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WHORLED

Every two weeks, the final living speaker of a world language passes away.

Dear speaker in a future age,
when only a handful of tongues remain
I write this to you as a song,
even as I know it won’t do

Even as I know the words I speak are devastation
I don’t expect you to understand
But I want you to know
there is another language in which I dream

Sometimes I think it’s Korean
Other nights my dead halmoni sewing a broken room
Or my neighbors, a family of Ojibwas,
welding their minivan, cinder blocks teetering

Summer evenings the Hmong girl and boy echo hide
and seek with cousins down the street
Or, this spring, Juan, the Mexican kid next door,
suddenly fourteen, shuffling steps on the corner,

baggies stuffed in his shorts, truant every afternoon
I see him some days through my window, rapping in a back alley
alone in broken English to his iPod
As I’ve seen him since he was ten, youngest of four undocumented

brothers in a boarding room basement I watch
through their window well like an evening TV show whose writers are all
angry drunks
And I wonder what will happen to this slightly dumpy boy’s

heart, out of sync with his tongue—the only two muscles
to move with wings through this world
A shiny black SUV pulls up each Friday,
he climbs in, and I wonder

if I did the right thing three years back by urging my other
neighbor, an old white woman,
not to call the cops on him
Dear speaker in a future age,

when only a handful of lexical bouquets
remain to light these monstrous highways
I write this to you as a human
piece of coal

Origin of orange
Shelved away in some petrified repository
Even as I know it’s too late for you to bind and open me
Even as I know yet another world language will go extinct this week,

forever gone, like Atlantis or Montezuma’s Kingdom: Sumerian,
Gothic, Goguryo, Tasmanian, Scots Gaelic, Mohawk, Iroquois—
like a global hurricane of power and indifference, veering
toward Flemish and Basque, Ainu, Anishinabe and, yes, one

day, if turnabout is fair play, maybe even this language I tease
each night for inconsistencies to house me
I wish I could tattoo its prayer to my palm,
even as I know it’s way too long,

longer than my body, my whole life—this eviscerated
pink and black spilling
through the forest of my sleep
Though yesterday just another passionate Somali debate

awakening me on the 21A
A mismatched couple whispering
over borscht and piroshki at Kramarczuk’s on Hennepin
Once some Greek harangue over the baklava’s freshness at Bill’s Imported

Ah yeah, and the pho tai every Sunday I supersize
whose bony broth brings tears to my eyes in Frogtown
And sometimes I know I’m just another ghost
passing through this century

One of a long line of hungry souls before me
Each a spiritual refugee
Dear father who art in heaven,
who fled your homeland, war-torn, in flames,

I relinquish you from the preterit
Spiritual RNA erased by missionaries and sun-glassed generals
handing out candy, cigarettes, crosses, and European names
Dear Future, I’m writing you from an imperfect

case, in a secret code I’ve had to reinvent myself with
Associations and inflections
Rawest of imaginations
A Disciple of Time in a bulky patois adrift

Migrant with no motor, canvas, or oars
Only these few city stars—faulty neon thresholds
In truth, only two:
Dear Time, how I envy the cleanliness of your hands

Dear Love, why do I need your shadow so deeply inside mine?
I don’t know where any of us is going,
but I’m sure on the other side of the world, there is a language I have never heard
It is beautiful, and in this dying tongue, there are words for Love and God

that resemble Bread and Wing
Or another forest language in which Mother and Knife
equal Drawer and Sing
And Island Wood is somewhere Desert Milk

And Berry, elsewhere is a Door
And if you added up all these dying words, and the people who speak them
All their memories, histories, and lessons
All their gods, jokes, rituals, and recipes

If you learned and stirred them, over and again, until
each utterance became a star, a new footprint, the marrow of a poem—
And yet, what do we say?
Not: I am an incomplete dictionary

But: Go back to where you come from
And yet, in the canopy of listening, what rasps
in these voices is not hate, or even fear,
but grief

These groaning doors and shrinking portals to history
Dear speaker in a future age, when not six-thousand or three-thousand or even a dozen—
But only one origin of the world remains
I write this to you as an elegy

In the beginning, there was a word, but it got lonely
So it prayed for brothers, sisters, neighbors, and yes, love
was born, but along with it came shame, passion, greed, benevolence,
and need

And soon some of the words became flowers and trees
And others animals, and eventually some were human beings:
Queens and Workers,
Kings and

Thieves

 

“Whorled” is reprinted by permission from Whorled (Coffee House Press, 2011). Copyright © 2011 by Ed Bok Lee.

Sueyeun Juliette Lee is a writer, editor, critic, scholar, professor, and rabbit wrangler based in Pittsburgh, PA. She has written four books: Underground National, Mental Commitment Robots, Perfect Villagers and That Gorgeous Feeling. She currently teaches poetry classes at the University of Pittsburgh and is finishing her dissertation on Asian American poetry and visual art. ED BOK LEE was raised in South Korea, North Dakota, and Minnesota. A former bartender, P.E. instructor, journalist, and translator, he studied in the U.S., South Korea, Kazakhstan, and Russia, earning an MFA from Brown University. He is the author of the poetry collection Whorled, which won the 2012 American Book Award and the 2012 Minnesota Book Award in Poetry. His first book, Real Karaoke People, won the 2006 PEN/Open Book Award and the 2006 Asian American Literary Award.

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