A Language

Susan Stewart - 1952-
I had heard the story before
about the two prisoners, alone
in the same cell, and one
gives the other lessons in a language.
Day after day, the pupil studies hard—
what else does he have to do?—and year
after year they practice,
waiting for the hour of release.
They tackle the nouns, the cases, and genders,
the rules for imperatives and conjugations,
but near the end of his sentence, the teacher
suddenly dies and only the pupil
goes back through the gate and into the open
world. He travels to the country of his new
language, fluent, and full of hope.
Yet when he arrives he finds
that the language he speaks is not
the language that is spoken. He has learned
a language one other person knew—its inventor,
his cell-mate and teacher.
                          And then the other
evening, I heard the story again.
This time the teacher was Gombrowicz, the pupil
was his wife. She had dreamed of learning
Polish and, hour after hour, for years
on end, Gombrowicz had been willing to teach
her a Polish that does not and never
did exist. The man who told
the story would like to marry his girlfriend.
They love to read in bed and between
them speak three languages.
They laughed—at the wife, at Gombrowicz, it wasn’t
clear, and I wasn’t sure that they
themselves knew what was funny.
I wondered why the man had told
the story, and thought of the tricks
enclosure can play. A nod, or silence,
another nod, consent—or not, as a cloud
drifts beyond the scene and the two
stand pointing in different directions
at the very same empty sky.
                           Even so, there was something
else about the story, like teaching
a stunt to an animal—a four-legged
creature might prance on two legs
or a two-legged creature might
fall onto four.
                           I remembered,
then, the miscarriage, and before that
the months of waiting: like baskets filled
with bright shapes, the imagination
run wild. And then what arrived:
the event that was nothing, a mistaken idea,
a scrap of charred cloth, the enormous
present folding over the future,
like a wave overtaking
a grain of sand.
                           There was a myth
I once knew about twins who spoke
a private language, though one
spoke only the truth and the other
only lies. The savior gets mixed
up with the traitor, but the traitor
stays as true to himself as a god.

All night the rain falls here, falls there,
and the creatures dream, or drown, in the lair.
 
 

More by Susan Stewart

Yellow Stars and Ice


I am as far as the deepest sky between clouds
and you are as far as the deepest root and wound, 
and I am as far as a train at evening, 
as far as a whistle you can't hear or remember. 
You are as far as an unimagined animal 
who, frightened by everything, never appears. 
I am as far as cicadas and locusts
and you are as far as the cleanest arrow 
that has sewn the wind to the light on 
the birch trees. I am as far as the sleep of rivers 
that stains the deepest sky between clouds, 
you are as far as invention, and I am as far as memory.

You are as far as a red-marbled stream 
where children cut their feet on the stones 
and cry out. And I am as far as their happy 
mothers, bleaching new linen on the grass 
and singing, "You are as far as another life, 
as far as another life are you."
And I am as far as an infinite alphabet 
made from yellow stars and ice, 
and you are as far as the nails of the dead man, 
as far as a sailor can see at midnight 
when he's drunk and the moon is an empty cup, 
and I am as far as invention and you are as far as memory.

I am as far as the corners of a room where no one 
has ever spoken, as far as the four lost corners 
of the earth. And you are as far as the voices 
of the dumb, as the broken limbs of saints 
and soldiers, as the scarlet wing of the suicidal 
blackbird, I am farther and farther away from you. 
And you are as far as a horse without a rider 
can run in six years, two months and five days.
I am as far as that rider, who rubs his eyes with
his blistered hands, who watches a ghost don his
jacket and boots and now stands naked in the road.
As far as the space between word and word, 
as the heavy sleep of the perfectly loved 
and the sirens of wars no one living can remember, 
as far as this room, where no words have been spoken, 
you are as far as invention, and I am as far as memory.

The Forest

You should lie down now and remember the forest, 
for it is disappearing--
no, the truth is it is gone now 
and so what details you can bring back 
might have a kind of life.

Not the one you had hoped for, but a life
--you should lie down now and remember the forest--
nonetheless, you might call it "in the forest,"
no the truth is, it is gone now,
starting somewhere near the beginning, that edge,

Or instead the first layer, the place you remember 
(not the one you had hoped for, but a life)
as if it were firm, underfoot, for that place is a sea, 
nonetheless, you might call it "in the forest,"
which we can never drift above, we were there or we were not,

No surface, skimming. And blank in life, too, 
or instead the first layer, the place you remember, 
as layers fold in time, black humus there, 
as if it were firm, underfoot, for that place is a sea, 
like a light left hand descending, always on the same keys.

The flecked birds of the forest sing behind and before 
no surface, skimming. And blank in life, too, 
sing without a music where there cannot be an order, 
as layers fold in time, black humus there, 
where wide swatches of light slice between gray trunks,

Where the air has a texture of drying moss, 
the flecked birds of the forest sing behind and before:
a musk from the mushrooms and scalloped molds. 
They sing without a music where there cannot be an order, 
though high in the dry leaves something does fall,

Nothing comes down to us here. 
Where the air has a texture of drying moss, 
(in that place where I was raised) the forest was tangled, 
a musk from the mushrooms and scalloped molds, 
tangled with brambles, soft-starred and moving, ferns

And the marred twines of cinquefoil, false strawberry, sumac--
nothing comes down to us here, 
stained. A low branch swinging above a brook 
in that place where I was raised, the forest was tangled, 
and a cave just the width of shoulder blades.

You can understand what I am doing when I think of the entry--
and the marred twines of cinquefoil, false strawberry, sumac--
as a kind of limit. Sometimes I imagine us walking there 
(. . .pokeberry, stained. A low branch swinging above a brook) 
in a place that is something like a forest.

But perhaps the other kind, where the ground is covered 
(you can understand what I am doing when I think of the entry) 
by pliant green needles, there below the piney fronds, 
a kind of limit. Sometimes I imagine us walking there. 
And quickening below lie the sharp brown blades,

The disfiguring blackness, then the bulbed phosphorescence of the roots. 
But perhaps the other kind, where the ground is covered, 
so strangely alike and yet singular, too, below
the pliant green needles, the piney fronds.
Once we were lost in the forest, so strangely alike and yet singular, too, 
but the truth is, it is, lost to us now.

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