Years ago when I was living in Spain, a guy named Jason Nargis shared a poem that resonated with me then and stayed with me for years. It was so firmly lodged in the creases of my brain that it couldn’t be washed out even by all the sangria and ron cola that followed it.
Time finally did blur it. The poem might have been on its way out of my head, but a few weeks ago when I was reading an essay in the Sun, I saw the poem partially quoted again. The flood of memories those few words elicited was startling. I tracked down the poem in its entirety and offer it here with deepest thanks to Jack Gilbert….
The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart
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 all 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 laguage but a map. What we feel most has no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.
The poem can be found in the collection The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992, reprinted just last year by Alfred A. Knopf. It’s sublime.