For writers with the gift of more than one language, what kinds of sounds are we able to make when grieving?
From living in this time of many daily sorrows, lately I’ve been writing poems of lament: of the EJKs or “extrajudicial killings” in the Philippines, of recent massacres of the mostly powerless; of those drowned or buried in mudslides or in the rubble from earthquakes; of our collective sadness and anger and frustration from the rising toll of violent deaths every day.
I write too about distance and space: about how so many of families of color, including mine, are splintered—whether we are in the global diaspora, or in our cities where, in the words of poet Jamaal May, when there are birds, “…those birds [are] metaphors/ for what is trapped/ between buildings/ and buildings.”
Here we are every day, in constant negotiation between the fitful presence of the here and the seething impossibility of there, and vice versa. And I find myself asking: what languages best contain and express our grief, remorse, or regret; and the condition of being deeply riven? What are the languages of outrage and helplessness? How exactly does grief translate or convey? Are we able to make the same wounded sounds of grieving across and within the many languages we carry?
As a multilingual poet, a poet of color, a Filipina American living on this continent: on a daily basis, including when I teach—I am keenly aware of one of those common languages in which we speak and write: this English, which in my mouth and in my hands is so often interrogated as to its origins and its ability (my origins, my ability) to conform to some standard. Are there moments when the mouth might sometimes unconsciously lengthen around, harden, or clip a sound—theees instead of this, ratio instead of ratio—and in such small ways, call attention to its supposedly ineluctable difference from others?
In my childhood, one or two days before All Saints Day every year, the women in my family would organize a group of us to clean the graves of our dead. We walked to the cemetery armed with cans of paint and paintbrushes, where we joined others engaged in a similar enterprise. The tombs were swept and scrubbed with water, then given a fresh coat of paint—a uniform optic white that hid the ravages of time, weather, and neglect; that erased whatever thoughtless marks and graffiti might have been sprayed on their sides.
My paternal grandmother Irene was buried on a northwestern slope of the Baguio Cemetery. She was a small woman with silver-grey hair gathered in a tight bun; and a steely glare she liked to fix on everyone, just standing in the doorway of her room. She was proud of the mixed or mestiza blood she claimed—part Spanish, therefore part European, part white. I don’t remember that she spoke much English, only a mixture of Spanish and Ilocano. She lived with us the last ten years of her life.
A few plots away from Irene, my maternal grandfather Lorenzo was laid to rest. He had worked as a cook in a local hotel before the Japanese occupation; after the war, with a cousin he opened a barbershop that they ran for some years. Then he returned to his province and spent the rest of his years tending his land. When he visited, he smelled of the fields and of the sun; wearing his one and only white suit, he brought gifts from the farm: a chicken, rice, eggs. But he took off his shoes at the door before he entered. And he rarely ate with us at the table when Irene and my father were there; I didn’t ask about this then, but I remember.
When I was ten, my mother received news of Lorenzo’s death. To this day, I remember starkly how she folded over at the waist and sank to the floor. Out of her mouth came a keening wail that I had never before heard: also, it sounded like a kind of chanting whose gist was that now, she was orphaned, bereft of a parent’s presence in the world. I learned later that this is what Ilocanos call dung-aw– a dirge or lament which traditionally includes poetry, but which most often is extemporized, as the mourner expresses her grief and remembers the life and death of the loved one.
At wakes, when someone begins to chant dung-aw, those gathered often join in so it becomes a chorus of grieving, a relay, a call and response. The effect is electric—and many are moved to tears. Wealthier families will sometimes hire funeral mourners who perform the function of publicly releasing and mediating these first and most difficult, bottled up expressions of grief.
In college, I learned that one of the first things to which poetry was put to use was as elegy. Traditional elegy, in ancient Greek metrical form, was written in response to the death or passing of someone and contained these stages of loss: lament; praise and remembrance; and finally, consolation and solace.
As lament, the poem expresses grief and sorrow.
As eulogy, the poem praises and remembers the one that has passed away.
And finally, as lyric articulation, the poem opens a place in which to be consoled.
