“The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart” by Jack Gilbert

As I’m currently working a temp job that requires hours of data entry, I have discovered the joy of downloading and listening to NPR programming while I work. One of my favorites is A Way with Words, which (shockingly enough) pertains to language and words. Listeners call in to ask about the origins of a phrase their family has said for generations, but no one knows from where it came. Or they call to have the hosts settle a language debate taking place in their homes or offices.

While I don’t pretend to be an expert on language, it is something that fascinates me. Having spent (accumulatively) more than a year in New Zealand, I have a plethora of examples of differences between American and New Zealand-ized UK English.

Then a language-centered poem recently shared by my friend Dani reminded me of this poem, which I first read in Laurie Lamon’s Poetry Writing class at Whitworth about four years ago. Enjoy.

The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart

Jack Gilbert

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 language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.

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About Andrea Nicole

NZ enthusiast in the PNW. Internationally published writer, educator, grammar nerd, genealogist, and all-around storyteller. Recovering homebody. @Whitworth and @WGU alumna. #edchat
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