blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
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Poetry as a Second Language

At first—but when was it exactly?—writing was a way to conquer my second language, to make up for the frequent public humiliations. Once, my high school English teacher read sections from my essay on Macbeth to illustrate poor usage of the thesaurus. Although he didn’t mention my name, having to laugh at the examples along with the class—my hours of jumping from word to word in that red book—isn’t easy to forget. I’d practice pronouncing words like “literally” and “parallel” on the bus and the train while commuting to school, because the difference between an r and an l, to a Japanese ear and tongue, is sliding-screen thin, diaphanous. I still dislike giving directions, because prepositions hardly ever translate. Why, for example, does one turn on a certain street before one is on it? And this confusion, which-preposition-to-use-when, is one way of being lost.

Lostness is a little like homelessness. Lostness, because I write poems when away from Tokyo, the home of my body’s rhythms: waking, sleeping, speaking, and remembering. The separation often drives me to write about Japan, finding metaphors in kanji characters, dissecting them into smaller parts. One could call it “negotiation of displacement” or, more unpretentiously, “homesickness.” In truth, however, I don’t quite belong there either. Because I attended an international school and did not go through the Japanese education system, there are countless characters I cannot read (hence classical literature becomes a nightmare without explanatory notes), and there are times when English words better express feelings and thoughts concisely. I’m stuck in limbo. Neither this nor that. Twilight. Enigmatic. On the edge of two borders. Intersection of two circles. From there I speak—in English, about Japan.

Does lostness imply having belonged someplace previously? If so, where was that? If not, then what does one do—if he admits to it—with his yearning to be found? And what—not where—is home? Is my home in Tokyo a metaphor for a larger home? And if I’m not there, does that mean I’m uprooted like the potted plants in my mother’s garden, portable and surviving, but disconnected and unable to spread my roots and learn the soil’s seasons? In this way poetry is a map the homeless treasures, giving directions to himself, improvising routes and shortcuts, highlighting the path that leads home, with little foresight and no one to guide him.

The discovery a poet utters is more often small than grand, a minor epiphany, but worthwhile precisely because of its humility, and this distinction feels like the difference between a and the. ESL students (including myself) struggle with articles for a long time, even after acing TOEFL. Where and when to put them? And the is so disobedient unless one puts his tongue-tip on his upper, front teeth. Because I am always fearful of mistakes but need to vocalize in order to communicate, poetry is like a second language: one must learn it. It presupposes thought, yet requires the appearance of spontaneity. The poet tries each word as if for the first time, letting it levitate in air for the short duration of its syllables, listening for the music of meaning.  end