Lessons in Prosody

Michelle Phương Ting

 

1.

 

 

 

under the lexical stress of a single, say, syllable
say bomb say tons amassed
utter: chaos. dropped or pummeled
dirt pounds.
to reiterate: defeat till final: this life’s end—

poems know no sound to keep alive
under seven million down
wakeful nights: i wonder: why eternal
no. black holes
and the bodies they swallow

ricochet limp. rip apart. a mass—
the heaviest burden to say
i cry again and again and not hurt

moth stone
cloud bird
grass feet
eyes head
shoe mouth
bố mẹ
chị em

 

 

 

 

2.

 

 

 

 

Note: a dull ache at the temples, a shortness of breath, a series of historical texts cited to furrow a shelter.

    1. Assimilate (in a meeting room to discuss the new church mission): Soft as a parachute off the white woman’s tongue, unassuming in its bid, a velvet finish. Think of all the newcomers who know nothing about how we do things around here—and I’ve disappeared, quietly as the word slices the room, meaning and time, landing on the land-mined earth of mine.

 

  1. Assimilation (in phonetics): When a sound is made similar or identical to nearby sounds within the same word, or between words, so that the sounds elide.

Here is an American custom I’ve mastered:

Nice to meetyou.

Wouldyou like some tea?

People assimilate all the time while speaking:

I think though I don’t
say the need to commune
a feeling elides
the thought comforts
the other desolates
the two words the same
unmet need

 

 

 

 

3.

 

Writing systems in Việt Nam under French and Chinese colonial rule [i]

 

 

 

 

4.

 

 

 

 

Now heavy stresses. How a single word can land leaden as a man’s palm pressed against my chest, pinning me to the couch. And to explain why this or that hurts, I must in measured tones, in a timely manner, convey enormous amounts of information—such as history, the origins of a term or people, or the use of pummel on my family. Curious why this burden tends to fall heavy on some and not others, I turn to a linguistics study on Vietnamese prosody.

In Vietnamese, different questions can yield the same answer:

Kim Phúc đang làm gì đó? What is Kim Phúc doing?
Kim Phúc đang chạy trốn khỏi quả bom. Kim Phúc is running away from the bomb.
Ai đang chạy trốn khỏi quả bom? Who is running away from the bomb?
Kim Phúc đang chạy trốn khỏi quả bom. Kim Phúc is running away from the bomb.
Kim Phúc đang chạy trốn khỏi cái gì?  What is Kim Phúc running away from?
Kim Phúc đang chạy trốn khỏi quả bom.  Kim Phúc is running away from the bomb.

I learn that Kim Phúc is always running away from the bomb. I learn that heavy stress singles out the syllable or syllables that carry the heaviest burden of conveying information. [ii]
 I learn I need at least a syllable, or a page, or a people of words to calm me, to share the weight-bearing load and not stutter-stop, searching for the right kind word.

 

 

 

 

5.

 

 

 

 

to heave a detonation. how many tons begging this. might we, lying still on baseboards, smelling of salt and brine, a million stars hitherto, remain in the land rather than exiled. enraged. to hide among peripheries, the end: the chase on our backs: the closest thing: fire lungs and broken feet broken hands broken teeth

 

 

 

 

6.

 

 

 

 

didn’t say
said never
said want didn’t

.
and the bombs burst in air
and the whole sky lit up
and the crowd went oooh

.
it was. your body
what time is?
down

.
7,000,000 tons
chestclenchedeyeslockedfist
a tic you cannot stop

.
to pay
to purge
to prove
(the same beat over and over)

.

.

.
to enemy
to state
to save
(over and over)

 

 

 

 

7.

 

 

 

 

Hello?

 

 

Hello?

 

### and his eyes were just ### black slits
vacant ### no emotion ### void ###
of something ### i’m telling you ###

 

Honey, I can’t hear you—

 

Honey, you’re going to have to speak up—

 

### his face ### void ###
### telling ### her ###
slits ### no ### face ###

 

Honey, what are you trying to say?

 

 

 

 

8.

 

 

 

CRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGAS
HCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGA
SHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLASHG
ASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLASH
GASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLAS
HGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLA
SHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFL
ASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLASHTRASHF
LASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLASHTRASH
FLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLASHTRAS
HFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLASHTRA
SHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLASHTR
ASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLASHT
RASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLASH
TRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLAS
HTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLA
SHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHCL
ASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASHC
LASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRASH
CLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRAS
HCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBRA
SHCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHBR
ASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASHB
RASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHASH
BRASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHAS
HBRASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASHA
SHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRASH
ASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRAS
HASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHRA
SHASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTHR
ASHASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHTH
RASHASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASHT
HRASHASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBASH
THRASHASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBAS
HTHRASHASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHBA
SHTHRASHASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASHB
ASHTHRASHASHBRASHCLASHTRASHFLASHGASHCRASHSMASHLASHDASHCASH

 

 

 

 

9.

 

 

 

 

with my good arm
i deadlift
my head
heavy laden lead
upon lead.

there. a jar.
let it roll
off the seat
to the floor.

shriek
glitter scream
i mean:

I need a proper outlet
equal and opposite, the body
expunged of its tonnage.

three hundred
fifty
thousand

harbored, undetonated
in our kitchens and children
and sleep.

 

 

 

 

10.

 

 

 

 

a rush | a force | beyond recognition | pseudonym for | the world | raging against | the land |
rich in nutrients | sweaty with waiting | awaiting, thick | humidity | a presence | a pressure |
on the balm | balmy rains | toppled buildings | and dustfall | collapse | my lungs send | a force |
wind steals | the breath | a chokehold | a boat’s hold | the throat |

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[i] A timeline of writing systems in Việt Nam under French and Chinese colonial rule, from 939 to 1945. Romanized script elides with Chinese characters, which fill the majority of the page to denote the millennia of Sinicization. In the upper left, the repetition of “Quốc ngữ” refers to the writing system first introduced by Portuguese missionaries in the mid-17th century and later modified by French missionary Alexandre de Rhodes. Initially used only by Vietnamese Christian communities, the writing system was made mandatory the French colonial government in 1910 and is now the official written form of Vietnamese. This image was originally published in Colonialism and Language Policy in Viet Nam by John DeFrancis (Mouton Publishers, 1977, page x).

[ii] Jannedy, Stefanie. “Aspects of Prosody in Vietnamese,” Workshop on Intonational Phonology: Understudied or Fieldwork Languages, 5 Aug, 2007, Saaland University, Saarbrücken, Germany.