A Language

By Susan Stewart b. 1952 Susan Stewart
I had heard the story before
about the two prisoners, alone
in the same cell, and one
gives the other lessons in a language.
Day after day, the pupil studies hard—
what else does he have to do?—and year
after year they practice,
waiting for the hour of release.
They tackle the nouns, the cases, and genders,
the rules for imperatives and conjugations,
but near the end of his sentence, the teacher
suddenly dies and only the pupil
goes back through the gate and into the open
world. He travels to the country of his new
language, fluent, and full of hope.
Yet when he arrives he finds
that the language he speaks is not
the language that is spoken. He has learned
a language one other person knew—its inventor,
his cell-mate and teacher.
                          And then the other
evening, I heard the story again.
This time the teacher was Gombrowicz, the pupil
was his wife. She had dreamed of learning
Polish and, hour after hour, for years
on end, Gombrowicz had been willing to teach
her a Polish that does not and never
did exist. The man who told
the story would like to marry his girlfriend.
They love to read in bed and between
them speak three languages.
They laughed—at the wife, at Gombrowicz, it wasn’t
clear, and I wasn’t sure that they
themselves knew what was funny.
I wondered why the man had told
the story, and thought of the tricks
enclosure can play. A nod, or silence,
another nod, consent—or not, as a cloud
drifts beyond the scene and the two
stand pointing in different directions
at the very same empty sky.
                           Even so, there was something
else about the story, like teaching
a stunt to an animal—a four-legged
creature might prance on two legs
or a two-legged creature might
fall onto four.
                           I remembered,
then, the miscarriage, and before that
the months of waiting: like baskets filled
with bright shapes, the imagination
run wild. And then what arrived:
the event that was nothing, a mistaken idea,
a scrap of charred cloth, the enormous
present folding over the future,
like a wave overtaking
a grain of sand.
                           There was a myth
I once knew about twins who spoke
a private language, though one
spoke only the truth and the other
only lies. The savior gets mixed
up with the traitor, but the traitor
stays as true to himself as a god.

All night the rain falls here, falls there,
and the creatures dream, or drown, in the lair.

Source: Poetry (July/August 2011).

 Susan  Stewart

Biography

In an interview at the University of Pennsylvania, Susan Stewart said that her primary goal as a poet is “to get people to read more slowly, and to reread, and to read a whole book and go back to the beginning of the book and see connections.” Her writing can be startlingly clear, while at the same time—in the words of the MacArthur Foundation, on the occasion of presenting her with a “Genius Award”—it makes “strange and . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Disappointment & Failure, Sorrow & Grieving, Arts & Sciences, Language & Linguistics

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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