The Words Collide (by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin)
The scribe objects. You can’t put it like that,
I can’t write that. But the client
is a tough small woman forty years old.
She insists. She needs her letter
to open out full of pleated revolving silk
and the soft lobes of her ears
where she flaunts those thin silver wires.
She wants to tell her dream to the only one
who will get the drift. How she saw their children lying
every one dressed out in their simplest fears. They glowed,
the shape of their sentence outlined in sea green.
Among those beloved exiles
one sighed happy, as a curtain
lightened and the grammar changed, and the wall
showed pure white in the shape of a bird’s wing.
But when she whispered it to the scribe he frowned
and she saw she had got it wrong, she had come
to a place where they all spoke the one language:
it rose up before her like a quay wall
draped in sable weeds. He said,
You can’t put those words into your letter.
It will weigh too heavy, it will cost too much,
it will break the strap of the postman’s bag,
it will crack his collarbone. The bridges
are all so bad now, with that weight to shift
he’s bound to stumble. He’ll never make it alive.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is a poet I’ve kept in the corner of my ear since I found a book of hers on remainder a little over a year ago. Being Irish, she knows a little bit about islands of culture, generational divides, and old languages buffeted by history. Though on its face it has nothing to do with Yiddish, I post this particular poem on a Yiddish blog as a kind of bridge.
This week I saw a picture of a boat overflowing with “Europeans headed for North Africa” (that is, Jewish refugees seeking a home in Israel after WWII) used as an analogy, shared on social media in an attempt to provoke sympathy for the mass of Syrian refugees, now traveling some similar paths in the opposite direction. It’s up to us what analogies we allow to move us, but one function of literature is to serve as an empathy-extender, to let people see and feel what is particular, but, more importantly, what is common.
The poem, The Words Collide, opens with a scribe balking at the text of a letter he is asked to write. The ‘she’ of the poem wants to open herself in a letter to her lover, telling him that she has dreamed of their children. Our first conjecture is that the scribe is balking at the implicitly erotic content.
The second stanza is full of ambiguity. …their children lying [are they dead? resting? telling untruths?] every one dressed out in their simplest fears [how can you be ‘dressed out’ in a fear? and are they the parent’s or the children’s fears?] But, these ominous hints are countered by the fact that they are beloved exiles, and one of them, at least, is happy. So amidst the ambiguity, I get a strong sense of children launched across a sea. I get this sense partly because it is an Ur-tale of the Irish. They have been about this business of launching their brightest hopes across the water for generations. Simultaneous with the child’s happy sigh, the curtain lightens, and the grammar changes. The child has been given wings.
The scribe seems to me to be a symbol of tradition. Here, again in the third stanza, ambiguity. Is he the voice of puritanical judgment that he seemed to be in the first stanza? Or does he know something she doesn’t? Under his disapproving gaze she begins to believe she has done something wrong. And now we have a stickier problem: she had come to a place where they all spoke the one language.
You might think this would be a good thing, a world in which everyone understands each other. But the “one language” is, at least in our century, always English. To the Irish, this is a benefit that carries a high price. He says you can’t put these words into your letter, because to try to carry her words over will cost too much.
There’s a good deal more I could read into, or out from, this poem. I suggest you read it yourself and sit with it for a moment and see what feeling you get from it. When you read a poem closely with the right kind of intensity, the poem itself tells you which leaps are permissible and which aren’t, or which bridges lead nowhere, and which will find solid ground. But the musical, non-verbal part of the poem (yes, I know that sounds like an oxymoron) carries it’s own meaning as well. I will only add here that at first I thought the title was “When Worlds Collide”, a meaning that is clearly intended to underlie the less usual, more arresting, When Words Collide.
Language gulfs of various kinds are ubiquitous in Yiddish literature. Sending a child away along with your hopes, and later seeing them happy, but also seeing them express themselves in a language that is foreign to you; this is an experience common to migrants of all kinds, across continents and generations.
Because of what the sociologists call “internal Jewish bilingualism”, it was also a common Jewish experience even before the mass transcontinental migrations. In a Sholem Asch story whose first page I wrote about in a post last May, a boy’s mother sends him away from her small shtetl to a Yeshiva. Soon after he starts there, he writes a letter back to her in a mix of Yiddish and Hebrew. She takes the letter to a rabbi and asks him to explain the Hebrew to her, and he says, “That’s not for you.” Just as a letter-writer is a gatekeeper in the Words Collide poem, the letter-reader serves that function in the Asch story. Despite the partial translation, she keeps bringing her son’s letters back to him. Over time, the Hebrew takes up more and more of the letters, but the rabbi continues to refuse to translate for her. She asks to study Torah and, of course, this is not permitted her either. Finally, the barrier between mother and son becomes complete.
When and how are languages used to separate, and when to connect? How can we reach across lingos, bridging the slangs used by ethnicities and social classes, the words that separate young folks in the know from the old who are hopelessly out of date, or divide the educated and the specialist from the uneducated and the generalist? It’s clear that the goal is not “a place where they all speak the one language.” Though code-switching has its place, and though it’s fun to be ‘in’ on another group’s jargon, I also don’t think the answer to these divisions is for everyone to try to learn a little of everyone else’s talk. We do need to stretch a little, but, in a world where the bridges are all so bad now we also need to use the language we do have to fix them up, if not build some new ones.
It’s useful to remember that Yiddish itself was a language that both united and separated groups of people. One of my hopes for this blog is that the effort of cultural recovery that I am undertaking for myself personally will resonate with others—not only with lovers of Yiddish, but also those with parallel experiences, like those I read in Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poem.