Less “Femme Fatale”, More Intriguing Human Being

“A Song for Lucrezia Borgia” / “Una canzone per Lucrezia Borgia” Lucrezia, Lucrezia, Lucrezia Your name sings and murmurs from the pages of my history books, set in a tapestry of popes, dukes, kings. How shall I understand you, who you are? Tiny curling vines spiral up from the printed words, thorny and bitter – […]

How I Love Words (And Languages Too!)

Greetings, my friends.

At first I hoped this post might contain a poem about Sir Gawaine, knight of King Arthur’s court – and surprisingly recalcitrant writer’s subject, as it turns out. I’ve started a number of pieces about Gawaine in the last several months, and have been unable to complete a single one of them to my satisfaction. This may be due to insufficient perseverance on my part – I must admit that I have the bad habit of being a lazy writer, more often than I care to confess. However, though perseverance and discipline are invaluable skills for any manner of creator, I suspect that in the case of Gawaine, I am trying too hard to control the arrival of his poem. It has been my experience that some of the pieces upon which I later look with the deepest joy and sense of fulfillment are those  whose first few words arrive unasked, when I am not thinking of them deliberately. So, Sir Gawaine, forgive me for now. Your poem is waiting, and when it is ready, I shall share it here.

In the meantime, I was sifting through my files (“my files”, how strange it seems to say that!) for something I feel needs to be shared, and I rediscovered the piece below, written this spring.

“What Are We To Say”

What are we to say, we who speak more than one language,

To whom vārdi, paroles and Wörte  are all words,

When we are asked, even by a friend,

How we manage so many? By listening,

By drawing them into the heart,

And filling our ears with different kinds of silence.

We might wish, sometimes, for a little more silence,

as each new face demands a different language;

but when the choice is given to our heart

we revel in the sweet rainstorms of words,

each drop tasting different, requesting listening

in a way our ears cannot explain, though we try to tell a friend

how it is, this speaking with three tongues or more.  The friend

who understands best will be one like us, who senses how silence

can be shaped into a hundred different streams by listening,

by seeking each moment’s perfect language.

Swiftly we shape different worlds of words,

asking wordlessly which of our minds they match, which heart

is clear and waiting now to share our love of sharing. The heart

of multilingualism is – treating every language as a friend,

a new discovery with a treasure chest of words,

each word to be loved, tasted, set in the silence

like a jewel. Each world–tongue, each cànain 

reaches out to us, and we are compelled to be it –  by listening.

Our endless quest of listening

takes us to the very heart,

the core, the spring, unbounded source of language –

to every listener a patient, clear-eyed friend –

which might be limpid silence.

And this spring helps us find words,

when translation seems impossible, when words

defy all our powers of listening,

when we feel a struggle against the very silence

– and yet take of our love the heart,

make the gap between languages into a friend,

and blend the untranslatable into a cocktail, a shared language.

So, in the end, every language

to us is a friend,

an anamchara, shared – our heart.

~ Marta Ziemelis. Written in Dubai, Copyright February 2012.

This particular piece sprang from two roots. First, I read a beautiful poem by Dominican-American writer Julia Alvarez entitled “Bilingual Sestina” – which I encourage anyone bilingual in English and Spanish to read!  – that inspired me to write one of my own similar to it. Namely, a poem written in two languages at once, shared between the two. And I said to myself, “What more fitting subject for such a work than the very experience of being multilingual?” Which leads to the other root: my experience of explaining – or attempting to explain, at times – the essence of what it feels like to carry a handful of languages inside my head, and to be able to switch between them at need, without strain.

Briefly, cànain and anamchara are Scottish Gaelic words, the first meaning “language, tongue, speech, dialect”, the second – a soul-friend, a person with whom one shares a deep connection to be cherished, the kind of connection that is difficult to express in words. (For anyone inclined to consult a Scottish Gaelic-English/ English-Scottish Gaelic dictionary, I can recommend this one, which I have found useful).

With humility and with great love, I would like to dedicate “What Are We To Say” to all the language teachers I have had and hope to have in future, whether inside a classroom or outside it. And, of course, to all the people in the world who carry more than one language in their heads, and  who feel the wonder and the joy in it.