language

How I Am Not Learning French in Eight Weeks or Less

By Sunday, I am undone.

Managing a rapidly-growing poetry blog, working five Facebook pages and three Twitter pages, serving an audience of over 22,000 writers, poets, and insurance adjusters is energizing, but when the week ends, it’s over; I deeply experience the metaphor underlying that well-worn phrase: I can’t think straight.

The first order of business to deal with my bent frame of mind is, of course, a bath. I take my time. I lock the door. I do not bring my computer with me—and not just because of the electricity-conducting nature of bathwater (with or without the bubbles). I need to be alone.

This need for solitude is often surprising to those who know me. After all, I appear to be an extrovert—outgoing, talkative, and rivaling the best of them when it comes to the characteristic New York talk-with-your-hands citizens. Yet, come Sunday, the introvert truth is apparent: I need my space and (I love this metaphor too) I need to unwind.

Sinking into the water, in a quiet room, the process begins. A hundred Facebook updates and comments, a hundred more strings of tweets float away, and my arms begin to move freely. I think of nothing. It is the ideal setup for what comes next: French.

I bought a three hundred page book of Malherbe’s French poetry. I thought it would have English translations. I was about 1/300ths correct in this assumption. There is a page directly before the one that says, “Poésies de François Malherbe.” On this page, I recognize the words public domain and the disclaimer that this valuable book might have missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks.

It’s okay, this imperfection situation; I wouldn’t know anyway if a poem about Henri lapsed suddenly into one about le frère de Louis XIII, due to that minor point about the translations also being… missing.

All in all, it is the perfect arrangement for a Sunday. After my bath, I take up a notebook, a thin-line Sharpie, and my Malherbe. I understand very little of the French, but I begin to copy words…

Il ne faut qu’avec le visage
L’on tire les mains au pinceau
Tu les montres dans ton ouvrage,
Et le caches dans le tableau *

My brain registers… not much, and this is Sunday serendipity. I feel more of my work-heavy self delightfully lighten as my pen makes its curvy, flowing marks across the page. I soak in the sounds and happen to notice the rhymes. I smile because I can’t help but remember avec from fifth-grade French class and dans and mains. Then I smile again at the internal rhyme playing in lines 2 and 3. (Those clever French, to make poeming so simple through the structure of their language.)

My grandmother was French, and sometimes when I was a child I would hear her either sing or swear in French. I learned nothing but the lilt and the intrigue. I have not made much linguistic progress since then; nevertheless, I rather like the feel of it all. And, I might point out, it is important to absorb the lilt and intrigue of the French language, lest one ultimately speak it a little wrapped-too-tight.

It will probably take me ten more years of Sundays to understand what my grandmother sang and swore, and what I’ve been copying for so long from Malherbe and others to come. Maybe in a decade I will, belatedly, surge with political passion or faint from shock or love. One cannot predict what ten years of after-bath French will do to a person.

If I had a need to actually learn French, if it was pivotal to secure my solitude or decipher the bath faucets, I might attempt to accelerate my progress. As it goes, I’m perfectly happy that I’m not learning my heritage Français in eight weeks or less.

 

*Translation:

Your hands should not, together with the face,
be drawn with the brush
You reveal them in your work
And hide them in the painting

 

Garbage as Poetry

“He has a formidable brain . . . No other contemporary poet has presented himself so unabashedly as a thinker as well as an artist.”
-Roger Gilbert on A.R. Ammons

Garbage? Poetry? Redemption? These ideas aren’t usually linked together. But out of the heap arose Garbage, A.R. Ammons’s 1993 book-length poem. In an interview for the Paris Review, Ammons responded to a question about Garbage by saying:

My hope was to see the resemblances between the high and low of the secular and the sacred. The garbage heap of used-up language is thrown at the feet of poets, and it is their job to make or revamp a language that will fly again. We are brought low through sin and death and hope that religion can make us new. I used garbage as the material submitted to such possible transformations, and I wanted to play out the interrelationships of the high and the low.

An entire book on garbage may seem a bit extreme, but Ammons’s belief that a correlation exists between language and trash was strong enough to warrant a book-length poem of discussion. And it won him the National Book Award as well as the Library of Congress’s Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry. In his exploration into language and garbage as the lowest common denominator of human experience, Ammons asserts that through both language and garbage redemption is possible by sorting through human experience – the high and low, the sacred and secular.


Photo: S. H.

