What's the word for wonderful in your language?
Global capitalism is nothing new. Through history, the need to maintain the flow of capital has driven the diasporas of people, languages, and, yes, poetry. Whoever thinks contemporary North American poetry is provincial or isolationist hasn’t read the four poets I discuss in this post.
Back in 1992, Shenandoah published a poem by Keith Cartwright that I have, for all these years, kept in my “Admired Poems” file. Cartwright builds his sestina around words that, transferred from the West Coast of Africa, have become part of common American parlance. Writing into the Brer Fox folk tale tradition, Cartwright draws to our attention words that came into English as a result of the slave trade. In his notes, Cartwright informs us that our colloquial understanding of the word dig is “from the Wolof degg (to hear or understand), jive “from the Wolof jev (to talk disparagingly or with disrespect),” and banjo “from the Wolof five string halam, a type of bania (stringed instrument).” Cut off from their homeland, victims of Africa’s forced Diaspora built America’s music, language, and means of understanding itself. From Diaspora, new entries in the dictionary. From nothing, “Brer Bouki builds a banjo.” Out of distress, something delightful. The poem is an accomplished sestina, yes, and also an enduring folk tale. American hybrid, indeed.
The writers that excite me today push our understanding of what it means to write in a mother tongue. A broad vision of the possibilities of language emerge when we hear words in our primary language alongside words from languages we do not read or speak. Toward the end of M. NourbeSe Philip’s phenomenal Zong! we find “Words and Phrases Overheard On Board the Zong.” Languages included in this glossary are Arabic, Dutch, Fott, French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, Shona, Twi, West African Patois, and Yoruba. In one section of the book she writes, “Language appears to be given—we believe we have the freedom to choose any words we want to work with from the universe of words, but so much of what we work with is given.” From the Dutch we get “bel” (it means “bell”), from the Latin “video” (“I see”), from the Yoruba “ju ju” (“an item which is believed to have protective qualities”). If one of the things poetry is meant to do is heighten our attention to language and make it sing in new ways, what better way to accomplish this task than to draw our attention to the history of our words?
Writing consciously into the hybridity of language, these poems denote and connote the disruptions of Diaspora. Speaking simultaneously in one and many tongues, poems can display realities of loss and its counterparts, making do and making new. Certainty vanishes with our ability to trust that we can hope to understand everything we read. The condition of the exile or immigrant is mimicked in the process of reading a work in which language sometimes slips beyond the reader’s control. In her book Dance Dance Revolution, Cathy Park Hong manipulates the poetic potential of language. The book is written in two voices. The Guide speaks in “an amalgam of three hundred languages and dialects imported into this city, a rapidly evolving lingua franca.” The “standard” and “proper” English I just quoted is the Historian’s mode of speech. By switching back and forth between the Guide and the Historian, Hong provides moments of sanctuary and explanation even as she keeps her reader always a little bit confused. Reading the book feels like traveling through a place where you are only partially familiar with the rules of speech. Like the immigrants, tourists, and exiles flooding the city where the book is based, the reader is robbed of the regular comforts of a familiar language. But there is comfort, too, on the part of the Guide. Notice I've not used the word "foriegn" when refering to the many languages in these poems. Her speech patterns are hers, she's not lost in them at all.
Though Dance Dance Revolution contains no glossary, the Historian serves as a sort of translator for some of the book’s more difficult passages. On the contrary, though parts or all of Barbara Jane Reyes’s Poeta en San Francisco are written in languages including Spanish, English, Tagalog, and Baybayin, the book includes no translation guides. We come to understand the script in the book in three ways: as image, as sound, and as signifier. For fluent readers of English these three modes of understanding usually align in a manner that sometimes causes over simplified readings. When we are forced out of our comfort zones, the three modes of understanding separate and the results can be particularly exciting and informative. I can’t read the Ancient Filipino script Baybayin, but I sure do love how it looks on the page. In the context of Reyes’s book, I have to question what my de-contextualized objectification of the script reveals. I don’t understand Tagalog, but I love to hear people speaking it. In the context of a book that directly investigates the fetishization of Asian people and lands, a response like, “That sounds so pretty and nice,” adds a layer to what we come to understand about the book and its subject matter.
If, as poets, one of the things we are doing is calling greater attention to each word, then why not call greater attention to all aspects of the word? By incorporating other languages into their English-language poetry, these four poets have reinvigorated their medium, and renewed my interest in the history and potential of their words. I highly recommend the work of each of these innovative poets.
Here's the Keith Cartwright poem I refer to at the beginning of this post:
Brer Bouki Builds a Banjo
One hot summer night near Mobile, Bouki
the Fox figured he’d been too long digging
no good music: stiff guitar lines and jive
violin not fit for a jackass with chiggers.
“We got to lively up a bit, make a banjo,”
Brer said, and thus commenced Bama’s first hipcat.
By and by, Oak Tree signified and fox grew hip,
opened ears and eyes to natural fact: Bouki
knew these live oaks had no folk to dig
the Word. He plopped beneath the trunk, talked no jive
and spent the night with Sisters Skeeter and Chigger.
Them gals got down, spread word around bout this banjo.
All night long that bearded oak stroked banjo
notes that buzzed as Skeeter spoke to Brer’s soul, hip
beneath a bold moon. Come daybreak Brer Bouki
spied old Luke Rabbit gone out to dig
in the gumbo patch and threw down some line of jive
bout needing calamus root to soothe his chiggers.
Brer Luke spected the problem to be fleas, not chiggers
and figured Bouki wanted his hide for this here banjo.
“What you need is seed pulp from a gourd, organically hip,”
he said, and picked a calabash and bashed Bouki
cross the head, which the whole briar patch did truly dig.
That old gourd-headed fox looked like a jive
masked dancer doing the hokey-pokey or some jive
jig to the river where Compé Coon fished far from chiggers.
Now Compé Coon had never heard of no banjo,
never seen no hoodoo mask and was not hip
to the fact of music or the tricks of Brer Bouki.
“Compé, I’d be obliged for help, if you can dig
what I’m saying. Pull off this here gourd and dig
back of my mouth for the molar that jive
rabbit busted when I sought relief from my chiggers.”
Coon reached in. Fox chomped down, that banjo
good as built when he spat Coon-ass out naked, more hip
to things, but white ‘neath his little black mask. So Bouki
tacked hide and fish-line to the gourd and dug up funk that jived
while Coon-ass itched chiggers and minstreled a banjo boogie
back to Louisiana, hip to music and bad Brer Bouki.
Notes on the Wolof-American [Senegambian-American] end words
Bouki: hyena dupe of Wolof tales, fox of Louisiana Creole tales.
Dig: from the Wolof degg (to hear or understand).
Jive: from the Wolof jev (to talk disparagingly or with disrespect).
Chigger: from the Wolof jegga (insect).
Banjo: from the Wolof five string halam, a type of bania (stringed instrument).
Hip: from the Wolof hippi (to open one’s eyes). Kat is the Wolof agentive suffix. A hippikat would be someone whose eyes are open. A jevkat would be someone who talks disparagingly or with disrespect.
Shenandoah 42.2 (1992): 44-45.
Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...