Poetry, art, and multilingualism

Earlier this summer, I met up with my friend Gregory Laynor at the corner of 14th and Union in Seattle. We walked down to the Frye Art Museum to see the show Your Feast Has Ended, which featured the work of Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, Nicholas Galanin, and Nep Sidhu. The show had been getting a lot of interesting reviews, and the posters advertizing it, which we were seeing all around town, featured a taxidermied wolf. In the picture the wolf looked distressed: its back half was flattened, splayed out as a rug. But its front half was stretching forward and flexing its paws. It looked like it was trying to get up.

We were looking forward to seeing that wolf.

When we arrived at the Frye (which is free!), one of the first pieces in the show was Galanin's I Dreamt, an odd, sort of T-shaped piece, sitting close to the wall. Made from an antique wooden Tlingit storage box, an antenna, and a radio transmitter, it was playing a recording of a Tlingit language lesson, apparently offered by Galanin's brother. This lesson was played at a low volume in the gallery, and was also broadcast over the neighborhood on 93.7 FM. While some of the other pieces in the show included music and other auditory elements that drowned out the quiet repetition of words in Tlingit and their equivalents in English, I Dreamt stuck in my mind. 

Galanin's work resonates with a number of questions I see as central to contemporary poetry, and to contemporary multilingual poetry in particular. By taking a language that was once banned and broadcasting it as a public lesson, by creating a broad public engagement with something that is typically imagined as temporally and geographically remote, and by using language-learning to signify reclamation of knowledge and resistance to colonial control, Galanin's work reminds us of the limitations of the colonial enterprise. Although the materials in I Dreamt seem somewhat nostalgic, there's a wager in this piece: maybe more people can learn to speak Tlingit. In fact, more people are learning to speak languages that were formerly suppressed through assimilationist cultures and policies. What kinds of technologies might enable this language-learning? What kinds of futures does this language-learning open up? 

This brings me back to the wolf. As we walked through the gallery and took in the show, we must have circled back to it seven or eight times. Its title, we learned, is InertGalanin describes this partly as commentary on the way that "mainstream society often looks at Indigenous or Native American art through a romantic lens, not allowing a culture, like my Tlingit community, room for sovereign growth." The back half of the sculpture "is contained," he says, "a captured trophy or rug to bring into the home, while the front continues to move. It is sad, and the struggle is evident." Standing in front of the wolf, the struggle was evident. For me, this was the most affecting piece in the show.

The contradictory impulses of the front and back halves of the wolf, moving or not moving in two different ways, made me think of the effects of different languages moving and pulling against each other in multilingual poetry. These languages often present contradictory or incommensurable information. The energy generated by their rough juxtaposition doesn't provide a straightforward, didactic message, it leaves us in conflict. To use Galanin's phrase, the struggle is evident. In my Commentaries over the next few months, I'll be talking about contemporary multilingual poetry and poetics. I'm interested in the accounts of history and of the present presented in these poems. What futures do these texts imagine? Where are we going?

To restate a concern from William Carlos Williams, is there anyone to drive the car?