I Have Misplaced Entire Languages


I Have Misplaced Entire Languages

Neither this tongue nor that still dwells in my house.
The hole of remembrance constricts, leaving behind only debris.

As a child I mixed three languages in family discourse.

Now only one is comprehensible, and I abuse it daily.

The woman in the blue dress stands alone on the pier, weeping.
A pidgin is a simplified language developed between groups with no

common tongue. Sounds form easily, but meanings struggle.

My father is shipped to Korea without warning.

Some words insert epenthetic consonants to separate vowels. Years
later we arrive in Italy and my mother starts receding.

A fourth language emerges.

This morning I asked, “Ame?” “Yes,” she said, “but just drizzling.”

Some families share no common language and must forge without.
We have used pain, pane and pan without reference to etymology.

Having abandoned the familiar, she chose another, never accepting the loss.

These forms we can’t articulate, these memories we have not traced.

* * *

This was originally published in April 2014 as part of Boston Review‘s National Poetry Month Celebration, and also appeared on this blog in July 2015.


29 thoughts on “I Have Misplaced Entire Languages

  1. Lovely re-post, Bob. I sometimes feel like, for better or worse, that hole of remembrance expands when I’m in dream-time, mixing the real and unreal, the happened with the never-happened. It’s picking through that debris that allows me to find some scant meaning, and I have never misplaced more than half a language myself. Unless one wants to count dialect, then I guess you can say I’ve misplaced a dialect or two; or, perhaps, it has been displaced by a rude reality. Take care of yourself, poet-linguist!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. “Use it or lose it”. FB just presented me with an image of shorthand that I was once a champion of, and now I recognize some but definitely not all the words in front of me. I’d like to think my brain moved such aside to make space for something more beneficial! Like poetry. Shorthand is very left-brain; poetry tugs me over to the creative edge. (Thank you for this particular tug.)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. One of the saddest things I ever heard was a Latino 7th grader telling me he’d “lost” his Spanish. I’d taught him in 6th grade when he came to me with no English at all. He learned our language, idioms and all, at breakneck speed and then suddenly realized he couldn’t remember Spanish. I immediately went to the ESL teacher and we started pairing him with non-English speaking kids as a tutor/translator.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Yes! I knew I had read this one recently. Since one of my current pastimes is cyber-stalking you, I looked up your Boston Review publication. I find that journal stylistically inscrutable, but the common denominator, it seems, is smart edginess–some versions of which definitely float my boat more than others…
    For my part, philological considerations afford maximal buoyancy. I’m such a nerd.
    The way languages become subsumed by others — or buried for future use in a place we believe at the time would be impossible ever to forget (and so we don’t mark the spot with an X… and worst-case scenario, we forget the purpose of X, anyway!) — is one of the most fascinating things to me about human history. And, in this piece, your account of the whole phenomenon playing out on a micro level, is both a response to and an elucidation of the macro process. Inspiring!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ha! I sent poems there because I really, really liked a good number of the poets they’ve published, most of whom confuse me at times, but in good ways. And welcome to nerdland! I admit to being comfortable there (here, wherever). 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Acquiring and losing languages in the flow of Life is normal, and every family such as yours or mine develops a lingua franca “distilled” from both the first and second languages of the household, rather than a creole or pidgin per se. So you have not “lost” German or Japanese or Italian, rather you have gained a rich lingua franca spoken by your family… with each member contributing to it in their own idiosyncratic way.

    That in itself is a linguistic treasure, so I would not mourn the “loss” of which you speak. Thee are millions of German/Italian/Japanese/Korean speaking individuals on Earth, but only ONE Okaji family-based “lingua franca distillation.”

    Das ist die richtige 考えるための正しい方法 Art und Weise zu denken です ne!


  6. Language is fascinating! I recall taking Spanish in a class in Mexico City years ago, and being amazed that, before I could learn a Spanish word, the French ones I had studied in college (but never really learned) came flooding back. It was only then that the Spanish ones stuck. Now I can remember both. (Sitting here scratching my head.)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I can relate. I grew up in a multilingual home. It has a way of connecting one or disconnecting one in the world. Sometimes the languages themselves are the only living connection in a solitary, disembodied way. I remember loving the fact that rain (ame) and candy (ame) sounded the same. Great poem.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You express that loss poetically and thus makes it seem more tragic.

    It is difficult to accept such losses yet the ying and yang of all things dictate that as we master one discipline we lose mastery of another, unless you are Michelangelo. I had 14 years of speaking only Chinese but after five decades of speaking only English I struggle to hang on to my mother tongue. I continue to read it and try to write it and even teach it to others, but it remains a challenge. I know I must abandon English to return to my first language – that means I can never return.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. When I was a child, we lived in Germany for a year and I was fluent – for an 8-year-old – and winning scholastic honors in my German classroom before Halloween.
    German was the language my mother’s family had used as a secret code, to keep all the children from understanding conversations. Her father was bilingual, but she and her brother and all their cousins learned only English – and during our year abroad, she struggled at the food market in Poppenbüttel and at the restaurant where we went Sundays after walking along the Alster.
    After we returned to the states, I knew nobody who spoke German, and I lost my skills.
    I dream of going back someday to study the language in place.
    But perhaps more than missing the language, I miss the excitement of being 8 and having new friends. who find me exotic


  10. Ē…I’m of the 1.5 generation. Even pidgin is something I’ve coveted, because at least in that, there are traces of something pure, identifiable, and ancient.

    There are so many of us who can only find their identity on a blank page.

    Liked by 1 person

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