Extracts from: 'Various Variable Words Variably Arranged in the Form of a Celebratory Talk-Essay on Language & Luxembourg on the Occasion of Receiving the 2020 Batty Weber Award'
I left Paris in 1967 not only because I had quit medical school to become a writer (Paris too does have some writers, right?) but because I had decided to write in English — or more accurately in American English. If French or German (and now, Luxembourgish) are the likely languages a citizen of the Grand Duchy normally decides between on the way to becoming a writer, I, except for very few teenage tries in those languages, always preferred that other one, my fourth language. It is in fact “home,” as it is in the Ettelbruck of my youth that I discovered the joys of English. In the heart of Europe, a Europe that since ’45 had become a “Quasi-Protektorat” (to use a German word from the hotter, later moments of the political ’60s) of the US, America was fast becoming the culturally hip space for a teenager to hang out in and aspire to: rock ’n’ roll on Radio Luxembourg and various American Field Networks stations (so much better than the pale imitations in German, say, by Peter Kraus, or in French, say, by a fake American named “Johnny Hallyday”), then Time and Playboy magazines from the Bitburg PX, late-night jazz over AFN and a few other stations, blue jeans or “Texas-boxen / Texas-pants” as our parents called them. And of course there was the cinema, in the original language with French and Flemish subtitles (the blessings of a multilingual country, ours or the one just to the west: as you couldn’t dub the film into only one of the official languages and as it was too expensive to fabricate two dubbed versions, the film got two-languaged subtitles but remained in the original, en v.o.): So innumerable Yankee movies in my grandmother’s now post-Rundstedt restored Cinéma de la Paix where once grandfather Joseph had shown Abel Gance’s films to himself alone, we all now ate Hollywood, from Audie Murphy oaters to James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause, and read Mickey Spillane novels, experienced ritual WWII “Remembrance Days” with US army participation (Ettelbruck was also known as “Patton town” for the hero of the Rundstedt whose troops had freed this area from the Germans, shelling the town for days on end and in the process burning my grandfather’s large library and correspondence to the ground. I still hold a grudge, and that fact allowed me from early on to reflect critically on military expeditions and adventures). A few years later, on a beach in Spain, a young English honeymooning couple forgot a paperback in the sand, which I picked up: On the Road by Jack Kerouac. In the short-lived gay bookshop in the capital, Luxembourg, looking for erotica in Maurice Girodias’s green “Traveler’s Companion” series, I bought — by mistake (!?) — William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and the City Lights edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. I would take two or three years before I was able to read those.
But to say that my writing moved between some early poems in German and French and then came to English is already somehow mistaken: years earlier my very first writings happened in totally different languages or in a language still more radically other: I spent my time scouring Karl May’s travel and adventure novels, copying out the Mescalero Apache, Sioux, Comanche, Arab, Persian, Russian, Spanish, American language microliths embedded in the many volumes. From this perfectly heterogeneous language matter copied into an old hardcover cattle-register my grandmother at the Asselscheuer farm had given me, I shaped my first writings, which were hero-lists, kinship-lines, tribal schemata, ready-made sentences for explorers and nomadic wanderers, expletives, etcetera. I had name Nikunta, Hadji Halef Omar, Tatanka Yotanka, Gall, Crazy Horse, Winnetou.
But not only literature was a major attraction of that country — another one was its space and the ensuing Kerouacian “on the road,” the exhilaration of crossing vast open spaces that reach from ocean to ocean — allowing this European to feel liberated from the weight of history, that swamp in which one is afraid to sink, hip-deep, unable to lift a leg out to move forward, forever hobbled by the weight of the past or condemned to move in deep ruts along a road traced long ago. Yet even when driving fast across the plains, you have to stop at some point to eat and sleep or because you meet up with people or do a reading if you are a poet. Some four decades ago, I crossed the US, driving from New York first to Iowa City where I knew I would find a certain poet in a certain bar — my old Luxembourg friend Nico Helminger — and from there we drove down to Lawrence, Kansas to visit with Ken Irby and then across the interminable Kansas Plain deep into Colorado.
