What an apt poem to describe my “flings” with foreign languages!
I learned too late: if you want one to cherish
and comfort you, to be there at times
of near-speechlessness, you have to marry it,
perferably early, before you know the future
isn’t yours to give. Marrying later,
when experience has made you wiser,
has perks, but togetherness doesn’t come naturally.
Don’t make my mistake. I’ve had my fun
but ended up with nothing but history.
The first one I experienced out loud
was French, so brief and I so young
that it never got its tongue in my mouth.
Longer was my passion for Latin, bookish
devotion of my teenage years
I once thought I’d spend my life with,
but just as things were getting serious,
along came Chinese, well-read, older,
a painter and a poet in one, and to top this:
my parents liked him. While technically
there had been others, you could call
this one the first one I slept with. Eventually,
though, craving my own identity,
I grew up and left. Both of us wept.
But it wasn’t long before an equally
erotic arrival, Japanese, seduced me.
I loved the unembarrassed pleasure
it took in my neglected femininity,
understanding every hint, evasion,
unfinished sentence… Japanese softened
my voice, style, even ambitions,
but then I ran out of tuition money
and lived austerely with that dullard
English, for years. Oh, there were plenty
of kisses, notably German and Spanish,
and one impassioned summer with Italian;
I also wished for French to return in some lavish
incarnation, like seaside travel or a stranger
with a charming accent, but by now
I knew that when it came to languages,
I was only a flirt or a fling, a girl you date
for fun before you get ready to settle.
And it was all my fault: I couldn’t commit
to just one. I loved to take new vocabularies
into my mouth, to accustom my lips
to the unfamiliar, to hear them accidentally
append a mafan ni or kudasai
to a request for tea or somebody’s hand;
was thrilled to discover I didn’t know why
the modifier was right, only that the one
that felt right was; relished aquiringly
the novel syntax, slang, and idiom
by which the next one lived, and quickly
moving in. It’s true my resume suggests
repeated failure, even superficiality,
but it also delivers me back to the day
in first-year Latin when the teacher
gave the origin of ardent (from ardere,
to burn), and one of the cockier boys yelled out,
“Mrs. Swinson, is your husband ardent?”
Instead of getting mad, she only smiled
a wicked smile of knowing joy and said,
“Of course!” For once, she didn’t go on.
Never having believed that Latin wasn’t dead,
that it was the heart and soul of the Romance,
languages, I caught my breath – no, its breath,
the breath of the written word as its silence
uncoiled into understated passion. Right here,
the cinderblock room, chalk-clouded,
fixing our ablatives, was not so much a teacher
as a woman, alive and doomed as the rest of us.
I converted then, for better or worse, to a lifetime
of beginnings. To the romance of languages.
– Adrienne Su