Babel

One useful lesson of the tale of Babel
Is that no language spoken today can boast
Of being the language Adam employed in Eden
When naming the animals as they passed
In a peaceable line before him.
One less reason for any nation to claim
Priority over all the others.

Too bad the tale also suggests that the many
Languages now available weren’t intended
To delight us with their variety, just to disrupt
Work on the tower that men were raising
Floor by floor to the gates of heaven.

No mention is made in the story
Of how the exhausted soil of a hard-used language
Can be fertilized by imports from overseas,
Borrowings we needn’t return
Like shampoo and yoghurt, paradise and pajamas.
No mention of how delighted we feel
When others borrow from us, without asking,
The likes of rubbernecking, roustabout, and raccoon.

The wish to learn how borrowed words are pronounced
By native speakers has prompted many
To learn a language, to savor the sound
Of cumin, coriander, and cardamom
As they might be chanted in a poem on local spices
Or cried in an open market in Isfahan.

If the truth has been broken up among many languages,
Each word may contribute its own rare gift:
The word for silence, for instance, on a South-Sea archipelago
That denotes the quiet that allows you to hear
The waves lapping against a slip on a balmy evening.

And a word from a distant mainland for the silence
That falls in a garden when the leaves stop rustling
And the birds stop chirping, as if preparing
For something they haven’t heard before.

Carl Dennis

Carl Dennis won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for his book, Practical Gods. "Babel" will appear in his thirteenth book of poems, Night School, to be published by Penguin in April.

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  • Babel - September 29, 2017

Author: Carl Dennis

Carl Dennis won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for his book, Practical Gods. "Babel" will appear in his thirteenth book of poems, Night School, to be published by Penguin in April.