It wasn’t the first time I had done this drive, but this time I did it in a rental van, a small U-Haul that had one mattress, one chair, one table, two suitcases, and many cartons of books in the back. I was moving to California, to the Pacific coast! Maybe for good, further away from Luxembourg than I had ever lived. I was elated, but those folds upon folds of Riemannian space would catch up with me. Crossing the interminable Kansas plain brought back the image of it I had from childhood days in Ettelbruck lying on the couch and reading Karl May, dreaming of being a Mescalero Apache called Winnetou and fighting bad white men who came to steal this land, cut it up into largish squares and rectangles and built railroads and roads through it. This was an Ettelbrucker’s dream come true — I was driving through Comanche territory. Except there were no Comanche around, none left, the only people here were white descendants of European immigrants. Winnetou had died, or rather Karl May had Winnetou killed, conveniently at age thirty-three, mumbling words about being saved because secretly a Christian. This enraged me back then and enraged me that day driving through Kansas. That night in the motel in Telluride, Colorado, I prepared a talk and some poems for my reading the next day at a Council of Counterpoetics meeting. I made sure to include sections of WINNETOU OLD, the long poem I wrote in London in the last years before returning to the US. Let me read you a few stanzas of it now:
staccato stasis howl this alphabet
go away don’t hurl this relapse into bone again
no gain this stone-monkey Europe post no inter-
glacial basin from its dead foam no Aphrodite no
fat-assed goddess kalypigian woman scraggy pigeons of
Paris Rome London Berlin carriers of Krakow diseases
kill the messengers from Budapest the plague is
breath learn how to breathe with eyes
closed break now the slippery line carry on Winnetou
old now called Taranta in the vision a clearing a one-
room school-house part Swiss chalet part frontier log cabin
part greek temple an old mescalero apache in rags of white
hair with a ball of light yarn in his right hand
itschli dead he walks in rubber Good Year sandals the
light yarn ball raised his hand raised all salutes
resemble each other
That day in Telluride, Colorado, it turned out that there was a Mescalero Apache scholar, Inez Talamantez, among us. Over dinner I asked her about her language, Mescalero Apache, which she knows well and for the preservation of which she worked relentlessly over the years, for her whole life in fact. I then tried out all the Mescalero words Karl May used in his books and which I had retained all those years — and none of them made any sense to her. It could be that May worked with transcriptions that were so basic that the transcriber had not realized that Apache was a tone-based language. So May, as we had thought, made up, faked his Indian languages (interestingly, he doesn’t do that with Arabic or Persian, the “high cultural,” written languages). We went on talking about the problems Apache speakers meet today and of the difficulties of writing in this and any other Native American language and thus of the need for Native writers and poets to use another than the mother language to write in, English or possibly Spanish, while trying to reestablish, relearn, and teach their own. And all of a sudden I was on that familiar territory: the small portable, foldable spaces of multilingual needs and possibilities, and I realized I had found a cousinage in a cultural situation — toutes proportions gardées — that had some resonance with my own origins. It is no doubt the questions that such situations raise — but also the richness such territories invariably contain and allow us to discover — that have over the years kept me deeply interested in the ethnopoetic work of Jerome Rothenberg’s anthologies or the explorations of Navajo poets working between their Diné language and English such as Sherwin Bitsui and Orlando White.
Or, this past week, reading an interview with the Mojave poet Nathalie Diaz whose claim that Native languages are “the foundation of the American poetic lexicon” resonates deeply and makes me reflect back on my early years in the US when of course the one great absence was exactly that of Native Americans. Where I live is Lenape land, and “Manhattan” is a Lenape word, just as after crossing the whole continent you will come, as I did, to a peaceful, holy mountain called Mount Tamalpais just north of San Francisco Bay, and if you dig into or under the word you discover a Coast Miwok name, támal pájiṣ, literally meaning “west hill.” Always that eerie feeling when driving across this continent that the Native humans have been disappeared, with their traces visible mainly as inscribed into toponyms. Those flat, flat plains are not that flat really; there are folds upon folds of canyons, mesas, arroyos (words from the first colonially imposed language) with toponyms that reach back to and are anchored in the original inhabitants’ language. You have to read the landscape aloud and speak its names to re-aliven its origins. Attention to languages — because as Nathalie Diaz says, “now is an important and dangerous time for language” — is especially necessary in the current political situation, in these not nearly post-COVID, Black-Lives-Matter days that are also pre-November election days, at least where I live. We know that the country is struggling again for liberation from structural violences embedded by whiteness and colonial power. So it is essential to listen to poets like Diaz who, speaking of her people (but maybe of us all too), says that “most of us live in a state of impossibility.” And then points to a poethics I find resonates profoundly with my own sense of things and that is for her, the Native poet, located deep in her language: “In Mojave, our words for want and need are the same — because why would you want what you don’t need? For me, that’s true desire. Desire isn’t frivolous, it’s what life is.” And it offers a profoundly ecological view of life, digging into which I’ll have however to keep for another occasion.
