The Makers of Language
Well, my wife and I are temporarily here in New Zealand. In mid-winter, while England enjoys a very warm summer!
We are visiting two daughters and their families. Fortunately, they live close by each other, in Dunedin, far to the south – a city of grey stone founded in the nineteenth century by Scots, carried forward by a short-lived gold rush, and today a regional capital with a port in one of the world’s most beautiful natural harbours. It is also designated a City of Literature.
I feel very much at home here. Among other things, I have visited the offices of Landfall, New Zealand’s oldest and best known literary journal which has just published its seventieth-anniversary edition. It offers poems, stories, articles and reviews – the same balance as in The Wagon Magazine.
The poem below celebrates sign language and the way in which this liberates deaf people.
Sign language is far more than a set of gestures that correspond to spoken words. It is a language with its own grammar as well as vocabulary – a grammar composed of physical movements in time and space.
At the same time, I feel that the poem celebrates the invention of language – and writing – generally: any language and at any time and place. What could be more suitable for a transnational literary journal with writers whose first languages are highly varied?
One of our daughters is a teacher of deaf schoolchildren. Not deaf herself, she became very interested in the condition and took a university degree in linguistics and deaf studies before going on to take an additional qualification as a teacher.
My wife and I remember watching her as she entered an English pub to meet friends who were deaf. We could see the crowded bar through the window and watch as immediately she engaged her friends in conversation over the heads of all the people there. That memory stuck in my mind and, years later, became the prompt for this poem.
So, after this introduction here is the poem:
Under his hand the hieroglyphs emerge:
bird and serpent, eye. Into the stone
he chisels miniature pictures of his thoughts.
Another time, another place, and the pale scholar
sits, in silks, his mind moving with the brush.
Now today and here: Friday night in the city
and a crowded bar. In fact, it’s packed.
Open the door and push yourself into the crush.
From end to end they’re sitting, standing, squeezing.
Leaning closer. Lips working.
Seeing your friends at the far side of the crowd
and seeing that they’ve seen you, it’s hi! how are you,
it’s I had trouble parking but now that I’m here what’s yours?
your hands and arms inscribing signs in the air,
pictograms, ideograms, flowing from mind to mind.
John Looker lives with his wife in Surrey, south-east England. His first collection of poetry, The Human Hive, was published in 2015 by Bennison Books (through Amazon) and was selected by the Poetry Library for the UK’s national collection. His poems have appeared in print and in online journals, on local radio and in When Time and Space Conspire, an anthology commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Austin International Poetry Festival. His blog, Poetry from John Looker, is at https://johnstevensjs.wordpress.com