Cause of Death

These are times when judicial proceedings would do well to include a linguist, a forensic linguist...
            —El País, Catalan Edition, 27 March 2018

A foreigner, I walk Barcelona breathless, marveling
at files of school children laughing, chatting as teachers
shepherd them in Catalan, at street signs in the same
language, at elderly men and elderly women on benches
or peering down from balconies, once shamed or worse
for speaking this, their heart language, gossiping now
in short words ending in plosives, in fricative zh´s
and sh´s not found in Spanish,

all in my lifetime, and I think how
language is fragile, how a breath
could leave a sentence and not return,

because this morning I scrolled down the news,
past the headlines of politicians imprisoned,
of the ex-president detained, no violence needed,
behind him the bloody wipe of fingers
on the gold shield that is the Catalan flag,
scrolled past the photos of multitudes in the streets,
on the highways, the students, the grandmothers,
the professionals, of baton-swinging police,

down to the bottom, to the story of the last
professor of Phoenician language in Spain.
She’s 67, has taught at the University of Barcelona
for 43 years, since Franco died. Phoenicians
settled the coast of Catalonia, wrote early pages
of the Catalan story, and when she retires,
their words will dissipate back out to sea.

An empty desk the final straw,
but where does the death of a language begin?
            A law?              A jail?               A baton?

When I began Catalan, I didn’t know
learning a language is a political act.
How can I not be changed once I'm able to speak
of rauxa and seny, words of Catalan character,
no equivalent in the language of Cervantes,
of my Southern mother, my Midwestern father?
Maybe I had always been waiting
to hear these words, waiting since Casals´
cello sang Bach to me, waiting since, as a child,
Dali shocked me, The Persistence of Memory,
not knowing those golden cliffs were the coast
of Catalonia, not knowing the other language,
before art, before sonatas or oils, was Catalan.

Who is waiting today, waiting without knowing
they are waiting, to hear a word in Phoenician,
a word now lost forever, drifted back to sea?

Related Poems

Close Reading

One for tree, two for woods,        
                                                            I-Goo wrote the characters           
                             Character  Character
                                               out for me. Dehiscent & reminiscent:
what wood made
                                               Ng Ng’s hope-chest

that she immigrated with
                                                                     —cargo from Guangzho

to Phoenix? In Spanish, Nana tells me

                                                           hope & waiting are one word.

                                        _____

In her own hand, she keeps
                                         a list of dichos—for your poems, she says.

Estan mas cerca los dientes
                      que los parentes, she recites her mother

& mother’s mother. It rhymes, she says.
                                                         
                                   Dee-say—the verb with its sound turned
down looks like dice
                                              to throw & dice, to cut. Shift after shift,

 

she inspected the die of integrated circuits
                                       beneath an assembly line of microscopes—            

the connections over time
                                                        getting smaller & smaller.

                                          _____
                                                                        
                                                To enter words in order to see
                                                                             —Cecilia Vicuña

In the classroom, we learn iambic words
                                          that leaf on the board with diacritics—

about, aloft, aggrieved. What over years

          accrues within one’s words? What immanent
                                                                        sprung with what rhythm?

Agave—a lie in the lion, the maenad made mad

by Dionysus awoke to find her son
                                    dead by her hand. The figure is gaslit

even if anachronistic. Data & river banks—
           memory’s figure is often riparian.  I hear Llorona’s agony

echo in the succulent. What’s the circuit in cerca to short

          or rewire the far & close—to map
                                                   Ng Ng & I-Goo to Nana’s carpool?

                                         ______

I read a sprig of evergreen, a symbol
                                               of everlasting, is sometimes packed

with a new bride’s trousseau. It was thirteen years
                                             
before Yeh Yeh could bring
                                                Ng Ng & I-Goo over. Evergreen
                     
& Empire were names of corner-stores
                                             
where they first worked—
                                             stores on corners of Nana’s barrio.

Chinito, Chinito! Toca la malaca
                                                             she might have sung in ’49

after hearing Don Tosti’s  
                                    recording—an l where the r would be

in the Spanish rattle filled with beans or seed or as
                                                                         the song suggests

change in the laundryman’s till.

                                         ______

I have read diviners
                       use stems of yarrow when consulting
                                                                                    the I-Ching.

What happens to the woods in a maiden name?

Two hyphens make a dash—
                                                the long signal in the binary code.
                                             
Attentive antennae: a monocot

—seed to single leaf—the agave store years
                                             for the stalk. My two grandmothers:
                                                         
one’s name keeps a pasture,
                       the other a forest. If they spoke to one another,
                     
it was with short, forced words
                                    like first strokes when sawing—
                                             
                                              trying to set the teeth into the grain.

Language

Certain words now in our knowledge we will not use again, and we will never forget them. We need them. Like the back of the picture. Like our marrow, and the color in our veins. We shine the lantern of our sleep on them, to make sure, and there they are, trembling already for the day of witness. They will be buried with us, and rise with the rest.

from Return to Tetaroba

light that day | bright | & the air hot | & meeting bones
of those I would never know en the panteón
speaking Sinaloan Spanish | which has always
been the accent I’ve understood most
despite hearing it least in my life

sígueme he sd | follow me
we must walk | roads unpaved lined
with stones & dust | so much dust
| polvo | of airborne bones &
saguaro ancestors watching us
their shadows trailing us |
as sr Nalo led us past a dried
creek & just over a small hill
& there | a house with no doors
& there attached to this home
the walls of another | walls covered
in hot black plastic | secured with rope
there | the walls of Francisco’s home
what was left of Francisco’s home
now a storage space for another family’s home
aquí el vivió | sr Nalo sd | he lived here |
Rosario after decades of waiting | left this home
& lived with her children | Francisco’s children
from his first family | closer to the center
of el rancho Tetaroba | how los Alvarez
of Arizona dwindled to less people
over one hundred years &
how los Alvarez of Tetaroba
increased & lived in all parts of Mexico
touch these walls | de color colorado
they were the same yr grandfather felt
you feel the heat | they breathe hot

touch these walls | paredes en la frente y la mente
they were the same yr grandfather felt
you feel the heat | they breathe hot
I pocketed a piece of this wall
& later when drunk | way drunk after
getting to know mis primos better
over chelas | I stumbled into the hotel
hot tears in my eyes | dad I sd |
I kept this for you | for all of us
but always for you to keep him
& to remember | always remember
what he did |

| climbing down the drainage of red
rock | sweet minted plants |
Robert | my father | father of five
all born in Arizona | Robert
stops to catch his breath then rips
bamboo from root | clouded
red dust clumps dropping |
this is where he was born
& now we know why | now
we know why & now we can see why