The Poet’s Eye: Back and Forth

The Poet’s Eye: Back and Forth

By: Judith Arcana

Looking for meaning, I found, first, that roe is
a small species of deer inhabiting parts of Europe and Asia.
But that wasn’t it, so I looked further and found the mass
of eggs contained in the ovarian membrane of a fish;
that looked good right up to the last word: fish.
There was hard roe, a commentary until defined
as the spawn of a female fish, soft roe being the milt
or sperm of a male fish. Not to the point after all,
but now I was up to 1430. Persevering, I discovered
roed, which by 1611 had come to mean full of spawn.
That was certainly true, and one wade in the OED
was some kind of fishing net (1388). Despite that
surprise, that coincidence of confluence, I kept looking.
I could’ve gone to metaphor, scooped up roe for caviar,
but that was not useful. Surely Beowulf, composed
(they think) around 1000, should take pride of place.
When used to discuss persons and animals in that year,
the word meant go, advance, move onward, carrying
some of our own concerns; it meant chiefly to go over
or through something. When speaking of weapons,
wade cut straight across a thousand years to go through,
to penetrate into something – they’d known this in 993.
One hundred years before that they’d already begun to say
wade meant to walk through any soft substance impeding
motion (tall grass, deep sand, legislation, demonstration, fear).
Formerly often, they used it to mean pass over a river on foot
but passage, or getting over, did not remain its meaning, on foot
or otherwise. They did, however, keep the [rarely used] phrase
to wade (up) to the knees, armpits, etc. Current usage justifies,
sometimes amplifies, this retention of meaning. By 1374,
they said the word wade meant to go not only in action,
but also in thought or discourse, (even, simply) to proceed.
Unfortunately obsolete is the 1386 phrase to wade out of,
meaning to escape from. We could sure use that one.
By 1398 they might have become jaded, dwelt more
upon the meaning of law than the meaning of life, a danger
we face today, as some confuse being alive with living.
I see that by then the figurative usage of wade was chiefly,
to go through a tedious task, a long or uninteresting book.
But as in this time, many tables turned with the century:
by 1400 a new context had been born; carried to term
it implied, especially, to wade through blood, slaughter, etc.
In that round new year, who defined right, and life? What
did they mean? Who decided what life may be, when
it begins and whether to end it? In 1527, they must
have argued these questions as we do, using their wade,
meaning to continue discussion with a person. Much later,
in 1714, they saw there’d be no resolution; by then
they knew that wade meant to persevere under difficulties.

One lovely bit from the middle of the nineteenth century
explained that in sawn mahogany, roe was that alternate
streak or flake of light and shade running in the grain,
but I couldn’t see yet how that shimmering sometime flash
would be a bright image still, through all the years of rowing
back and forth, back and forth across the widest lake.

©Andrea Arroyo

Judith Arcana, Co-Poetry Editor, writes poems, stories, essays and books; her work has been published widely for more than thirty years, in print and online. She’s the author of two classic motherhood studies, Our Mothers’ Daughters and Every Mother’s Son, as well as Grace Paley’s Life Stories, A Literary Biography and the recent poetry collection What if your mother. Her most recent book is The Parachute Jump Effect; two new stories are in the fall 2012 issue of SERVING HOUSE JOURNAL online. Visit