by Christina Cook

Say something smooth
about a life-long
commitment to death.

Dories dulled
by waves don’t need
netfuls of silver fish:
their rot-soft hulls
are enough.

The callused feet
of old fishermen,

Christina Cook’s poems, translations, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of journals, most recently including Dos Passos Review, Prairie Schooner, New Ohio Review, Midwest Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, and Cimarron Review. Her chapbook, Lake Effect, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. She holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a contributing editor for Inertia Magazine and Cerise Press. Christina is the senior writer for the president at Dartmouth College.

Tell me, if you’d be so kind, about the creation of compounds, such as life-long and rot-soft in this piece. What draws you to them? What is the key to making such compounds? Do you have an all-time favorite one? And anything else you can share? For me, creating compound words, such as “rot-soft” in the poem “Dory,” is the ultimate way to compress language. That hyphen is like a little scrap of string cinching the words together, and it affects the whole poem on a number of different levels. I have found that the hyphen enables me to take the liberty of creating words in a way that allows me to remain a humble servant of language rather than presuming to be the master of it: I’m not suggesting a new entry in Webster’s, I’m just stretching the word to the limits of its use and possible meanings.

I see compound words as two overlapping circles, where each word is a circle comprised of many distinct connotations. The area of overlap created by the hyphen is the compound word, directly and immediately identified by the reader without any need of other prosodic elements: the image it creates is instant, using minimal letters. And so the “rot-soft hull” of a boat quickly connotes punky wood, its paint weathered off, gray with dapples of black mildew. The boat is not well taken care of, yet not so neglected that has completely rotted apart and can no longer be used. It is worn from exposure, and those who use the boat have likely used it many years, they themselves no doubt worn from exposure, as well: all this meaning mined from seven letters and a hyphen.

The other thing that draws me to creating compound words such as this is the musical effect it has on the poem. As a duo-syllabic compound word in the poem, “rot-soft” functions the poetic equivalent of an eighth note in a musical score where most of the other notes are quarter notes. Compounds are in this way useful when orchestrating the music of the poem, which is an important part of the process for me, as well.

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