Insouciance by Laura Marello

I just wrote a new book of poems called Celestial Navigation. One of my favorite stanzas says:

Penguins man the caps,
huddle
against the wind, sheltering
downy chicks
flaunting their deep
insouciance
their paradoxical
grittiness.

For a while now, revising the book, I have thought I should look up “insouciance” because I am not really sure I know what it means. So, I look it up:

definition: casual lack of concern; indifference.

synonyms: nonchalance, unconcern, lack of concern, indifference, heedlessness, relaxedness, calm, calmness, equanimity, coolness, composure, casualness, ease, easygoing

attitude, airiness, carefreeness, frivolousness, carelessness;

informal, cool

Yes, okay, that works. Though their insouciance is probably what’s paradoxical, not their grittiness, which is required.

I often do this, use words automatically, and then later doubt that I really know them. So I look them up and find out that I have used them correctly. Swatch and swath are two examples.

If I know a word, why can’t I call up its definition into my mind? Is my understanding of words so visceral, so instinctive, so raw, that they are not really living in my head, but in my gut? I like this idea, because it is so romantic, and I’m feeling rather excessively romantic right now (well, excessive for me). I want language to be instinctive, intuitive, until I need to revise, and then I want it to be all analytical, wisdom, making the right choice.

It seems to me insouciance has paradoxical meanings. If you are a student of meditation, the I Ching, Zen, etc., being indifferent, unconcerned, frivolous, careless, is quite different than being calm, relaxed, composed, equanim(in)ous, having ease.

It’s a puzzle. I do like the word, though, and the scrappy attitude behind it—trying to pretend you don’t care, when you do. (And I like the penguins. I like all the penguins threaded through this book of poems. They are like the dancing baby mirage in that 1990s, Calista Flockhart/Portia de Rossi TV show, Ally McBeal.) But if you are trying to pretend you don’t care about someone, you don’t write them a book of love poems, do you?

Photo of royal penguin with its chick
Royal Penguin and Chick-Macquarie Island by Kimberley Collins. CC license.

Laura Marello

Laura Marello has written twelve books and published six. She has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Wallace E. Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, and a Fine Arts Work Center Provincetown Fellowship.

Marello’s poetry chapbook, Balzac’s Robe, was the second finalist for the Finishing Line Press New Women Writers Award (Finishing Line Press 2016). Guernica Editions released Marello’s sixth book and fourth novel, Gauguin’s Moon, in October 2019. Her seventh book, Matisse: The Only Blue, about painter Henri Matisse in the south of France, is due out next year.

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