"Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire."--Roland Barthes
"To read a poem is to hear it with our eyes; to hear it is to see it with our ears."--Octavio Paz
The swatting, the circumstances and learning, the outcome--this all sounds very negative, and of course it is. But I've appreciated something in the struggle to understand all this, for which I am thankful. A swat, the threat of a swat, made me start paying attention to language in ways that as a writer I'm glad for. Not as a human being, or as a teacher, but as a writer.
I've come to see how much language of the body there is in my work. This effort of finding and telling the body, unconscious as I've been of so much of it, stems from how I learned the world, how it was given to me. It is reasonable, therefore, to think that this is how I've tried to give it back, whether I knew it or not. I think of my grandmother, for example, and how often she served me with her body as much as with anything else when she put a bowl of albóndigas in front of me for lunch. How much she told me, how much she fed me, how much she saved up for me, all with her body. Our words were not how we spoke. That is not how I understood her, or how I remember her.
I grew up calling my grandmother "Nani," which is the diminutive of nana, a word that itself travels between many languages, and I suspect even between planets. In late elementary school, I had by then a difficult time speaking Spanish, and my grandmother did not speak English. Nonetheless, I found myself at her house at least once a week for lunch. English and Spanish were our languages, our now separate ways of talking, but ours was an absence of words, too. That absence, in this case, made a third, and stronger language. It became a vocabulary of gestures and of eyes.
This was a simple language, but as difficult as any. It is even more difficult when the two speakers know that they are connected, but cannot immediately find where that connection is. This is different from speaking to someone senile, or someone too young. But in this third language of non-words, into which we had been forced, and in this setting of grandmother and grandson, both can speak, and speak well. The whole situation might have seemed to be a problem, but a grandmother and a grandson having lunch together--this is not a problem.
And these moments, these lunches, almost more than in any other manner, this way of talking to each other, and what we said--this is how the two of us were most related. The way we talked to each other best was, finally, very simple and it was in a language and with an alphabet I think anyone will recognize: She would cook, and I would eat.
That's how we talked. It tasted good.
Sitting at her table, she serves
the sopa de arroz to me
instinctively, and I watch her,
the absolute mamá, and eat words
I might have had to say more
out of embarrassment. To speak,
now-foreign words I used to speak,
too, dribble down her mouth as she serves
me albóndigas. No more
than a third are easy to me.
By the stove she does something with words
and looks at me only with her
back. I am full. I tell her
I taste the mint, and watch her speak
smiles at the stove. All my words
make her smile. Nani never serves
herself, she only watches me
with her skin, her hair. I ask for more.
I watch the mama warming more
tortillas for me. I watch her
fingers in the flame for me.
Near her mouth, I see a wrinkle speak
of a man whose body serves
the ants like she serves me, then more words
from more wrinkles about children, words
about this and that, flowing more
easily from these other mouths. Each serves
as a tremendous string around her,
holding her together. They speak
nani was this and that to me
and I wonder just how much of me
will die with her, what were the words
I could have been, was. Her insides speak
through a hundred wrinkles, now, more
than she can bear, steel around her,
shouting, then, What is this thing she serves?
She asks me if I want more.
I own no words to stop her.
Even before I speak, she serves.
(from Whispering to Fool the Wind (Sheep Meadow: New York,
1982). ©1982 by Alberto Ríos)