Acts of care bring us back into relationship, physical relationship, and it’s only within the field of a relationship that repair can occur. At least that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately – and when this Poem a Day poem landed, it amplified that. Poet Leora Kava names this push-pull tension of wanting to learn your native language, yet feeling less-than because you don’t know it, and you don’t know how to pronounce the words you see.
As we shared earlier, we have just begun the United Nations International Decade of Indigenous Languages, to draw global attention to the critical status of many Indigenous languages around the world and to mobilize stakeholders and resources for their protection, revitalization, and advancement.
Wanosts’a7 Dr Lorna Williams’ vision is “to work together to rebuild our languages, to make them fully a part of our lives, wherever we live, and however old we are. We know it’s a challenge for us as Indigenous people to pick up the pieces, the shards that have become our languages and knowledge systems, but it’s our job to pick them up and put them back together.”
I have heard her speak before about hearing the analogy that language revitalizers are trying to piece together a broken mirror and it is a heartbreaking insight to feel into. For any of us who feel that stories or truths have been lost to us, ancestral connection or old ways of knowing, I think this feeling resonates. Breaking the connection with language seems to be a tried-and-tested technique of colonizers, and it’s not something that arises out of benign neglect, or a “better” language coming along… it’s not the result of a neutral kind of Darwinism, survival of the fittest. Language loss often resulted from the abuse of language speakers and the destruction of cultural practices – as an intentional severing. Revitalizing indigenous languages is a radical act of healing and repair for this world. We all have a vested interest in this. All our lives are better for making a word like Nuk’wan’twal or Stucum Wi or Kat’íl’a commonplace.
It makes me think of a wise zen nun sweeping, to think of this invitation… if you don’t know how to pronounce these words, then sweep the grave, weed the plot, weave a bracelet, peel a burdock root… and let your body bring you back into connection first. As she writes, “pronunciation begins with the clearing we make in our bodies first.”
“This poem began after I finished clearing weeds and sand from my great-grandmother’s grave—her malaʻe—which sits next to my family’s house in Kolomotuʻa, Tonga. I did not grow up speaking Tongan, and this poem documents one of the moments I felt able to reconcile the pull of my desire to learn Tongan with the push of feeling inadequate as a Tongan descendent because of my lack of verbal language. Everyday acts of care, like sweeping the malaʻe, became lessons that helped my body better pronounce an understanding of the land and culture that hold my ancestors and raised my family.”
For now, we speak only in brooms:
sweeping sand across the teeth
of concrete slabs, we brush and repeat
each stone syllable of the clearing
where our great grandparents are buried.
Some words for memory are always here,
sounded out by the ant feet
hefting sand grit and glitter homes, fan-light
over the blue tongues of plastic flowers—
the weeds will try to cover all the other ways
of saying history.
But our pronunciation begins with the clearing we make in our bodies first:
where the broom handle widens the oh’s
in the mouth of our hands,
how we shake open the throat
to settle each pile of leaves before burning them.
Trust the body to open in our language
with the rhythm of weight—
one hand pushing sand,
the other pulling syllables
in one last sway
as we close the gate of the malaʻe
so the trees can better hiss-hush at the edge of the ancestor
speaking in all our names.
Copyright © 2022 by Leora Kava. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 17, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.