Ned Maddrell (the last fluent Manx speaker)
The old words would not come back to him easily every time,
Not like the tide hugging the beach by his cottage,
Rather he had to cast his net wide
Just to catch a few sprats.
In his head he knew his island was insignificant
But in his heart he felt that she was the whole world.
Didn’t her shores of sayings contain all things?
His failing eyes would look out over the restless sea,
Enormous and threatening. Still he thought of the pools
And the clear brooks of his neighbourhood. A few words clung
Like a limpet to the rocks of his memory
While others had been washed away by the seawater of the world.
Simple little stony words for the wind
And the sun and the weather,
Rain on the breeze, and that nip in the air this evening.
But like a sea mist over the years of his long life
The old ones with whom he could engage
In that familiar banter in his aunt tongue*
Had passed away. And strangely
He did not whisper his secret in a cave
But into the plastic ear of some whirlpool gadget
And to one of the newcomers, a stranger
Who collected old words like seashells
In which his neighbours saw no value.
*Apparently Ned Maddrell learnt Manx from his aunt.
Fidelia Fielding (the last fluent speaker of the Algonquin Mohegan-Pequot language)
I took a parrot as a substitute friend,
One with remarkably colourful feathers;
The red of the sunset on his chest,
The yellow of egg yolk in a stripe along his wing,
And the edges of his wings the blue of the sky,
And I taught him my favourite words -
‘people’, ‘imbue’, ‘fabulous’,
And my favourite phrases -
‘Helter skelter ‘
‘Poor and proud and living in hope’
‘Good riddance to bad rubbish ‘,
Just to hear them in the air once more.
But all the parrot could do was repeat
And with no ability to communicate.
A bird cannot reason with you,
A bird does not say anything which is worth noting in a journal,
A bird cannot elaborate on a point or digress and go off on a tangent
As the old folk used to do while gossiping;
‘Did you hear what happened to Betty?’
‘No. Betty Mattie Top House’s sister?’
‘No, Betty Between-the-two-Bridges...’
With me burning to know what happened to Betty -
O to have Gran and my great-aunt going off like that now!
I taught the parrot to say -
‘Lily of the valley, lily of the valley,’
No one could tire of hearing ‘lily of the valley.’
But I had no luck getting him to learn poems -
‘Old mother Hubbard went to the cupboard...’
And there was no joy in it.
There was no hiraeth in his voice.
[ Needless to say I don’t know what Fidelia Fielding’s favourite words were in Mohegan-Pequot; I changed everything into Welsh. I don’t know, either, if she took a parrot as a pet. Hiraeth is an untranslatable word meaning something like longing, home sickness, yearning.]
Tevfik Esenc (the last speaker of Ubych)
The personal pronouns, plural,
Are empty rooms,
Blank windows with no panes
Are the idioms.
There is a sanctuary in nouns,
Adjectives are a refuge
In a desert populated
By monoglot Babelists.
Here in the ruins of my language
I erect a fortress of declensions
And a tower of prepositions against my loneliness
And with every brick in the castle of my identity
I conduct a conversation with myself
On a tape, in the absence of better company.
I wander from hall to hall
Through the splendid palace of my grammar
Without meeting a soul.
Armand Lunel (the last speaker of Shuadit)
My father was a Frenchman to the core,
A man of letters and a musician who was proud of his country,
His language and his culture and his understanding
Of other languages; he was a good latinist with
A useful knowledge of Hebrew and Italian,
A smattering of English and a little German.
And he had another language he kept
Locked up in a mahogany corner cupboard
In the parlour, and sometimes he would take it
Out carefully like a valuable old harp
In order to polish it and play it for an hour
Or two. And he would get carried away, enraptured,
And then there would appear before our eyes
A strange foreigner by some mysterious transformation
So that we hardly knew him.
A sort of rustic energy would emanate from him,
Unfamiliar but pleasant,
Uncharacteristic of the formal, polite Frenchman.
His movements changed, his face, his voice.
And then he would put it away once more.
Very rarely was the cupboard opened.
And sad was the sound of the key turning
In the door where so much of my father was locked up.
Translated into English by Mihangel Morgan
Speakers of twenty lost or disappearing languages are brought back to life in the latest volume of poetry from Mihangel Morgan. From European languages such as Livonian, Dalmatian or the Jewish-Occitanian Shadit, to Indo-Portuguese Creole in Asia and to the native languages of Australia and of the Americas from Alaska to Mexico, as well as to reviving tongues such as Cornish and Manx, each of the poems gives voice to the historically attested last known speakers or to those who recorded their speech. Turning the focus from the languages themselves to these re-imagined individuals, his characteristically light touch softening the sharpness of the underlying message, the author creates a series of vivid, quirky portraits, drawing the reader into their lost worlds in a series of warm, accessible poems, full of humour, irony and empathy.
The subjects are no fossils but strong, individual personalities who address the reader directly, each with their own thoughts and memories, joys, despairs or grudges. Each poem becomes a short fiction in its own right, building to a chorus of memorable narrative voices, echoing the rich variety of the languages themselves and the cultures they inhabited. Each is nonetheless tinged with the poet’s own Welsh accent, for each voice is a reminder of his own fragile language.
Mihangel Morgan explores minority languages and the fragility of their existence. Profound ...with flashes of his distinctive playfulness.
Annes Glyn, Gwales.com