In memoriam Stan Dragland, 1942–2022
Life is language, I wanted to say. Only problem:
it isn’t. Not language exactly, not language
as such. Not a particular language either, though
it has a lot to say—in fact, no end of things
to say—and it can listen through the cracks, as every
language needs to do.
Is it something like a language? A metaphor
for language? Or is language a metaphor for it?
Of course, of course. But more like many languages
than one. Like what we call a language
family, which is to say, a swarm—a swarm
in time, in which the living keep on dancing
with the dead because the dead keep flying,
close beside the not-yet-born.
If it were one—the one and only living language—
life wouldn’t be alive, or not for long. But swarms
are acrobats in time. They grow, shrink, dodge, feint,
scatter, and reform. They have the ears and wings
to do so. Ears enough to constitute a halfway
Life heard us coming and will be here watching closely,
hungry, wary, wounded, wordless, like the snakes
of Fukushima and the lynxes of Chernobyl,
when we go—but will not speak of us or curse us
or have any name to give us when we’re gone.
Life has been married to language so long that you
might think the two could finish or begin each other’s
somersaults and sentences. They don’t. It only seems
as if they do. Why? Life is Being discovering
speech. Which is to say Being discovering being.
Is language Being discovering life? It might
be so. Which does not mean that speech
and being are the same.
Language is a sign of life, like swimming, and a form
of life, like eels—but it’s not a way of living.
It’s also not the life that anything lives—
not even ideas. Your life is not a language,
and your language isn’t life. Yet languages
of some kind—nucleic and behavioural,
for instance—are everywhere you listen, look, or rest
your empty hand among the living.
Unspokenness is not life either, but it too
can be a sign of life—just not where there’s no hope
of being spoken. Your speechlessness might mean you’ve
dodged or leapfrogged death and come, in the desert of words
or the sea of language, to an island
or oasis of not speaking.
The sun’s chance in the great celestial darkness
is the snowball’s chance in hell. But there it is.
And there, impossibly far off and getting farther,
are the hundred billion galaxies of others,
younger and older, larger and smaller.
Not forever, no, but yes, for the entire
past and future, and for now.
That sun—just one of many, but the only one
there is that is the sun—rains days and nights
on spitted rock and shattered water. Underneath
those fists and hammers, grammars sprout. They crawl
like moss across a lexicon of elements. Not
the celibate elements, no. Not radium,
plutonium, or helium, or neon, and not
platinum or gold. The speech palette
and dictionary of life and life-in-waiting
consists of six or ten essential syllables
and twenty-odd occasional inflections.
Some of what-is, that is, is the engine, and some
of what-is is along for the ride.
It’s said those elements are lifeless. Yet they speak,
and they are spoken. They have, it’s said, a lexicon
and grammar all their own, spun and woven
of electrons, protons, neutrons, which are spun
of something more invisible yet. And is that
everyone’s and everything’s first language? Every
language’s first language? Many languages,
like this one, are intangible. Their phonemes
and their morphemes may be slow—slow as bristlecones, slow
as sequoias—but aren’t they still as weightless
as the particles of light?
The sun, in any case, rains down. Atoms bond where they
can bond, and grammars sprout where they can sprout.
Acids, sugars, proteins, fats, and other
phrases, clauses, sentences congeal and then repeat,
repeat. They say what they can say—and sometimes
something more than that. Dancing knee to knee
and toe to toe with others, they carve shapes in space
and time. The shapes are stories. With their borrowed mouths,
the stories drink and feed and lick their wounds and do
their best to reproduce.
And so a language not yet spoken, not yet written,
not yet thought, is caught, or not, between
the carbon and the hydrogen, the phosphorus
and sulphur and the rest of the short list
of what we are and maybe everybody is. And there
it learns, or not, to write, to sing, to talk.
In time, the ones who carry it and feed it start,
or not, to hear what’s sung, what’s said, to read
what’s never more than partly written,
and to talk to what they hear, to say
Yes and, Yes but, and No, and more than that.
And more than that.
or not, when you have drowned out, hollowed out,
and starved out every language you could find, your own
included, life and death are left with nothing more
to say to you—and no choice but to say it.
Softly at first, in no language at all.
So softly and so plainly and so clearly you
might almost try at first to say it could not,
could not possibly, be you that they are
talking and not talking to.