Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Speaking English is Like



Recently, in a controversial Harriet thread by Craig Santos Perez called 'Spic Up!' & why 'US Hispanics Don't Count', Vivek Narayanan remarked: "Every single American child should be forced to learn and be fluent in both Spanish and English. Harsh treatment? It wouldn’t kill anyone."

I replied that having been so educated (and being descended myself from bilingual persons - as well as being a translator of Spanish poetry), I don't feel at all superior to a monolingual person. How ignorant are we of other people's languages, and of our own?

Many of us are monolingual because we have lost the languages of our parents or grandparents. Our families wanted us to learn English, to fit in, to belong to ourselves and not the past. Often, there is tragedy written into these transformations. The inferiority complex of the immigrant gives way to the superiority complex of the English language. What would it be like for it to be otherwise: to live in two languages, to have two different mind-sets? Interestingly, the Irish poet (and when I say "Irish poet," I mean one who writes in Irish) Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, has some fascinating reservations about being bilingual. In her recent book of selected essays (not published, alas, in the U.S.), she asks -

"...is it always, or necessarily, a good thing? Does a bilingual existence really, as many claim, lead to a genuinely stereoscopic and enriched view of life, or is it the cause of mental astigmatism and blurred vision, a sense of displacement, a deep anxiety? I have found at times that the inner contradictions bilingualism entails cause psychic pain: sometimes it is as if a civil war were going on inside me, and the sheer effort of maintaining a standoff of the warring parties is deeply exhausting. All my energies get sucked down into the subconscious, with a depression characterised by overwhelming lethargy as its most obvious physical manifestation. Even in better times there is a constant restlessness. Is this feeling of being unsettled, vaguely in exile from somewhere I know not where or something I know not what, connected with the sheer complexity of Irish history - or is it just an ineradicable part of the modern condition? There is no Ithaca to return to. The cancerous spread of global 'pop' monoculture has seen to that."

I wonder how that would sit with American poets who are bilingual. As it happens, Craig (whose own work you can sample here) and I were recently thinking about some books to review, and he was interested in Kristin Naca's Bird Eating Bird, selected by Yusef Komunyakaa for the National Poetry Series. Naca is an interesting poet to think about in this context - she teaches Asian American and Latino poetry at Macalester College, and her book weaves together, weaves in and out of, Spanish and English lines. Some of the poems are present in both English and Spanish versions, and each version has, to my eye and ear, very distinct - but surely complimentary - pleasures. I hope you'll browse the book here.

The number of poets who write in Irish today is very small; I do not know the number of Latino/a poets in the US, but it is surely growing. But the juxtaposition of Ni Dhomhnaill and Naca has really given me lots to think about. The former writes movingly about how the suffering and day-to-day lives of millions of people was experienced in a language, Irish, that is condescended to, is lopped out of history. One also thinks of Yiddish; another juxtaposition is with the recent passing of Abraham Sutzkever. No language is dead as long as its poems still live.

Here's one of Sutzkever's poems, translated by Jacqueline Osherow for Poetry; it's from a longer work called "Epitaphs" -


Written on a slat of a railway car:

If some time someone should find pearls
threaded on a blood-red string of silk
which, near the throat, runs all the thinner
like life’s own path until it’s gone
somewhere in a fog and can’t be seen—

If someone should find these pearls
let him know how—cool, aloof—they lit up
the eighteen-year-old, impatient heart
of the Paris dancing girl, Marie.

Now, dragged through unknown Poland—
I’m throwing my pearls through the grate.

If they’re found by a young man—
let these pearls adorn his girlfriend.
If they’re found by a girl—
let her wear them; they belong to her.
And if they’re found by an old man—
let him, for these pearls, recite a prayer.


Here's Ni Dhomhnaill's "As For the Quince," translated by Paul Muldoon; the poem in its original Irish can be found here.


As for the Quince
There came this bright young thing
with a Black & Decker
and cut down my quince-tree.
I stood with my mouth hanging open
while one by one
she trimmed off the branches.

