Ghazal for the History of English
in memoriam Agha Shahid Ali
Dulse-dwellers and crannog-builders, hunched beneath the legions’
aqueductal laws, you sweated the first pangs of English.
At the margins of “Angle-land,” your stick letters walled off
tribes of Celts. Their scattered prison: your English.
O Bede, you plotted long-haired stars like musical notes,
and in Latin exalted the martyrs of the English.
“Portents appeared over Northumbria . . . immense dragons
whirling. . . when at Lindisfarne, Norsemen vanquished the English.”
Alfred, you coaxed historia to speak in your people’s tongue
and ordered every noble in the land to read English.
By now, “husband” and “wife” have married. Will they “rear” or “raise”
their child? Sleeping beneath “hides” and “skins,” they’re Norse and English.
“A bloody star shot across the sky, and King Harold fell.
Earl William wrought castles through the land to vex us English.”
“Then followed a murrain of cattle, then were cheeses dear.
We said Christ slept, and his saints did not fathom our English.”
“We larder their ‘venison’ and ‘beef’ with our ‘deer’ and ‘cow.’
From their barrage of commands, we’ll beget a strange English.”
Farewell, French. Hereafter, let Latin remain the language
of legal record, but the speech of courts shall be English.
The pilgrims tell their own tales, even the Prioress,
whose Stratford-on-Bowe “Frenssh” sounds less like “Parys” than English.
Greek’s our tongue’s physician, Latin’s an inkhorn pedant, French
a bedecked coquette. And the bastard of them all—English.
Henry Hudson watches the Pequot spear terrapin, dredge
quahogs. Their tall cornstalks he calls “Turkish wheat” in English.
They talk Sabir, you Wolof, manacled in flooded holds.
“Then machetes drown out the sugarboss brayin’ English.”
Dr. Johnson, you let in “jobbernowl” and “sonata,”
but “bourgeois” and “champagne” you deemed too French to be English.
Because of you, Noah Webster, we spell “musick” music.
And “toboggan,” “catalpa,” and “skunk” entered our English.
British teachers notched the tally-sticks of Irish pupils.
Convict ships sailing to Van Diemen’s Land spread cockney English.
“The Book, it talk: it say Jew and Greek, slave and free, it say,
Pharaoh, let my people go. It say all that in English.”
From Delhi to Toronto, Johannesburg to Canberra,
Boston to Oahu, the sun didn’t set on English.
To rally Kashmiris, Tamils, Hindus, and Bengalis,
Mr. Gandhi, you peacefully deployed the King’s English.
“Kid, here’s what Borscht Belt is: a little schlock, some standup shtick,
and enough chutzpah to belt out your ballads in English.”
Shooby dooby doo, biddle dee boop, biddle dee bop bop,
—Watch me, Daddy!—bebop, shiddle dee bop bop in English.
In Coloured schools, they mandated Afrikaans textbooks—
linguistic apartheid—to barricade you from English.
“Aquí at the Nuyorican we spike rhymes with piña
y limón. This ain’t ‘inglés only,’ gringo. It’s Spanglish.”
In pace requiescat. Amen. Shantih shantih shantih.
Heed the fates of Latin and Sanskrit, O my brash English.
This language is a murderer disguised as Mickey Mouse.
iPods and Google—two more Trojan horses of English.
Karen Kovacik, your odd moniker means “pure blacksmith.”
In the forge of languages, pound these lines into English.
after Yin Xiuzhen
My city fits in a suitcase,
all steeples and spires,
White River zipped up for the night.
When I open my city, I hear the slow jazz
of a dozen waiting rooms.
Inside, there’s high humidity.
My staid navy swimsuit
dreams of chlorine.
Tiny war memorials spin
through the air like chesspieces.
You never know what
will fly out of my suitcase.
It has its own airport,
planes, and terrorists.
It bulges like a B-movie bomb.
In Paris, my city smelled
like French fries and Big Macs.
In Beijing, it swelled
to panda size. In Venice,
the gondolier refused it.
Sometimes I open the case in public
like an aunt on a park bench,
folding up the lawns in cute little squares,
slipping the stripmalls and parking lots
into side pockets.
My city can never be too neat.
You won’t find graffiti in my suitcase.
But you’ll see racecars lapping each other
and peace pipes unsmoked
for a hundred years.
More than once, I schemed
to ditch my city,
to forget it in the trunk of a cab
or watch it orbit for half an hour
on some airport’s black belt.
Instead I cling to its leash.
Heel, I yell. Stand! Stay!
At home, I hoist my city
onto the bed to see
what earthquakes have wrought.
Hooray! The city still stands,
though its one-way streets heave
this way and that. My hands
tunnel through underwear
like the subway cars my city never had.
At night, when sewer grates weigh down
my lids like tin coins, I plumb the hollows
where only bone resides. Bone
that speaks Miami or Delaware.
Bone among beech pillars in the rain.