That true desire as the conjunction of want and need is a complex matter: I have been aware of it ever since I decided to become a writer, something I wanted to be more than anything else and for which I needed a language, and that was not an easy given. Making the choice — at nineteen — to write in my fourth language — a choice I never regretted — has however not either been without moments of anxiety. One of these I tried to catch in a poem from the ’70s, which I’ll read for you:
ANGUISH, A RIDDLE
that all the languages are borrowed
but how then do I count them
that do not belong to me
In the first
I think in the second I sink
the third is my rhetoric &
the fourth my west &
wagon its wheel
at least traces these steps
in harmonies of tetradic modalities
before & after I sink
What also helped banish this anguish was the growing realization that writing in one’s second, third, or even fourth language is in fact normal. It is only among the conquering European colonial powers — France, England, Spain, even Germany — that the “mother tongue” has such unparalleled power — probably because its association with “fatherland” creates a Freudian family image that does not want to let strangers in, that wants to keep a mythic purity while functioning as a symbol of imperial-cultural superiority. As a Luxemburger I knew I had to write in a language that was not the mother tongue (my generation did not even have available the standardized spelling and grammar younger generations have grown up with) while being anguished about the ability of doing so. The poet who brought me to poetry when I was in high school, and who thus in a very real sense set the course of my life’s work, Paul Celan, is also the one who states that “only in the mother-tongue can the poet write true poetry — in any other tongue he lies.” I am glad that I came across that statement a few years after I had decided to write in English and had started to translate Celan into that, this, language — a task I finished just a few months ago, thus after fifty-plus years of labor, having now translated his complete poetic oeuvre. I hope I have managed to avoid lies, or at least too many lies, in either my own work or in my translations of his work.
My first engagement with the fact that many writers — besides a few Luxemburgers — write in other than their spoken mother tongues came first in Paris when I met a young Mohammed Khair-Eddine, the Moroccan poet of Berber heritage, who told me about the great strength of Maghrebi post-independence writing in French, opening the whole Pandora’s box of post-colonial riches and problematics in a range of languages. I would come back to this at a later stage, in the second half of the ’70s when I taught at the University of Constantine in Algeria and was thus able to immerse myself in those literatures. Most of that work has been consigned to and is available in the anthology I gathered with my compadre, the Algerian poet Habib Tengour, a book called The University of California Book of North African Literature. It is in these contexts that I learned that the difference between a language and a dialect (and how often has our national language, letzeburgesch, been called just a dialect?) is simply that, as the saying goes, “language is a dialect with guns.” It is a matter of political power and cultural independence, of how these two are dependent on each other (“both and,” not “either or”), something beautifully stated in the Algerian novelist Kateb Yacine’s response to a journalist, who after Algeria achieved independence from France in 1962 asked Kateb if he would now write in Arabic and got this answer: “We won the war so we will keep French as the spoils of war.” Languages are portable, portable art. You can take them home.
Demosthenes, as the old story I first heard from my German literature teacher Othon Scholer in the very “classique” Lycée in Diekirch, held a bunch of pebbles in his mouth to teach himself to speak clearly in public as an orator. May I suggest that the poet, today more than ever, needs to do the same and learn to speak and write with a bunch of pebble-languages and/or language-pebbles in her mouth. The purity of the single language, as much as of the single culture, not to mention that nefarious fiction, the single “race,” is an ideological falsehood, a destructive myth. In my book of essays from the ’90s, A Nomad Poetics, I insisted that “the only solution” — and I meant in all those areas — “is total miscegenation.” I am not exaggerating if I say that again, the atlal of Letzeburg has been helpful for me in coming to this conclusion.