When my husband got home that evening
and saw what had happened
he lost the rag,
as you might imagine.
“Why didn’t you stop her?
What would she think
if I took the Black & Decker
round to her place
and cut down a quince-tree
belonging to her?
What would she make of that?”

Her ladyship came back next morning
while I was at breakfast.
She enquired about his reaction.
I told her straight
that he was wondering how she’d feel
if he took a Black & Decker
round to her house
and cut down a quince tree of hers,
et cetera et cetera.

“O,” says she, “that’s very interesting.”
There was a stress on the ‘very’.
She lingered over the ‘ing’.
She was remarkably calm and collected.

These are the times that are in it, so,
all a bit topsy-turvy.
The bottom falling out of my belly
as if I had got a kick up the arse
or a punch in the kidneys.
A fainting-fit coming over me
that took the legs from under me
and left me so zonked
I could barely lift a finger
till Wednesday.

As for the quince, it was safe and sound
and still somehow holding its ground.


Here's Kristin Naca's "Speaking English is Like" -


Brown and beige and blonde tiles set in panels of tile across the bathroom floor.
Wakes curled into the pavement by traffic, the asphalt a slow, gray tide.
A loose floorboard hiding the gouges chunked out of the floor.
Tawny red curtains hamstrung in the quick, morning light.
Her body oils like sage in a shirt, in the bed sheets.
Pigeons on a line and in the gutters.
The staple that misfires and jams the hammer.
The tender, black wick at the top of a candle's waxy lip.
The lonely woman secretly dying her curtains red at the Laundry Factory.
The purple and purple-blue berry sacks tethered to a blackberry rind.
Branches lolled by the weight of voluminous, tender sacks.
The path along the lake lit up with the pitch of purple stars.
Mouthfuls of lavender at the height of August.
Her lips, red gathering in the creases when she puckers.
Endings that are dirty tricks and also feathers.
Red water out the pipes, teeming from the rusty gutters.
The curtain flicker in the leafy, August breeze.
The ghostly cu-cu echoing through the purple night, under stars.


Ghostly echoing... love and sensuality... regret... prayer. I'm lucky to be able to read these poems in English, luckier, perhaps, than the man who returned to Ithaca.

Are we ignorant if we only know one language? Is the language to know that which belonged to our ancestors, or having forsaken that one, English? Ni Dhomhnaill writes of a relative who was ignorant - but in the way that the (bilingual) poet Michael Hartnett spoke of his own grandmother:

ignorant, in the sense
she ate monotonous food
and thought the world was flat.

We ought not to be monotonous in our diet of poems, whatever the language they're written in; we need the spices and flavors of our native food, but that of other cuisines as well. But we do need to know ourselves, even if there will always be flatlanders who dispense with our "subjectivity."

Ni Dhomhnaill tells the story that when she was five, having been removed from coal-mining Lancashire in England to the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht of the Dingle peninsula, nobody in her new village could understand her Scouse English, any more than she could quite understand their Kerry accents. One day she met an old man coming down the road who asked her, "Ce leis tu?" In English: "Who do you belong to?" - the usual way of asking children their name.

"Taking the phrase at its most literal meaning, I drew myself bristling to my great height of all three-foot nothing and stoutly replied, 'Ni le heinne me. Is liom fein me fein' ('I don't belong to anyone. I belong only to myself.') Chuckling mightily, Jacsai continued down the road..."

We don't belong to ourselves. As Ni Dhomhnaill puts it, "there are many, many people to whom I belong, and who belong to me." I'll wind things up now with her poem, "The Language Issue," translated again by Paul Muldoon:


I place my hope in the water
in this little boat
of the language, the way a body might put
an infant

in a basket of intertwined
iris leaves,
its underside proofed
with bitumen and pitch

then set the whole thing down amidst
the sedge
and bulrushes by the edge
of a river

only to have it borne hither and thither
not knowing where it may end up;
in the lap, perhaps,
of some Pharaoh's daughter.

(Please also read a follow-up post here.)
This post is dedicated to Craig Santos Perez and Francisco Aragon

10 comments:

Maia said...

