Weather report: being taken over

“Is football playing?” asks the voice from beyond the tomb in A. E. Housman’s “Is My Team Ploughing?” By 1896, when the question was asked in that grammatical form, it required less a reply than a footnote. Footnote, then: “Is football playing?” is a middle-voice construction called the passival, and by 1896 the passival had been almost completely supplanted by the progressive passive: “Is football being played?” (Liberman). Housman was a crotchety man, the last significant writer in English who refused to use a typewriter, and that line of his lives on in crotchety uprightness. Crying incredulous tears, its ghostly speaker refuses to concede that he speaks a dead language.

By 1941, when Jack Delano exposed film to summer light in Virginia’s plowland, the passival was firmly dead. “House in the area being taken over by the army,” says the caption appended to the film by the Farm Security Administration, and it says its say in the passive progressive. Under changing skies all over the world, bodies, some of them still alive as of 1941, were beginning preparation for military burial.

But for the woman and four girls on the house’s porch, the change hasn’t arrived yet. Their flowers still show signs of being tended, and in one of their upstairs windows a bed with a homemade quilt can be seen. After the change, they and their house, quilt and flowers will be commemorated by a print in the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and that document will show no change impending in the sky.

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47df-f901-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.wBut it was impending. Under certain conditions forecasts can be made seeable, and after all some of them are known all along. The dated caption to this one told us so before we even needed to see its illustration. Latent in the sky, the clouds needed only to be developed under the control of an idea of the symbol. Then and thereafter, they took over and began footnoting the history of being seen.


Mark Liberman, “A peeve for the ages.” Language Log 13 January 2011. In the twenty-first century, the passival survives in idioms like “now playing,” “now showing,” and “What’s cooking?”

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “House in the area being taken over by the army; The family will be moved out in a few days, Caroline County, Va., June, 1941.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Photoshopped.

T. S. Eliot Restor’d

The original image:

Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. “Photograph of T. S. Eliot” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1940 – 1965.



At Honolulu’s Kawaikui Beach Park on July 27, 2016, I parked by a corroded old Dodge Neon, a car manufactured from the mid-1990s through 2005. Its windows were open, and a hand could be seen dropping cigarette ashes out the passenger side. Something protected against the weather with a black plastic bag was lashed to that side, and on the ground in back of the car stood something else, half-covered with a blue plastic tarpaulin.

When I got out of my car, I could see that the thing under the black bag was a wheelchair. The thing draped in blue was a gasoline-powered generator, purring loudly. Inside the car, close to each other in the back seat, two very old people reclined on a tangle of towels, smoking. In the state with America’s highest rate of homelessness (487 people per 100,000 in 2015), they were home.

I walked from the parking lot to the lawn.

After I took my picture I left. The Neon hadn’t moved, and I didn’t notice the girl, Miss Memento Mori, until I got back to my own home and inserted my memory card in its computer. In the two specialized vocabularies of computers and travel, a term for your own completed view of the girl on her brink near the Neon isĀ destination.

Source: Cathy Bussewitz, “Hawaii struggles to deal with rising rate of homelessness,” Los Angeles Times 15 November 2015.

For Isaac Babel

Source: Slavic and East European Collections, The New York Public Library. “Vstupaite do Chervonoi Kynnoty!” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1917 – 1921. Photoshopped to restore color. The Ukrainian text translates as:

Join the Red Cavalry!
The Red Cavalry has destroyed Mamontov, Shkuro, Denikin.
It is beating the Poles and Petlyura.
Now the need is to destroy what is left of Wrangel.
Workers and peasants, join the ranks of the Red Cavalry.

And after more Photoshop surgery, the cavalryman looks like this.