Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Friday, October 19, 2007

Regarding "Off"

Children and occasionally adults sometimes say a word over and over again, rapidly, until the word becomes just a sound, representing nothing, meaningless, vaguely silly. Similarly, anyone who writes, including but certainly not exclusively poets, will sometimes look at a familiar word--and look at it and look it--until it becomes unfamiliar. The writer sees it differently, perhaps even examines it for what it really is, an object formed by ink on a page, or a digitized virtual object on a screen.

This happened to me with the word, "off," for some reason, perhaps partly because "of" is buried in "off"; perhaps partly because you hear people say things like, "Well, I'm off, then," or, "I guess it's time to shove off," or, "Are you off at 1:00?", or "Come off it, will you?!"

I believe variations on the infinitive "to get off" can also have sexual connotations, and I think I've heard "off" used in TV dialogue as a verb meaning "to kill," as in "He offed him."

In any event, a small poem grew from the loam of my temporary obsession with "off," an obsession undoubtedly harder to justify than Gertrude Stein's with "rose":

Of Off


Shove Off, and it shoves back--
or seems to do so with its
stalwart inertia of absence.

A hard west wind pushes
through the O, and two F’s
stand like trees on a ridge,
boughs blown easterly.

It is not the moon
that switches tides off,
on. Rather, just
off-hand, you might say it is
relation’s ships: sun, moon, earth.

Something is in the offing,
we sometimes say, off-
handedly. Offing is the season
of imminence. If you cannot wait
for what waits in the offing,
then be you with off.


Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

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