Issue 15, The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart

Nation Poetry Day and a poem I've loved for over a decade

Hi friends,

It’s National Poetry Day today and I wanted to share a poem that is very dear to me. I first discovered Jack Gilbert on a LiveJournal (remember when that was a thing?) called I Eat Poetry, around 2007. This poem is about everything, and nothing. But to me it speaks mostly about poetry, and language, and how much we try, often unsuccessfully, to express ourselves using the words we know. I read this poem at a close friend’s wedding, and it was the first one I shared with my partner; it’s fitting that I can’t quite explain why it stays so firmly in my heart, but Jack Gilbert has a tendency to do that. It’s firm, decisive and clean like a knife separating the flesh from the bone. I have never met a Jack Gilbert poem that hasn’t left me gasping and in awe.

So I hope that you will enjoy this offering to mark this occasion, and love it and live with it as I have.

The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart

by Jack Gilbert

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.