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English I

Old poems

English I

Maria S. Mendes


English I

FIRST, We tied to each other
NEXT, Coconuts for the swimming
THEN, The Boat-Soldiers shoot
MEANWHILE, Many dying
AND THEN, We swam with dead People
LATER, We get on the land
FINALLY, We left our dead Friends.

What grade does this exercise deserve?
Homework folded like a handkerchief,
a little book of tears, burns, escape--

And still I mark the blasphemies
of punctuation, common speech;
the English tune will help them live.

Rickety Hmong boy, flirting simply
with the loud girl from Managua--
I taught him how to ask her out,

taught her how to say no, nicely;
my accent and suburban decorums
are tidy and authoritative as

the checks I make for right answers,
the rosy golf-clubs on the page.
By next year they'll talk their way

out of trouble instead of smiling
as they do hearing me drone Silent Night --
They join in, shy and hypnotized,

Saigon chemist, cowed Haitian, miming
the words I once told my music teacher
that Jews shouldn't sing: "Holy Infant."

David Gewanter, “English I”, In the Belly. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1997. 

I like this poem because it ponders on the complexities and ideological engagement of teaching language to the Other. I like this poem because it starts with suffering in the collective “we,” but wehave trouble identifying with that particular discourse of suffering. I like this poem because it uses physical images, such as the suggestive vignette for a teacher’s labor of grading, and I am a teacher and I like the traffic of languages: “the checks I make for right answers,/ the rosy golf-clubs on the page.”

The poem is a hybrid, of mixed forms, and it is also polyphonic. The beginning could be a chorus, but it is a short essay for a language class, with mangled syntax and atrocious content. The foregrounding of time connectors begs a reflection on how grammar encloses the articulation of trauma, and somehow the chronological narration of events recedes in face of the pain and perils of dislocation, of forced migration. On the other hand, the “song form” chosen by the poet, marked by the choice of tercets, Dante’s favorite, adds a metapoetical layer to what I think is a challenge to lyric poetry in contemporaneity: how to make crudity sing.

The poem was published in 1997 in In the Belly, the first book of poetry by David Gewanter (b. 1954) and it is ever more resonant in our time, with the constant disheartening news of boat people who are lost or left at sea, banned from entering the shores of many nations. It is a political poem that does not put the blame on politics, but instead thinks about inequality in an intersubjective way, and somehow inquires about personal responsibility — the responsibility of the lyrical I in his/her public actions, acceptance of tasks, professional ethics, biographical bias. 

The title “English I” points to a larger-scale imbalance with neo-imperialist implications about the cultural force of the dominant language of trade today, and this is suggested with irony: “the English tune will help them live.” Moreover, the last stanza somehow marks the lyrical voice as one of Jewish descent, which, along with “accent and suburban decorums”, provides a specific context of “Americanness,” invoking a cultural historicity that taxes the intercultural task of the translation of poetry.

However, I have chosen to universalize the poem’s title in Portuguese, as “Língua Não Materna” (“non-maternal language”, a term sometimes used in educational literature for teaching Portuguese as a foreign language).[1]The thing that touches me most in the poem is the complexity of the teaching of language as a form of expression leading to action, and of doing this to/with subjects that are not native speakers. They are, as the first part of the poem dramatizes, people liable to what Julia Kristeva dubbed “the silence of the polyglot.” Interestingly, Kristeva invokes this concept in a text that also resorts to musical imagery, “Toccata et fugue pour l'étranger” / “Tocatta and Fugue for the Foreigner” (1988), addressing, as Gewanter’s poem, the uneasiness of “our” most cherished language codes — verbal scripture and song — when they are forced on another’s pain, taken as the privileged vehicle to address sympathy. The tinge of cultural situatedness at the end of the poem concurs paradoxically to a wider universal human impulse: the flashback that allows one to enter the other’s sub-alterity and mute outcry, however incommensurate the situations may be. 


[1] In the end, the translated poem still kept “the English tune” to mark the position of the dominant tongue; I thank Bernardo Palmeirim for discussing these options with me, and for his suggestions to improve the translated “English I”. 

Margarida Vale de Gato

Margarida Vale de Gato is in an open relationship with poetry. She is a literary translator, assistant professor and researcher at FLUL, University of Lisbon, in North-American Studies and Literary Translator. She has published essays and academic editions, mainly on Edgar Allan Poe. She has also published creative writing in journals and anthologes of homeopathic effects, as well as the books Lançamento (Douda Correria, 2016) and Mulher ao Mar / Woman Overboard, with an enlarged edition in 2013 and more to come.