Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Poem with Restored Footnote

The following poem appears in Human Form, where considerations of space meant it was published without what seems to me this essential footnote:



(Royal Free Hospital, London, 2009)

After the stroke, English words
escaped you, like a coop
of cacophonous birds
you’d failed to tame.

The dialect of your distant
infancy – that landscape
of stifled voices - re-emerges

in their wake: revenant
of a long-
dead language,
it possesses and reclaims
your abandoned tongue.


(Von Humboldt’s Expedition, Venezuela, 1800)

‘In a cage
             hardly permitting
his dog-eared, blue
       -and-yellow pinions
           to extend

we came upon Angel
       in the tribal village
hard by the Orinoco,
                      kidnapped trophy
of their enemies’
           last demise.

From the beak
        of a macaw
I heard at last
             the cut-off tongue
of the Atures; met
     the mournful,
                             gummy eye
               of the oracle-bird
through whose mouth
                           so many voices
are now thrown.’
Footnote: Without factual precedent Part I yokes the phenomena of stroke-victims’ reversion to a mother tongue they may not have spoken in years to the dying-out of cultural legacies when a last surviving native-speaker passes away (I was thinking particularly of Boa Snr, the last speaker of Bo, a language of the Andaman Islands, who died in 2010). Part 2 adapts an apocryphal anecdote about the famous Prussian explorer (see Mark Abley, Spoken Here: Travels among Disappearing Languages 2004)