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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Obsoletion of a Language - Kay Ryan

We knew it
would happen,
one of the laws.
And that it
would be this
sudden. Words
become a chewing
action of the jaws
and mouth, unheard
by the only other
citizen there was
on earth.










Kay Ryan's ability to present a complex and provocative topic, with ruthless economy of word, and peerless craft, is a true gift, and I am unashamedly envious.  I hope to learn from her example in my own work, and someday learn to place words as carefully as she does.  My adoration is already longer than her whole poem, though, so maybe I'm just making a "chewing" motion with my jaws, and I am unheard.

What happens who two people are fundamentally unable to understand one another?  Is it an accident that this happens?  No, that's too innocent an assessment.  Obsoletion is active, systematic.  It's the eradication of indigenous tongues by political process ("one of the laws") and the erosion of meaning.   It is planned.  "We knew it / would happen,"  It was not an accident that this language was obsolesced.  It is sudden.  A few lifetimes, and that's it.  One speaker left, mouthing meaningless words at an uncomprehending world.  The short lines and terse breaks contribute to the sudden aspect of the poem, to its chopped up feeling.  How can one speak when no one is there to understand?

Mutual isolation is how I frame the image of two people with no means to communicate.  They may as well not be on the same planet if they cannot communicate meaningfully.  For a language to be made obsolete is a hate crime against the richness of human experience.  There's a heartbreaking list of languages that have gone extinct in recent years.  Most, with the death of one person, "the only other / citizen there was / on earth."  There are language conservation efforts, but for most languages that go extinct, there is no revival.  It's hard to imagine your whole method of framing your experience and life being made impossible to communicate by outside forces, and it's terrifying.

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