Throughout Garbage, Ammons continually refers to two things – poetry and garbage – and the epigraph for the book sets the tone for the relationship between the two. Ammons dedicates the book “to the bacteria, tumblebugs, scavengers,/wordsmiths-the transfigurers, restorers.” “Bacteria, tumblebugs,” and “scavengers” are all intrinsically linked to garbage, existing within a pile of garbage because they are drawn to garbage and love garbage. In the same way, “wordsmiths” are intrinsically linked to language, drawn to language, and love language. “Bacteria, tumblebugs,” and “scavengers” are makers, creating something from garbage, whereas “wordsmiths” are makers who create from language.

The importance of the language-garbage relationship is that values thought to be lost must be restructured because language and poetry are life-giving. Both are redeeming for mankind. By paralleling a heap of language and a heap of garbage, Ammons reveals two of the most important byproducts of human existence. Ammons writes,

garbage has to be the poem of our time because

garbage is spiritual, believable enough

to get our attention, getting in the way, piling

up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and

creamy white: what else deflects us from the

errors of our illusionary ways, not a temptation

to trashlessness, that is too far off, and,

anyway, unimaginable, unrealistic.

If Ammons is arguing that garbage and language are equivalent, then the words garbage and language here are interchangeable. Language is “spiritual,” foundational, and fundamental to human beings, and so is our consumption, our byproducts, our garbage. Ammons also assesses language in writing about the implications words have had on the planet:

a waste of words, a flattened-down, smoothed-
over mesa of Styrofoam verbiage; since words were

introduced here things have gone poorly for the
planet: it’s been between words and rivers,

surface-mining words and hilltops, cuneiform
records in priestly piles; between clay

tablets and irrigated fields: papyrus in
sheets; vellum in Alexandria; hundreds of

temples to type and, now, networks of words
intricate as the realities they represent.

It is words that provide sustenance for people. As the world is a house for bodies, language is a house for our spirits and souls. Language has the power to transform the world not into physicality but into words, poetry, and imagination. And it is from language that all things of value are gathered-love, connection, truth, identity.

Ammons argues that language takes us through the low, the death, the secular, and moves us through to the high, the redemptive, the sacred. Language and garbage have the ability to take the reader high and low and, eventually, to redemptive ground. “Poetry is not logic or/knowledge or philosophy,” he writes. No; it is a mixture of sacred and secular, transforming human beings in the same way that religion transforms them. Ammons’s view of the secular and the sacred is that both coexist simultaneously – that there exists secular and sacred in everything.

As a metaphor, garbage may feel a bit far fetched, but Ammons is onto something here. We consume, we use, and we are left with the byproducts, in waste and with our words. We can no more easily separate ourselves from our trash than we can the words that slip from our lips. In a tapestry of poetic goodness juxtaposed against landfill remainders, we can find ourselves – the good, the bad, the even worse – and find that there’s hope and renewal.

Lost in the Cosmos

Night Sky, a new off-Broadway play, concerns a world renowned astronomer named Anna who suffers an injury to her brain during a car accident and loses her abilities of language and communication – a condition known as aphasia. I was recently invited by the play’s producer to see its final rehearsal at Baruch City College in midtown Manhattan.

I arrived at the practice space, a small classroom three stories below ground in the bowels of the city college, rather early and was asked to wait outside in the hallway until the players were ready. Sitting down in a chair, I began to converse with several big men in tuxedos, sweaty in the basement lights, who introduced themselves cordially. They turned out to be opera singers preparing for an audition in the next room. As I waited, they took turns standing, and slowly paced the hallway quietly doing vocal warm-ups, do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do and arias that I faintly recognized, back and forth, lost in thought.

Soon I was shown into the room and said my goodbyes to the hopeful singers. The room was small and dark, the players wore plainclothes, and the staging was simple and straightforward, as befits a basement rehearsal. We were shown pictures of what the set would look like – several black walls with a starscape backdrop that brightened as the play went on.

Anna, our protagonist and astronomer (Jordan Baker), begins as an ambitious teacher, writer, and mother. Her husband, we learn later, has died years before, and she lives with her teenage daughter, Jennifer (Lauren Ashley Carter) and her boyfriend, Daniel (Jim Stanek). These three constitute the emotional core of the story. At the beginning, they are the typical American nuclear family: devoted to one another, but each busy in their own respective worlds, trying to balance their ambitions with their duties to one another. There is nothing particularly remarkable about their arrangement, except perhaps that Carter and Stanek play their characters almost like a father and daughter, or even siblings. One expects that the script will arrange for trouble between the two, but it thankfully never does.

