What Is the Word for Sky?


Sky Gazing

Nina MacLaughlin’s six-part series on the sky will run every Wednesday for the next several weeks. 

Antonio Correggio, Jupiter and Io (digitally altered), 1540

How many languages does the rain speak? Is anyone fluent in all of them? Are all of us fluent in all of them?

Have you also suffered not being able to balance language with non-language? When we’re not with each other in the usual ways, not in person, so much of what we communicate—with a tick of the shoulder, the slight bow of the head, the hand through the hair, the cross of a leg, blood rising to the neck, the hand upon another’s knee, or chest against chest in embrace—is unavailable, muted. We have words, which we toss back and forth to each other, through screens, through phones, now and then through letters in the mail. For so long I thought of words as distancers, approximations. So much gets expressed when we sit together in the same room, vibrating at each other. Peter Matthiessen writes of the meaninglessness of trying to express the inexpressible in words:

The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.

The time has come for a new language. We can vibrate with the tulip petals, the sunset, the morning light in the asparagus fern on the windowsill. We can share that ring. Between us, though, for now, words are what we have.

Sky. Rhymes with high and fly and why. Rhymes with eye and bye and die. Stay with me.

There’s breath in the word. Each one of its three letters makes itself known. S hisses with space and air, curves like clouds, like the paths of the wind, the sound of shifting leaves against streets and sidewalks. Which leads to the tall stalk of K, like the edge of a cliff falling into the sky. K—every edge that the sky comes up against. Skyscrapers, peaks, the bark on all the trunks, each rock. K—the craters where the sky sinks in. K—the kaleidoscope. The cliff and the kaleidoscope, the hard edge and all the colors spinning. And Y, eye, I. Like the S, the Y keeps coming. It lasts out the mouth, cold and hot at once. Eye for all-seeing sky, eye that absorbs its light, its sun god, its glowing, pearly moon. Eye that strains to see as far as the eye can see. And also I. I and sky. I and all. I am yours, Sky. I belong to you. I am in you.

Ég is the word for sky in Hungarian. My English-speaking mind adds another g and the sky becomes a whole, huge, endless egg, we inside suspended, hung in the albumen (from the Latin albus, white), also known as the glaire (from the Latin clarus, bright or clear).

Galaxy, from the Greek γαλαξίας, means milky circle. Via lactea in Latin, which sounds so lovely I just whispered it aloud. We’re held in a milky circle in the great big breast of the universe, trying to find yolk-and-milk meaning, an eggshell out there somewhere holding it all in. “To see the egg is impossible,” writes Clarice Lispector, “the egg is supervisible. No one is capable of seeing the egg … Only machines see the egg … Only someone who has seen the world can see the egg. Like the world, the egg is obvious.” See that last sentence in her native Portuguese: como o mundo o ovo e obvio. All those o’s like globes, like yolks, like the milk circles and the uncracked egg. What’s beyond the egg?

In Italian, the word for sky is cielo; in French, ciel; Galician, ceo; in Albanian, quiell; in Czech and Bosnian, nebo; in Persian, آسمان; in Japanese, 空; in Zulu, esibhakabhakeni; in Lithuanian, dangus. In German, Himmel is sky; in Dutch, hemel is sky. My favorite is the Welsh: awyr. The breathy vastness of it. Scuwo in Old High German, scua in Old English, and skuggi in Old Norse, all meant shadow. In Sanskrit, skunati means “he covers.” The Proto-Indo-European root skeu means to cover or conceal. The roots are the same for the words: house, hide, hut, shoe.

Shoe and sky are born from the same root sense of covering. Shantideva, an Indian Buddhist scholar of the eighth century writes of cover, of shoes: “Where would I possibly find enough leather with which to cover the surface of the earth? But wearing leather just on the soles of my shoes is equivalent to covering the earth with it.” He goes on to give the takeaway: “If I could restrain this mind of mine why would I need to restrain all else?”

We can’t always alter what’s outside, but we can alter our perspective on it. I thought of words as distancers, approximations, but I had to change my thinking. I could not feel the press of your chest against my chest, so how could I touch you this way with words? Words as biological. Language from the body.

