first day of autumn
a red dragonfly
through a broken window
the necessary documents
I tire of rearranging
English words are driving me kind of crazy lately. It’s hard for me to do things with them. They just seem to droop when I scatter them on the page, and mumble incomprehensibly, and make depressed faces at me. I thought maybe I needed a different set of words, or two, so I decided to break out the only other two languages I’m capable of writing even lame haiku in: Russian and French. And lo and behold, it was easier. In fact, when I decided to throw in an English haiku (because three haiku are better than two haiku, duh), I found it way harder to write than the Russian and French ones had been. So I was right: It’s not me, it’s the words. Always blame the words.
I remember thinking a lot, the summer before sixth grade, when I was due to start studying a foreign language–French–for the first time, about what this whole process would be like. I didn’t quite understand what it was all about. I was fascinated with codes and ciphers and so initially that was how I thought of French–as a sort of encoded English. I think it was the very first day of French class when the truth suddenly broke over me: This wasn’t anything to do with English, it was a whole other thing. You didn’t just translate the English words one by one. You translated the ideas. And then, if you got really good, you stopped translating and just thought the way French people did. (Not that I’ve ever gotten that good at French.) You could have whole different thoughts in French than in English–not just thoughts that used different words, but different thoughts entirely.
I can’t tell you how unbearably exciting I found this. I mean, I’d always been crazy about English, which to me had naturally previously been synonymous with language, but now to realize that the universe of language was about a jillion times bigger than I’d thought it was–oh my God. How many languages could I learn? Could I learn them immediately?
Sadly it doesn’t work like that, but I did study French and Russian and Latin and Greek and (bits of) Spanish and Italian and German at various points, and I can tell you that it never really gets less exciting to begin to hack your way through the forest of another language’s thoughts. Not to mention all those amazing new sounds! And that exotic, intriguing grammar! It turns your brain inside out for a while. Which is a good thing, in case you weren’t sure.
I don’t spend enough time these days with languages other than English, I don’t think. I’d forgotten, for instance, the particular pleasure of the challenge of making other languages mean what you want them to mean. It takes your mind out of its usual tracks, sets it running on another course altogether. Makes you feel less pessimistic about the possibility of ever again writing something new and exciting. Makes it seem possible to survive autumn–and then, I hope, winter. Зима. Hiver.