This is interesting. A few weeks ago I was thinking about how annoying it was that something I wanted to describe required at least a few sentences in English but only one word in Yiddish. Then I realized how lazy this was of me. English is the language I write and think in, composing those few sentences really is a necessary practice.

Not to say that I'm not for being multilingual and grateful to be. But one needs to beware cheating and laziness!

Grevel Lindop said...

The article is good, but it seems to confuse being bilingual with learning a second language. Bilingual can mean problems, not least because it's mined with politics which become internalised; second language is (nearly) always good, surely? I agree broadly with the argument for 2 languages. Everyone in the UK used to be 'forced to' learn French. Didn't harm, but Spanish would have been better and easier!

Alfred Corn said...

Thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Don. I wonder why Craig Santos Perez said "forced to learn Spanish" rather than "given the opportunity to learn Spanish." It's a brilliant language, with a stunning literary history that includes large portions of the globe. Perhaps Anglo Canadians feel "forced" to learn French, as required by public schools in Canada. Yet some might feel it was a way of living out the meaning of the Canadian national identity. The history of Ireland makes things more complicated, certainly, for those writers who know both Irish and English. A cure for the pain of bilingualism might be... trilingualism or quadrilingualism, and so on. That's a good way to realize that all languages are foreign, especially our own.

John Gallaher said...

I've never been much interested in being bilingual, but I remain very interested in knowing a bit in and about another language. Different languages think differently. It's an interesting mess.

knott said...

since China will soon own both North and South America, it would behoove English and Spanish speakers to learn the language of their bosses, no?

Don Share said...

Alfred, just to clarify: it was Vivek, not Craig, who made the statement to which you refer.

Don Share said...

Excellent point, Grevel. I can say that I took Spanish for many years and could never be considered bilingual from doing so. Nor do I see what good it did me, honestly, though no harm was done, either. I wouldn't claim that I am bilingual now, but I'd say that translating Spanish poetry for 6 hours a day for the 7 or 8 years I worked on the Hernandez book put me within a frame of lingual reference far closer to living language than did my coursework. In any case, there are many people who are genuinely bilingual because they inherited a native language and learned a second, English, in school. So in some sense, the distinction you suggest is less clear cut than it might seem!

Lemon Hound said...

I can't claim to be bilingual--huge gaps--but I can get a long in French, and read. The French language I hear in Quebec is radically different from my experience with the language. My father's tongue, my family tongue, is much more pleasing to my ear. As soon as I hear continental accent an entire system of recognition is unlocked...strange, it seems to me. Languages are certainly not neutral, and I agree with people, even knowing outside of one language changes the way one thinks about language, and poetry.

equivocal said...

Thanks for this lovely post, Don. I just wanted to clarify that I used "force" in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek, throwaway-comments-box type of way. Serves me right. I wasn't advocating new ways to torment little children, in fact maybe I meant to say just the opposite. I was just thinking 2 things: 1) there's all this incredible melodrama, rhetoric and politics that attaches, post-late 19th/ 20th century, to the "language question", bilingualism, multilingualism etc. when in point of fact it doesn't have to be such a big deal at all. Even today, in many parts of the world, such as India, everyone moves through at least 3-4 languages, with varying degrees of necessity/competence, in a very banal way in the course of each day; a hundred years ago even the idea of neat linguistically bounded communities was thoroughly blurred. 2) The second thing I was thinking--not that I really know enough about the situation to assert this, so I'm happy to be corrected-- was just, along those lines, that given the US's demographics Spanish ought to just be made a second official language, and that if every American spoke both Spanish and English to whatever degree, that might--and probably already is--mixing things up in an interesting and productive way, opening the door for more languages. I'm no policy maker though, these are just half-baked ideas for dissemination on the internet.

Don Share said...

I understood what you meant, Vivek, and so did most folks, I would say! Your original comment - as well as your clarification - still has me wondering what more linguistically mixed-up poetry would look like in this country - hence my interest in Naca, among others. There's been plenty of it already, throughout 20th-cent. AmPo, of course. But I wonder what the future holds!