* unlearning via jack gilbert

Last week’s online reading/interview had me going over the “constellation of poets” that influenced my life and writing in another life. Like the stars keep changing position, so poets move around in my head. I was driven, however, to dig up this week’s poem and reread it, surprised that I hadn’t posted it at some point.

The poem below’s meditation on language uses questions of maybe and what if to blow up and expand the possibilities of words. It creates a space that I am happy to return to ten years after first reading it.

In another poem, Gilbert says: We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars. I count this poem as one that has helped in my unlearning.

* starry night unlearned *
* starry night unlearned *

The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart – Jack Gilbert

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.


Happy ambering!


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