Feralis—feral, funerary

Jennifer K. Sweeney

   After Robert MacFarlane's The Lost Words

   In each word, all words. —Maurice Blanchot

When the Oxford children’s dictionary swapped out fifty nature words—

fern, willow, starling — for broadband and cut-and-paste,

a choreography of café shoulders stayed hunched over electric palms

while text neck replaced the egret’s lithe curve

and a cloche of bluebells timber’d into plasma light.

And when I got off the wrong tram stop in Prague,

I was plunked next to a 17th century plague

cemetery in the median of two busy roads.

A cemetery swept over by a thick sea

of ivy-berry, the ground knee-deep

with softly rounded gravestones

entirely vined over. A few melancholy

angels and crosses peering out

from the swathed tombs,

but otherwise eerily hushed, twice buried.

New words click over the old words

already drained of life

on-brand, price point, influencer, bingeable.

Once I performed outside with a dance troupe

weaving through a clothesline hung with antique white clothes

while a film about fish was projected onto it,

rainbow bubbles darting along smocks and pinafores.

Pinned to browsers, stories keep opening

all around us: windfall apples soften into early frost,

a woman boards a train at 2 a.m. that moves like starlight,

a dictionary is opened in a bombed library

and a press of forget-me-nots fall out of the spine.


Did you know the mosses are amphibious?

The first plants to emerge from the ocean to anchor

the land in soft threads:


a cabin floor

back of a beetle

abandoned castles

across the polar cap

in spheres on lakes

against a wound

Growth in nature both palimpsest and erasure

overlaying one image with fragments

of another, allowing what is abandoned

to reveal itself if we commit to looking.

But what is true of mosses is less true of us

the forest people know.

We drape sheets over the clothesline

and it is the canvas of the day,

a storm brewing, cloud-shapes

and the wind’s ripple and bloom.

We drape one word over the other,

thumb-silence over conversation

distraction over attention

sheets of fire over a forest that breathes for all of us

over hundreds of tribes speaking their own languages

but the shapes of the lost words are not discernible.


I walk into class and tinder is left on the chalkboard.

Ah the associative power of a word, I say, hear tinder

and the thin twigs snap in your fingers as you bend toward the circle of logs.

No, a student corrects, it’s Tinder, the online dating site, and the class snaps to life.

More and more I’m longing for










to dance with each one airily

display their textures in the mantle of night

A sentimental person understands narratives have much to do with her.

Maybe a pathos for nostalgia takes aerial root and starts to grow over a person too.

The word nostalgia once so morbid a longing it was considered a disease.


But our wishes are like tinder: the flint and steel of circumstances are continually striking out sparks.

Some mosses live on the clouds’ silver lining alone.

Goblin’s gold glitters in the slant-light

of places which scarcely feel the sun

in strings of angled cells sparkling

like the tiny lights of a far-away city

where your relatives once lived.

There are so many ways to resist.

To be a keeper of the discarded, still alive

to the terroir of language and lay claim over it

is to try to save the sea angel, pied tamarin, pangolin,

shoebill which survived the ice age, red panda, the green-winged macaw

from being buried or displaced or burned to the ground.

A washed-out bridge in the fog still crosses over.

The olm salamander has no eyes because it lives in the dark.

The cold light of the fireflies blink to find each other.

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