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Language untranslated

Here’s a poem, via Ethan Zuckerman.

The Icelandic Language

In this language, no industrial revolution;
no pasteurized milk; no oxygen, no telephone;
only sheep, fish, horses, water falling.
The middle class can hardly speak it.

In this language, no flush toilet; you stumble
through dark and rain with a handful of rags.
The door groans; the old smell comes
up from under the earth to meet you.

But this language believes in ghosts;
chairs rock by themselves under the lamp; horses
neigh inside an empty gully, nothing
at the bottom but moonlight and black rocks.

The woman with marble hands whispers
this language to you in your sleep; faces
come to the window and sing rhymes; old ladies
wind long hair, hum, tat, fold jam inside pancakes.

In this language, you can’t chit-chat
holding a highball in your hand, can’t
even be polite. Once the sentence starts its course,
all your grief and failure come clear at last.

Old inflections move from case to case,
gender to gender, softening consonants, darkening
vowels, till they sound like the sea moving
icebergs back and forth in its mouth.

— Bill Holm

2 Responses to “Language untranslated”

  1. But this language believes in ghosts;

    T-Day thanks for the eloquent reminder that “We” includes much more than what we are likely to admit to ourselves. Although hyper-mutating English still carries some vestige of the past, I’m far more likely to fix on the current meaning — “automobile” conjures a car and yes, it is self-propelled, no animals in harness.

    In The Control of NatureJohn McPhee tells a fascinating story of Icelanders battling a lava flow that threatens a vital harbor. It is also a fascinating peek inside a very old culture, very alien to mine; where the meat in convenience store sandwiches is lobster.

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