“Pulling syllables” – a poem about longing for your mother tongue and finding a way to pronounce it

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.”
Leora Kava


Leora Kava

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.

2 thoughts on ““Pulling syllables” – a poem about longing for your mother tongue and finding a way to pronounce it

  1. Lisa Sambo says:

    Kukwstumckacw snukwa7 for this article and poem. I do have some burdock in the yard…
    I was just talking to a snukwa7 yesterday about not knowing how to speak Ucwalmicwts. We didn’t grow up hearing the language. The deep sadness…
    The work of trying to put together a mirror that is shattered into a million pieces.
    💜 stucum wi: to let the creator help you see your path 💜

    • Lisa Richardson says:

      <3. I recently learned that my grandmother's grandparents, who left Scotland following the Clearances to become settlers and colonizers of Australia, went to a church in the early Australian colonies where the services were fully held in Gaelic. It's strange and unsettling and curious to hold these selves – colonizer and refugee, uprooter and uprooted, as two pieces of the same story… and to think, yes, for me too, there is a language that I do not know, that sounds strange to my ears, that is rooted in a land that maybe my bones recognize… (I think the distance of time/generations means my experience of this is more about numbness and scar tissue, less about immediate wounds and very palpable loss… but there's a family tree there, a kinship of loss and longing…. ) Where does this storyline leave me? Where do I belong? What words and stories would really locate me in time and space? And the shorter story of right now feels like, I belong in the here and now, in this circle of friends making a strange collage of life, out of lots of little pieces… whatever we can get our hands on… and exclaiming and laughing and crying over the little bits we each bring forth and share and try and fit into our lives in this place… Thanks for sharing Lisa, lovely one, I thought of you when sharing this. Stucum Wi! I couldn't love this phrase more.

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