It had to do with the vibration below the words, not the words themselves but the silent resonance behind them. The sky behind them. The electricity in the blood behind them. So I wrote about breakfast or birds or a dream, and there were the words, but there was something below the words, the hum, I let it come from a deep place. It felt first like innuendo: I am saying this, but implying this. But it had to change from there. It had to go deeper. Words were the only way. They came from my body.

How to make words as though the language is being expressed by a silent mouth. Is it possible? I tried to make it possible because I wanted, and was suffering.

It comes through the unspoken behind the spoken, it comes from allowing the words to hold layers and from allowing the layers to come from a place so deep in the mind it’s not the mind anymore, it’s the body. It comes from listening closely, attending, paying deep attention, listening to the hum beneath, and letting one’s own hum respond. This changes everything.

I don’t always understand what I’m saying. Or, no. I don’t always understand what I am communicating below. It is a mystery, but each collection of words is an offering, a way of communicating in words something without words. I cannot touch your knee, after all. You cannot see the way my shoulder moves. As Inger Christensen writes, “the cells are words / when the body / is a muteness …

the cells are words
when the body
is outside
and inside

Inside, the place where the underwords come from feels as boundless as the sky.

Some days, it is enough.

Some days, the sky is enough. Or the morning glory with the small bee in the center leaving tiny pollen paw prints on the blue-purple petal, white glow at the center like the sky. Some days that is enough. Some days the honeysuckle bush and the hydrangeas are enough. Some days a big laugh with Jenny is enough. Some days the right foods are enough. Two beers on an empty stomach are enough. The garden on the hill on Appleton is enough. Some days. Some days a run along the river and the Queen Anne’s lace along the river is enough. Some days catching eyes is enough. Some days Lisa’s energy is enough, her voice, her gray-green eyes, her erotic mystic force. Some days a peach and its juice are enough. Some days emails are enough. Some days daydreams are enough. Some days thinking about you is enough. Some days the sky and its shifts and the clouds and the wind on my legs and under my shirt and in my hair are enough, the stars and the light are enough, the moon is enough. Some days. Some days! Some days the sycamores, God the sycamores, the thick sycamores along Memorial Drive, some days they are enough. Some days the coffee with hot milk is enough. Some days the words are enough. Some days language is enough. Some days the effort of putting the words together is enough. Many days, this is enough. Many days, this is all. The words are all. Our words have to be our bodies. The language is biological is bodily is bodied forth. I body it forth. Some days it is enough. I did not expect this. I can justify it and say, I would not know the sky the way I know it, if it were not for this aloneness, if I were sharing my body with another body. So I body forth the words on the sky. Some days it is enough. The surface and the underwords, text and subtext, text and subsex. I tell myself, you learn. I tell myself again, you learn. I can believe anything. Some days the sycamores are enough. Some days the words are enough. Some days the sky is enough. The morning glories the small bees the stardust pollen. The honeysuckle the coffee the clouds, Lisa’s voice, laughing. Some days the imagining is enough. Some days it is enough because it has to be enough. I tell myself and sometimes deeply truly feel it is enough. Because it is all there is. But some days it is nothing and my body my whole body made of words becomes a body that aches for your body. I live in the sky. I share my body with the sky. And some days my whole inside is an empty sky and I wonder if the sky aches the way I do and wants to share its emptiness. Do you ache, Sky? Do you want to be a body and lean up against another body, not made of space but made of body, not made of words but made of body, do you long to be just a body against the chest of another body? Do you want that, Sky? What is enough for you? You have everything in you and you are emptiness. I use words as though they are shoulders lips cheeks. As though they are blood and heat. And it is nothing like the sky. Everything like the sky. Holds everything like the sky. Nothing in everything. Fill me up. Please fill me up.



Read earlier installments of Sky Gazing.

Read Nina MacLaughlin’s series on Summer SolsticeDawn, and November

Nina MacLaughlin is a writer in Cambridge, MassachusettsHer most recent book is Summer Solstice