unique mother tongue

(The following is a piece I’ve written for Unique Mother Tongue, a project for poets organised by the wonderful Chinese poet Yang Lian. It may or may not appear in this form on the UMT website (see ‘links’) but here it is in any case. This blog is not intended to proceed in a linear fashion, either through time or through topics. Anyone who visited my previous website will recognise that I seem to be unable to proceed as the crow flies.)

When I was in Xinjiang recently (the westernmost province of China), I felt on the receiving end of a continuous series of culture shocks. Not only was I in China, a vast, complex country I am almost completely unfamiliar with, I was in a region of China which is hardly Chinese – most of the population in the area around the city of Kashgar are Uigur, a Turkic, Muslim people. Further, the ancient resonances of travelling along the Silk Road were clashing with another, more recent, sphere of reference, in that I found myself being bounced down the Karakoram Highway – something my contemporary, the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, had written about almost twenty years before.

Add to this the fact that I was in the company of very disparate group of writers including Chinese poets and journalists, European translators, American writers and academics and an Iranian poet. Add to this that we were in an extraordinary landscape of gaunt mountains streaked with several different shades of mineral deposit (seven colour mountains, as they’re known), high shallow lakes perfectly reflecting further, impossibly high, snow-covered peaks; and that I had, in abrupt succession, ridden a camel round Lake Karakul, eaten yak or possibly dzo (a demi-yak, crossed with a cow), and danced with a number of beautiful women – and that the yak and the women were encountered inside a giant banqueting yurt – and you could say I was experiencing bamboozlement – especially as most of this was taking place around three to four thousand metres above sea level, where the air is rare enough to make dancing a pleasurable chore.

Then, while I merrily sang what I could remember of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ for the considerable amusement of my hosts, I and the poets Yang Lian and Zhai Yongming were bussed up a valley that opened out and out, the scored orange and russet hills giving way to vertical walls of cliff in which great openings marked mines, while the valley floor was dotted with mud brick communities harvesting corn and drying it in ochre heaps on their flat roofs. The road was bumpy to the point of disintegrating into the accompanying river, and the skull-capped men and black-scarfed women stared at our sturdy Japanese minibus as though it couldn’t really be there.

Eventually we arrived at the head of the valley where, through a girdle of pines and what appeared to be a welcoming party of magpies, we could see a great throne of peaks sitting draped in snow, and a narrow path meandering towards it. Walking was difficult at this height: you had to pace yourself and pace conversation too, so you would exchange a couple of words with someone, who would either fall back or stride on while one of you regained your breath, and another walker or group of walkers hoved into view.

I discovered from Yongming that the churring magpies are always seen as lucky birds in China (xi que means ‘happy bird’), and began to realise that, as we climbed into the firs, we seemed to be leaving all previous landscapes behind. This was oddly Alpine, vaguely familiar, like a gigantic version of a Highland glen: it felt like a number of places were combining or co-existing in this remote valley. Then, after a flight of particularly exhausting steps up to a blind summit, I saw the glacier.

I had been imagining something vast and transparent – this was small, about the size of a motorway, though as high as a little hill, and uniformly so for the hundreds of meters it was in view, seeming to extrude from between two slopes higher up the mountainside. And it was black, a dirty black, boulder-strewn, hard to differentiate from the surrounding earth except at its edges, where the ice was apparent, greying and melting away from great rips and hollows like a coal sorbet. You could hear it, an occasional creaking sound as of something old, now and then the displacement of some pebbles from its side or the mountainside it was scouring. And you could walk on it, which Yang Lian and I promptly did.

It was while we were threading our way between the boulders on its back, picking up the flat, fried egg-coloured stones it had been carrying for kilometres, that something occurred to me. I’d been holding my phone like a dope to one of the cavities that our guide threw stones down, trying to catch the ‘voice’ of the glacier over those of all our excited companions, when it finally dawned on me that I really was standing on the mountains’ tongue. The glacier was exactly like the big black panting tongue of this range, and the landscape itself was a compelling amalgam of memory and the unfamiliar, that which was emphatically present and that which was only just inaccessible, in the same way as the ‘voice’ refused to be caught on my phone’s recorder, or was drowned out by people yelling at us to come back to the bus.

This peculiar sensation, what I could only describe as a nostalgia for something I was actually experiencing for the first time, made me think of the concept Yang Lian, myself and others had been exploring since our previous collaboration, Sailors Home: that poetry is our collective and unique mother tongue. Here we were, our shared vocation having led us to this spot, standing on the back of the glacier as if on the back of an extremely slow-moving whale, listening to what it had to say exactly as we listened through each other’s language, through English, Chinese, Farsi, French, German, for some universal note. It seemed to me the glacier was indeed that unique mother tongue, and that the first word it spoke was this peculiar sense of immanence, that the word, as best as I could catch it, was ‘nostalgia’.

I’ve been talking to the composer Naomi Pinnock since March about the idea of writing a piece based on the various terms different languages have for this concept. Nostalgia is from two Greek words: nostos meaning ‘return’, and algos meaning ‘pain’. The Odyssey is just one of a series of epics describing the Nostoi – the return of the Greek heroes after Troy. Nostalgia begins in English as a disease of soldiers – a way of describing the combination of trauma and culture shock experienced by a soldier in the Empire’s wars, dragged from his close community to a part of the world he knows nothing about, and forced to experience the most extreme of emotions in that alien-seeming place. Wards were full of people overwhelmed by a need not just to be anywhere but the battlefield, but the specific need to be at home.

Sparked by a paragraph from Milan Kundera where he lists a series of words different cultures have for nostalgia, a set of international near-synonyms, we realised this was an extremely paradoxical term. Each culture assumed it had a unique relationship with yearning, whether for past or for place; every culture nonetheless possessed just such a term. The idea of nostalgia felt self-contradictory: on one level it appeared to lack emotional maturity, on another it stood for a significant marker of maturity: the need to apprehend one’s own culture. Nostalgia appeared to be the most fundamental emotion not just of societies gripped by crisis – industrial change or diaspora – but also of contemporary culture, kidults yearning for the security of childhoods commemorated by signifiers from TV, cinema, toys, the generations of nostalgia growing shorter and shorter, measured in lustrums rather than decades.

I thought about how frequently a poem gestures towards all such attempts at apprehension, whether the target is a relationship, a community, or a language. Poems reflect our hope of shared understandings, those moments where a look, a touch or a single word is able to sum up and convey the burden of communication; more than that, they celebrate our faith not only that communication is possible, but that it has already taken place, that it will be possible, again and again.

I thought about how I had been listening to poets recite in languages I don’t understand – Emran Salahi’s  free and melodious Farsi, the propulsive rhythms of the Manaschi, the oral poets of the Kirghiz – how I listened for the form of their poems, the rhythms, the rhymes, the tone, even when I could understand nothing. I remembered feeling the shapes of Mikhail Aizenberg’s tight sardonic splinters of poetry when he read in the Mayakovsky Museum eight years ago, despite not understanding a word of Russian. I remember impatiently piggy-backing on his contained, undemonstrative voice, listening for the rhythms of his predecessors.

It seemed to me that it is the poem’s job to convey such shared understandings and embody the supposedly incommunicable, not just in any individual language, but in that cradle of language and form that makes up poetry in every language. That the peculiar sensation we experience when listening to a poem do its proper work is a type of nostalgia, but a nostalgia for that redeemed whole which the poem is in the act of creating, that the poem itself is embodying. This sensation, this realisation, is the unique mother tongue.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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