is affirmed as the words “slowe and slepy” still produce a “rumbling” that “must be someone.” Though most of the contemporary English lines are recognizable as standard English, some of the poems veer into contemporary vernacular:
Dat truck is trash
En trash is what people
Is dat puts dirt on de head
En der fren’s
En make ’em ashamed
The lines between vernacular and standard language begin to blend in the same way that the Middle English begins to blend into contemporary English. All the language is fragmented, and we are challenged to both accept it and make sense of it. Tiffany asks us to both realize and exalt the many ways in which our English language takes form, from the lyric to the supposedly crude. Regardless of its status, each word is simply a combination of symbols on the page and corresponding sounds. The connotative and even denotative elements of language are attributions that we bring to the language as both individuals and a culture. With this realization, we can revel in a lyric both old and new, common and uncommon:
What was hire drynk
The colde water of the—
The colde water of the—
Wanna go to heaven
A little thing like that
Don’t cost nothing
The poems are forceful in their smallness, asserting that a handful of carefully selected words, many now unrecognizable to our own contemporary tongue, are enough. What these blendings and meditations produce is the pursuit of a pure language and the possibility of a tangible meaning. The Dandelion Clock offers a new use of language, rooted in an old use of language. The marginal is an eternal reality, and one that Tiffany sees as providing a vital and useful alternative to the emptiness of co-opted language. In these miniature verses, Tiffany challenges us to accept the tangible nature of words as words, nouns as nouns, things as things.
Andrew Wessels has lived in Houston, Cambridge, and Las Vegas. Currently he splits his time between Istanbul and Los Angeles. His poems can recently be found in or are forthcoming from Volt, Handsome, Fact-Simile, and 580 Split. He is the editor of The Offending Adam.
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