Indeed, Night Sky has bigger fish to fry, and our equilibrium does not last long. Soon, a fight between Anna and Daniel leads to catastrophe when she runs from the house and is hit by a car. At this point, we begin our exploration of the human mind through the crucible of aphasia. The National Aphasia Association defines the condition as an “acquired communication disorder that impairs a person’s ability to communicate but does not affect intelligence.”

Thus we begin Anna’s remarkable journey. She has not lost her brilliance, memory, affections, or personality in any way, but simply her ability to express them. She is still able to hum along with Daniel’s operatic arias, but the connection of the words yes and no to their roles as affirmative or negative signifiers are completely lost. Her first words to her family in the hospital after the accident are an incoherent babble.

Slowly, painfully, over the course of the play, she begins to regain her means of expression, reconstructing the broken chains of words, meanings, and associations in her head. Baker, who was so articulate and charming at the beginning, transforms herself into a person in various stages of this anguish. Her frustration feels very real as Daniel playfully guesses the meanings of words she says – wrong over and over again as she tries to intimate the most basic concepts.

Things get worse as she faces a reporter and store clerk, both of whom are impatient or frustrated with her inability to express herself. Her inability to put even the simplest motivations into coherent speech is both painful and fascinating, a dramatic and hyperbolic demonstration of the everyday struggle that we as humans have to effectively engage with one another.

I was reminded at various moments during the performance of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in which he suffers a stroke and becomes imprisoned in his own body, completely paralyzed but with his mind completely intact. Bauby describes his body as a diving bell, sinking and slowly drowning the nimble butterfly of his still lucid mind. He is frustrated because his own body cannot possibly express the machinations of his mind – much less can they be transported to another.

I also thought of my own difficult experiences with language. While living in Argentina last year, I spent the first few months unable to communicate as my brain recovered the Spanish that it had buried since tenth grade. One day I spent half an hour exasperatingly trying to communicate the phrase, “Too many video games probably slow our maturity.” This is a basic concept, but I lacked the necessary words for games, slow, and maturity, making articulating the thought nearly impossible.

On various occasions in those first months, as I made futile attempts at even the most basic communication, I was received with impatience, anger, or outright disdain. I grew used to being written off by the locals as strange, an outsider, or even some being of inferior intellect, unable to say even the most basic things – like a child, perhaps, or an idiot. I am an intelligent person, I am worth taking seriously, I wanted to scream; but alas, I lacked the words.

We watch Anna experience similar exasperation. We know she is brilliant, and yet she is written off by many of the characters as the play goes on. Can’t she just say it? What’s the problem? they continually imply.

And of course, Anna herself must learn how to function in a world rearranged. She is no longer able to be the dominant force in her relationships, and must watch, helpless, as her career and family seem to slip away. Indeed, one of the smartest aspects of the script, written by Susan Yankowitz, is to see which aspects of Anna’s character – many of them negative – emerge as she struggles to recover. As her power slips through her fingers, we realize, as she does, that maybe she wielded it too proudly or carelessly before the accident. She reevaluates everything in the light of her newfound condition. The world no longer sees her as she sees herself, and reckoning with this reality is harsh and humiliating. It is also liberating.

The play’s website states that “Night Sky explores what…Stephen Hawking has called the two remaining mysteries – the brain and the cosmos.” Anna is an astronomer after all, and here is a good deal that approaches the stars, as the title suggests. The controlled chaos of the cosmos is really an extended metaphor for the human mind. Be it chaotic, be it changed, be it unable to connect in the way we so often take for granted, it does not change in beauty or value.

The sky is a beautiful mystery, continually revealing its secrets to us in new ways. So, of course, is the human mind and the ties of language and affection that bond us in the first place. We see Anna, Daniel, and Jennifer fall apart and then cobble themselves back together throughout the play, even as they struggle to communicate and face the tribulation of Anna’s condition. In the end it is a play about selflessness, and rather the mystery of human expression and human connection. That which would destroy our bonds may indeed make them stronger.

After the reading I thanked the cast for their generosity and went back out in the hall. There were more opera singers pacing the hallway, singing their arias in a low hum, as Anna had done. I wondered from what chaos deep inside these men came this music, and across what distances it had come to them, and come to mean so much. All of this from a rehearsal in a basement, some lines read aloud and singers pacing in the hall. We are indeed mysterious beings.


Find out more about Night Sky at the website.