Friday, October 21, 2011

The Language Muse

With words you pull up the underworld. Word, the paltriest and the mightiest.
C.G. Jung The Red Book

I have been musing about language ever since I can remember. As a child I wandered between my parents native German, their adopted Dutch -used for secrets- the Italian I learned young, when we lived in Rome and Florence, and English. In my last posting I wrote about my father’s angry curse, “Potfadorry, which was frightening, magical -of mysterious origin. I thought it was a German expression. My friend Carly, who lives in South Africa but is Dutch, informs me that it’s a Dutch word spelled "Potverdorie” and meaning damn you --but with some humor.

The swirl of languages was fascinating and confusing. I remember being 5, getting off the ocean liner that had carried my family from Italy to New York Harbor. My mother’s cousin Annemie was there to greet us. “Oh” she said to me “the kiddies will be so glad to see you.” Kiddies? I thought, does she have kittens? No kittens. Just cousins Callie and Pampy. I felt dumb, and disappointed.

I muse about expressions as they dance in and out of fashion. I was amused to discover that the long gone rhyme besotted saying of my youth “See you later alligator” has a contemporary cousin. Our teenage grandson Justin texted: “Okey Dokey artichokey.” I love it!

Some phases seem to me to express the poetic soul of the collective. A favorite of mine, one that has emerged in recent years, is “back in the day.” It sets a tone, enchants, invites us into a shimmering mythic time when things were different and we were young. It’s a bit like “Once upon a time” because it opens the way to a story. Another favorite of mine is “back of the beyond,” which holds an alliterative tension between back and beyond. Back is where we keep the trash cans, where the backdoor man makes his appearance, the part of our bodies that we can’t see, the part that we place on the toilet seat. Beyond, in contrast, is open and shining, the mystery of the after life, an evocation of the unknown and unfathomable. The back of beyond is both disgusting and marvelous.

These expressions resonate with cultural and personal associations. They feel good on my tongue and in my heart. They sing with the joy of speech.

But sometimes an expression comes along that bothers me a lot. It sets my teeth on edge. It irritates me and puts me in a foul humor. “Gone South," as in “the market has gone south” is one of these. It flattens and negates. It conveys a quantitative image of a graph with sharp angles pointing downwards. That’s South. That’s bad. As opposed to sharp angles pointing upwards. These are North. That’s good.

I find this offensive. South to me is warm and sexy. South is full of music, hot nights, vivid flowers. I spent my youngest years in the American South -North Carolina. Now we all know that there was plenty of bad stuff happening in the South in the forties, when I was a baby and toddler. But I was a lucky child. My father’s first teaching job in this country was at Black Mountain College. It was a radical school -desegregated, with my parents help, in 1945. It was the fountain of much energy in the arts and poetry. When I visited the site of the long gone college some years ago I realized that I had been blessed by the very landscape of that place. My world was magical. The log cabin we lived in was called “Black Dwarf.” The school was situated at the shore of Lake Eden. It was Paradise.

Here is my grandmother’s painting of Lake Eden, and a couple of poems about my childhood in the South.

Painting of Lake Eden by Emma Hoffman

(Black Mountain College, 1943-47)

Garden of the sun dappled baby I was
and the tow headed toddler, I can see me now
on the wooded path, beloved of the morning

and the night, drunk on mother’s milk
and daddy’s lullabies, cradled in the rapture
of the mountains, captivated by the fiery flash

of a Cardinal in flight, seer of the light
in willows, and in the waters of Lake Eden
enchanted by the song of the Carolina Wren

transported into sleep on wings of Bach and Schubert
enfolded as I was in this Black Mountain tribe
of music makers, paint stirrers, pot throwers, leapers in the air

Outside the gates—news of the war
Smoke rose, bombs fell
Inside the gates—faculty fights

for or against, communism, twelve tone music, short shorts
on young women. In the basement of the cottage named
Black Dwarf, a Moccasin frightened my mother. But I

lucky baby, took my first steps
between your apple and your wild
rhododendron, greedy for the names of your every living thing

Early I lost you. Lately I’ve found you
again. Sweet spot, source
of the singing in my heart, and my communion
with the mountains


Who came up with so fairy tale a name for you?
Once you housed my greenhorn parents
the upstairs poet, his toy trains, the library lady, and me

Did I roll down your sunny lawns? Did I learn about stairs
on your front porch, or up the long flight
to see the trains run? Was there snow

in the winter? Did your windows let in summer’s
full foliage? Do you remember my first step, first word, first mashed
banana? Did you protect me in my sleep? Did you practice magic

in the way of the little people? Did you teach the toddler I was
to cast the circle, call the directions? Are my dreams inscribed
in your walls? Did creatures from other realms fly about

your ceilings? Are you haunted by my parents early love—
my father’s Well Tempered Klavier; my mother’s Mozart Divertimenti
by Roland Hayes singing, in your living room, that Old Pharoah

should let our people go?

You, little house with the enchanted name
toadstool under which my whole world hatched…

This is how my grandmother saw me, when I was a toddler.

Painting of Naomi, Age 2 by Emma Hoffman

Italy is also South, also magical, also a beloved childhood landscape. When I’ve traveled there as an adult, I’ve always felt profoundly at home, even though, sadly, I have lost my Italian. Some part of me knows the music of that language in my soul and in my hands. When my grandmother’s family fled Germany in 1932, after Hitler’s rise, they went to Italy, to Capris, for a brief holiday, to recover after so much fear and grief, before they moved on to the Netherlands. My grandmother’s painting of that Southern landscape hangs in my living room.

Painting of Capri by Emma Hoffman

Nowadays my favorite South is Mexico. Dan and I recover from the stresses and strains of our lives by going South to Mexico in the winter. We go to an enchanting small town, San Pancho -north of Puerto Vallarta and stay in a lovely B & B- Casa Obelisco, whose owners have become our dear friends over the years. It always soothes our souls to be there, reconnects us to our deeper lives.

Go South. I recommend it. Ignore the media hype about Mexico. There are no drug wars in San Pancho. It’s safer than North Oakland. Ignore the graphs about the endless ups and downs of markets; ignore the news of wars and disasters. Gaze at the bougainvillea and the hibiscus. Take a long walk down the beach, watch the pelicans grazing the waves with their wings. Fill your tired eyes with ocean, sky and palm trees. Have a margarita at sunset. Decide which of many fine local restaurants you’ll visit tonight.

Write a poem.

Gone South

One who has too many things to do
Has gone South, by the sea. She
Watches the curl of a wave. It crashes
Into a thousand thousand drops -all reflecting
The one

Who is too many things
To too many people
To her senses

Ocean in her ears, purple
Bougainvillea, yellow hibiscus, green palms
In her eyes, breeze
In her face, bringing news
To her nose
Of fish, wet sand, sea salt
To her tongue

Seagull cries. Someone
Opens the gate, calls out

Later, she and her Dan
Will sit on the roof
Caught in that moment
Before sun falls
Into sea
Before moody moon
Takes over
Seven pelicans float past

Let this moment linger
Let the sun engrave
Its dying lavender magenta
Into the belly of the clouds

Let the too many things
Dissolve into
The One

Sunset, San Pancho, Nayarit, Mexico. Photo by Dan Safran

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