If Hölderlin returned today, Paul Celan wrote, he would only “immerzu lallen und lallen.” Let me read you the final stanza of that poem:
if a man,
if a man was born, today, with
the lightbeard of
the patriarchs: he could,
speaking of these
but babble and babble,
“Babble” is how I translated Celan’s “lallen” in order to be as faithful a translator — and not lie! — as I can be, though I was tempted to use the word “stutter,” which poethically may have pointed better to my own understanding of poetry, to explain which I would then have pointed in the commentary to the importance of the stutter, of the act of stuttering in poetry as outlined by Robert Duncan, including to the Demosthenian stutter to be overcome. Or not: stutterless Demosthenian talk too easily becomes smooth discourse meant to seduce, political rhetoric and its flourishes and lies, while the language that stutters remains truer, adhering closer to the essential breath and its turns and twists and thus to poetry. Then again, my “babble” allows me the echo with Babel and thus, now, permits me to quote a prose piece (included in the volume Barzakh) that starts in Luxembourg with these lines: “My father was a healer & a hunter. Is it any surprise that I became a poet & a translator? We don’t escape our filiations: we only stand more revealed, as the territories shift, as the hunt closes in.” The piece speaks of an “incomprehensible” language-line in Dante’s Commedia where the Italian poet — writing the first great poem in the language of that name — has put the giant Nimrod in his hell (Inferno XXXI, 46-81):
with the loss of meaningful language as his punishment. So that what the giant speaks in the Commedia is neither the lingua franca of Latin nor the new Vulgar Tongue. Dante gives us one verse of Nimrod’s ranting: “Raphèl maì amècche zabì almi.” Commentators from Benvenuto to Buti, or more recently, Singleton, are certain that these words are meaningless. A few, such as Landino, suggest that the words could be Chaldean, others that they may be Arabic, Hebrew, Greek … But the problem may not be there at all: The words Dante puts into Nimrod’s mouth are fitting, are accurate in their intention on language … Their meaning, in that sense, is absolutely clear: they mean to be ununderstandable, to be the babble of Bavel, the language that is untranslatable into any language — and that therefore, we know, must be translated. (And yet — the lingo of Babel was the single language that all humanity understood, that a jealous commander-in-chief then got rid of as punishment for the early humans’ communality; “divide et regna” already the essence of YHWH’s political science. So that Nimrod either remembers the first, unified language of the human race which we no longer know, or he speaks in one of the post-Babelian lingos, which are what makes translation possible). But his words, no matter which language or non-language they are in, are fitting in a further sense: they are a rant, a babble, thus a balelian bavel, and thus connect to bave, Fr. for drool, spittle. A false etymology — but are any etymologies really “false”? Aren’t they the engine whose misfirings, rather than smooth transparent linguistic runs, drive poetry forward? A false etymology, then, possibly, but one that brings in that much despised excretion without which we would have no language. (And yet, looking up the etymology, Fr. “bave” goes back to pop. Latin “baba,” an “onomatopoeia that expresses the babble [babil] of children.” Or of giants. Or of the single universal language all humans once spoke in their lingo-genetic childhood.) Now this bave, this spittle, this active saliva (doesn’t the word “alive” hide somewhere in “saliva”?), as the Encyclopedia Acephalica teaches us, is “the deposit of the soul; spittle is soul in movement.” For spittle accompanies breath, “which can exit the mouth only when permeated with it.” Because “breath is soul, so much so that certain peoples have the notion of ‘the soul before the face.’” Without spittle no breath, no soul, no language — it is the lubricant that immanentizes the pneuma.
I guess there is nothing like words like babble to make me want to babble or stutter, that is, write on them and their amazing histories, which are always multilingual, multicultural, nomadic in both a vertical, historical, and in a horizontal, geographical sense, are the poethical materials of my trade. It was Luxembourg’s language-bath that started me on these — possibly tortuous, but always exhilarating — lines of thought, lines that have had me meander through the histories — his-stories, no, her-stories, better, their-our-stories, yes, we have to make the words up if the old ones don’t fit any longer! — and the geographies of our worlds. And a-babble and a-stutter is how you speak when your language echoes other languages, is other languages, and then you realize that all languages are foreign languages, including your mother-tongue. As I learned from the great American poet Robert Kelly, “language is already a second language.”
Is there a way to cut through all this babble, this language-babble, to set the road straight? My father, the surgeon from Ettelbruck, wielded a jocular but helpful scalpel that day he was pondering the puzzling fact that his son had decided to write in English, and he finally cut through the baloney, saying: “Well, it’s not a problem at all really — once you realize that English is just a late dialectical variant of Luxemburgish.”
All writing, all poetry is a trek toward language, our other, the station, the staying in our passage through time. I am a space traveler trying to write myself into an oasis corner, an amen corner, as I circumambulate the polis of my life span, stopping here and there. Yet even this station, this mawqif, this poasis — as I call it with a made-up word or name in the title of one book — is never a given but always a wrestling so as to expel the slag, burn the dead wood, and rearrange the stones in the ruins of the old camp. To start a new fire to lighten the next steps.
[N.B. The complete talk was delivered on June 1, 2021 at The Centre National de Littérature in Mersch, Luxembourg under the auspices of the Ministère de la Culture and in the presence of Minister of Culture and of Justice, Mrs. Sam Tanson. It had been pushed back from spring of 2020 because of COVID travel restrictions.
First published as #07 in the “Prix Batty Weber Literary Talks” series by the Centre national de littérature in Mersch, Luxembourg.]
Poems and poetics