Pushcart XLII: Pui Ying Wong, “Language Lesson for One” (poem) from Constellations #6

If I knew French
I would speak its music,
its melancholy.
If I knew French
I would ask questions
like how much, where is,
be comfortable with words
like money, lost.

I’ve been trying to figure out what gives this poem its tone. From the very first stanza, I had a particular flavor of sad; melancholy, ok, but more specific than that. Is it just that word, melancholy, in there? I don’t think so. I tried substituting other words – tonality, lyricism, variety, joy – and arrived at the same place. Of course, it’s impossible to unring the bell, so maybe once I had it in my head, that was it.

But I think it’s more than the suggestion of that one word. It’s also the bareness of the poem, the short lines, simple words. I don’t doubt the power of subtle associations – words like comfortable and lost coming up, the solitariness implied by the title itself – but I think there’s something about the sounds of the words. I’m reminnded of the “absolute rhythm” that came up a few poems ago, of Pound’s insistence on “an absolute rhythm, a rhythm . . . in poetry that corresponds exactly with the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.” This poem just might have such a rhythm. I can’t define it, but I can feel it.

And then I had another association: the French composer Erik Satie, whose minimalist anthem Gymnopaedia #1 shows up on soundtracks all over. As a teenaged piano student of absolutely no talent but much determination, I dismissed Satie as being baby music. What’s this, four or five notes per measure? No accidentals, no key or time signature changes? Let’s go back to Mozart or Chopin, real music! It wasn’t until I matured that I came to appreciate how evocative a simple melody line can be. This poem was meant to be read over Satie, while holding the Pound dissertation.

I wonder if the stanza structure is significant. As I see it, the poem has two halves, with a solo stanza in the middle. The first half, 3 lines times two, then two lines times three describing the acquisition of French, and the verb book the speaker has found, “4000 of them pressed together”. The single two-line stanza, “This afternoon / no one needs it more than I” allows a kind of turn inward, a plan of sorts to find the needed word. In this half, again we have two 3-line stanzas, but only two 2-line stanzas. It’s as if a stanza is missing, making the poem non-symmetrical. A poem about what is absent?

And then at the very end, we find out what emotion the absolute rhythm has been telling us all along:

Like the word for loneliness,
not the one that means
without friends or love
but the kind you find
between horizon and the sea,
or homesickness,
the kind you feel when you are home.

Melancholy. Loss. Rescue. Needs. The Satie-esque absolute rhythm. It all adds up now, to a feeling, a particular kind of missing, for which there is no name.

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