English is a language full of my own guilt. I’ve long felt that my lack of fluency in Arabic severs many of the ties between my father’s homeland and I. The ancestors of my mother’s family were kidnapped and enslaved centuries ago, so I often grapple with the untethered feeling of not being able to name my mother’s tongue.
The truth is, English is a haunted tongue - a violent language with histories of blood on its hands. M. NourbeSe Philip, a Canadian poet born in Tobago, recognizes this truth and has made it a pillar of her poetic practice. As Evie Shockley states in her forward to Philip’s She Tries Her Tonge, Her Silence Softly Breaks, Philip “breaks English to fit her mouth”.
Before reading She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, I had never witnessed a poet do what Philip does with language. The first poetic sequence examines the emotional subtext of a Greek myth. Philip’s choices in diction and grammar really don’t make any type of sense in the context of the English language, despite being written in English words. The second piece, “Adoption Bureau”, is particularly jarring in its ability to convey situational details (“the smelllike of I and she/the perhaps blood lost”) and complex emotions (“...on mine/her skin of lime casts a glow/of green, around my head an indigo/of halo - tell me, do/I smell like her?”) all while barely adhering to the rules English narratives are “supposed” to follow - even conventional definitions and parts of speech.
The poem was culture shock. I found myself able to follow the myth, segments of which were included as epigraphs in “conventional” English, and the alternative narratives woven deftly into it. What was this wild language I found myself immersed in? I wasn’t sure that it could be called English, but I could read all of the words. I could understand the depth of what Philip was telling me in the story, even though at surface level none of the lines “made sense”. I truly admire this approach to English poetry as a diasporic writer and have attempted to take on this necessary task of decolonizing my poems. Two of poems I chose for Lineage of Mirrors create their own language out of English words.
In “tries the grammar of the arabic to fit the language the english”, I wrote a letter to my grandmother, who speaks no English, using English words arranged using the logic of Arabic grammar. With this form, which I’m calling a “Colonial Fit,” I wanted to convey the incompatibilty of colonizing/colonized languages, the way they break when they are forced to bridge and coexist in a single body.“smoke break” was a study in desecration, in ruining the sterile structure of language so that it looked more like my trauma. It’s a frantic jumble of flashbacks and thoughts, crashing into each other, spaced inconsistently, disobedient of linear time. It is constantly mutating, creating new monsters. I created a language that you have to read again and again and again before you can fully understand it, because that is what I had to do with the experience before I could begin to heal from it. “smoke break” is heavily influenced by Philip’s book Zong! in addition to the linguistics of She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. Zong! is an exploration of ancestral trauma. It tells the (hi)story of 150 Africans who were murdered en route to the U.S. so that the slave ship’s owners could collect insurance money. The entire book is wrought with white space that made the already haunting text that much more unsettling. When I lineated “smoke break”, I did not follow conscious logic or formula. I pressed the space bar until the linesresonated with the shape of my memories.
Both of these poems decimate what it means to write conventionally. They take up the task of examining each word, destroying it, and growing it again from the fertile soil of my own narrative. My narrative is queer, trans, Arab, Black, survivor of sexual assaults and toxic masculinity. It is messy, uncertain, and uncontrollable. So is the work that springs from it.
One might question how “grandmothers” fits into this suite. I think of it more as an interlude. All of these traumas - my diaspora, my body - start with my ancestors, who I refer to collectively as “grandmothers”. I love being black/brown, queer, and beautiful, but often I grapple with the insecurity that comes with these colliding identifiers. Would my grandmothers be happy with the parts of me that I refuse to suffocate? I want to say yes, but I know it’s so much more complicated than that. I choose to honor that complexity as a part of my family tree (for better or for worse) instead of glossing over it.
Philip has shown diasporic writers that our ancestry, with all its rich wisdom, belongs to us - and the knowledge we’ve gained since colonization belongs to us, too. May we learn to use all these things critically.