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  • Ontario Creates
  • Ontario Arts Council
  • Canada Council for the Arts

Life Poem

From Brick 111

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

disembodied mind.

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.                                                            

                                 But acrobat

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.

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