Poetry begins with elegy, in extremity, as Gilgamesh laments the death of his companion Enkidu, watching worms crawl out of Enkidu’s neck. Homer sings of heroes as they die in battle, and Priam weeps to see the body of his son Hector dragged around the walls of Troy….
…a kind of prayer for [Danticat’s] mother — an act of mourning and remembrance, a purposeful act of grieving;” and that, “[a]s a grieving daughter, … [she] wants to understand how others have grappled with this essential fact of human existence; as a writer — a “sentence-maker” … she wants to learn how to use language to try to express the inexpressible, to use her art to mourn.
Like other forms of literature and art, poems aim for and arise out of a state of empathy—which is the work of breaking down distance and trying to come as close as possible to some aspect of human experience. In poems we try to enter another life, another voice, to understand the shapes and sounds it makes. Considering how the prior condition of poetry is a language which attempts to lyrically organize what is ineffable to begin with, to write of grief seems doubly daunting; perhaps even more so for the writer of color.
When I want to write of grieving sadness or the everyday heaviness of so many things difficult to express, I think of dung-aw—that wild, inarticulate grief that breaks through the surface in search of sounds capable of carrying it. I think of how we went to tidy up the graves of our dead, and wonder if the language of our daily interactions is another kind of sarcophagus in which the organic sounds of who we were, who we are, have also become entombed.
This is another form of bereavement. We live and write with words under which much older forms of language, and thus older forms of lyric and lamentation, exist. They tug at and want to braid with our thoughts and everyday speech; they rise out of our throats and dreams in search of sounds and words.
In a world where the physical signs of our orality and polyvocality have either gone into hiding or become unseen until some words or passages slide to the surface only to be assigned the mark of difference—can my poem adrift in a different space and time approach the aspect of dung-aw? How can we connect again to the more submerged languages of our grief?
If I cried out
who would hear me up there
among the angelic orders?
In the northern highlands of the Philippine Cordillera, among tribes like the Ibaloi, Kankanaey or Kalinga, in traditional funerary practices, the dead are not immediately taken away for burial. They are propped up seated in front of the house so kin and neighbors can continue to look at them as they come and go; speak to them, give everyone time get accustomed to the final transition to the spirit world. Some anthropologists have documented wakes that have lasted several weeks, or nearly a month.
When I think about and write poems on EJKs or extrajudicial killings in the Philippines I think of how in contrast to any reverent observation of death and passage, what they foreground instead is the horror of mutilation, the way the dead are defiled, rendered grotesque or worse, anonymous.
And suppose one suddenly
took me to his heart
I would shrivel
The challenge to write of exigency is doubled for the poet of color thinking of not just how to put the unspeakable in words, but also what this might mean against the bilingual or multilingual perspective. What acts of negotiation and modulation have the potential to alter the quality or intensity of feeling? I don’t feel I’ve arrived at a good answer to this predicament, which I think cannot completely be captured either by the glib phrase “lost in translation.”
Sometimes there’s only the humility of acknowledgment: that the poem tries to sound the deepest way it can, no matter in what tongue. But sometimes it isn’t enough. Perhaps that’s why I value the incorporation of other languages in poems, without necessarily worrying about their mediation through glosses or footnotes; or when that might prove difficult, why I try at least to reach for the solidity of nouns and verbs, the names of people and places and things, the details of what has been done. Because ultimately what we seek is the feeling that what the poem names can press against the sides of its enclosures, like a soul that might still travel even when the body or its shell has become its tomb.
This essay is a revised version of a paper delivered at the 2018 AWP Conference in the panel “Living, Reading, and Writing the Multilingual Poem.”
LUISA A. IGLORIA is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world’s first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. She is the author of the full length works The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2018),Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books; as well as the chapbooks Haori (Tea & Tattered Pages Press, 2017), Check & Balance (Moria Press/Locofo Chaps, 2017), Bright as Mirrors Left in the Grass (Kudzu House Press eChapbook selection for Spring 2015). She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015. www.luisaigloria.com