Letter from the Editor – Milktongue and King Ink
As I approach my five-year anniversary at the editor’s desk this June, I’ve thought back often to those early days in the Merrimack Valley Magazine offices. There I was, recently married, but before my children burst forth with their wonderful, disruptive power, like crayons played through Marshall stacks cranked to 10. I took a selfie on my first day, sitting in front of a blown-up version of illustrator Jim Roldan’s cover of the 2012 Jack Kerouac issue. Clean-shaven, with no sign of gray in my close-cropped hair, I masked any uncertainties for the future behind a calm, maybe even smug, smile.
Despite the massive personal and social changes witnessed in that time, one thing remained: my relationship with language. It can be rocky, but anything you care about requires tending, and fertilization.
One way I’ve found inspiration is through the writing act itself. After reading Newburyport artist Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord’s 2019 book “Calligraphy: How I Fell In, Out, and In Love Again,” a sense of shame at my rude and childlike penmanship caught up with me, and I determined to develop, as they used to say, “a sure hand.” I’ve written about this before, but now I have behind me hundreds of exercises; I can declare an ability to form letters like a teen on amphetamines, and no longer a middle schooler on quaaludes. I’ll get there. [Note to historians: It is not mere chance that in 2020-2021 a relatively sane adult would waste his limited free time filling up cursive exercise books — file under COVID-19.]
Poet Donald Hall has an essay called “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird,” and it concerns “the infantile origins of poetic form.” Milktongue is one of these infantile archetypes — it is the baby at its mother’s breast, cooing, gurgling, making sounds that signal satisfaction and which eventually evolve into the joy of utterance. Milktongue is about happiness — not meaning. When those among you who have not yet killed the Milktongue within feel moved by Yeats’ “dolphin-torn … gong-tormented sea,” you know its power — such stuff grants pleasure on a primal level.
There is another archetype that arises later in life, one not discussed by Hall — what I sometimes think of as King Ink, inspired by my youthful appreciation for the Australian songwriter Nick Cave. Queen or King, take your pick. For me, this one represents a fading pleasure: the raw, powerful experience of murdering a perfectly innocent blank page. Like the babbles of Milktongue, the scrawl of King Ink is joyful for its own maniacal sake.
While our age is digital, it can still draw inspiration from the scribblers of lost time. In that spirit, I wrote this letter first with a fountain pen, while sitting outside my daughters’ ballet class, slowing down, enjoying the curves of the F’s and A’s, forgetting myself in the thrill of watching the lines appear as if of their own accord, from an obscure and perhaps sacred point of origin.
So, here’s to the babble and the inkwell — and blank pages wherever they lie.