I am an English teacher, with all the parts of speech loving neurosis that it entails. I am an English teacher of the second language variety (not to be confused with the literature teaching variety!). In honor of National Poetry month, I’m posting a favorite. I love it because, more than highlighting the beauty of English, it highlights the failures. Or more particularly, the failure of words to really say what we often wish to. Because I spend a lot of my day trying to help people say what they do intend, I have a special fondness for this brilliant poet, and this poem in particular. In homage, I have included my take on the “problem of language,” as C.S. Lewis would likely have called it in a poem that follows. Hope you enjoy. Happy Poetry Month!!
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
Get it wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.
From THE GREAT FIRES: POEMS, 1982-1992 (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994)
The Distant Land of Dandelion Clocks
Querer, it means to want and love in Spanish. I want you, I love you.
Te quiero. Te amo. Love we say in English. I love you,
I love hamburgers. There is no coral shore between.
In English, you can like a person. In Spanish, they fall well to you.
In English, we fall in love, in Spanish, enamoremos. Our wires are crossed, the language so close, but not quite.
I wish, I wonder, I wonder if I can tell you how to wish.
I wish I could tell you the depths of wonder.
Me pregunto too pedestrian, deseo too profound.
A wish as gossamer and fleeting as a dandelion clock;
wonder as dark and glittering as the evening dome.
The Phoenicians invented the alphabet, as elegant and useful as an iPhone.
The Chinese invented logograms, as dense and rich as an old city library.
Each character a haiku;
where the sun rises
behind the trees.
The elegance of simple phonemes
trumping the poetry of pictures over time
We are travelers, like the men who gave us our alphabet.
We cast aside what will not fit in the boat, or get us there fast enough.
What lies in the deep beneath us? An answer to the question, perhaps.
Quizas, tal vez.
How to translate a wish?
It’s the color of the madrugada, with its still blue and clear air.
The wind sighing soft through the trees as you walk home with your father
on a quiet autumn day. It is a mosquito helicoptering past in the dark
that disappears in the light.
It smells of baby powder and coconut sunscreen
on the thick band your husband lost on a beach somewhere,
held captive by a galaxy of sand.
It is the taste of batteries and sangria.
It is the cashmere skin and apricot breath
of someone else’s baby.
And wonder, that other sunken treasure?
It is the weight of the night that wakes you
and won’t let you sleep.
It is a verb, full of i n g, and rounder than the moon.
It is a prairie, a wheat field of uncut grass with the wind passing through.
It is quiet, and tenacious as a weed.
It makes a person smaller and the world broader,
and cannot be contained by a word