Tongue: a journey through language

Tongue: a journal of writing and art, online journal of the Pirogue Collective, Issue #1, 2011.

Reading through the new poetry e-journal Tongue, my mind went repeatedly to the exciting avenues the internet is opening up for the interaction of disparate artistic voices and the forming of interesting connections. Part of the reason must be that, as a space, the internet seems to be more democratic, more open to readers than the book, which by comparison seems set in stone. Because it is more susceptible to individual exploration, the internet appears, by virtue of its openness to interaction and fluctuation, also to mirror both subjective experience and what we term “identity”.

As a biannual journal consisting of original poetry and images, together with the use of other media on the website itself, Tongue situates itself firmly in a space of potentiality. This is underscored when the editors state that the journal attempts an “expansive dialogue ... [that] aspires to challenge comfortable gestures and distinctions … embrac[ing] translations, polyphonic exchanges across all conceivable borders”. The first issue is available online and can be viewed as an online magazine or downloaded for free as a pdf.

The possibility of forming new connections through cyberspace, a place where there is a seeming elimination of the usual obstacle of spatial distance, is part of what carries the potential for how we could read on the internet. I experienced this myself when reading the poems in Tongue in tandem with a friend of mine – she in South Korea, me in South Africa. We chatted online, and in the middle of our conversation she noted that it was as if we were feasting on a communal plate of poetry. In this setting, we could talk across the “table”. I could tell her when lines floored me, lines like: “tongues of colours flame in the street of my body” (Ewa Chrusciel, p.74). I think this is the kind of attitude that the editors of Tongue have in mind when they suggest methods of reading the e-journal: “[B]eam it to your tablet, download the collection to your laptop, or print it out to read in the back of a taxi in Cincinnati, in a café in Yangoon, on the ferry out to Gorée past the pirogues’ painted hulls and those oil tankers readying to cross the sea.”

Upon viewing the general layout of the site, one cannot help but be excited by the spirit of creative interaction that it makes possible. This becomes particularly apparent when following Tongue’s twitter account. The tweets led me to some fantastic links: I could, for example, listen to a recording of Anne Carson collaborating with members of Sigur Ros and read a moving article written by Philip Levine, remembering Ruth Stone – echoing in my mind a beautiful essay that Joseph Brodsky wrote in remembrance of Stephen Spender (both essays recounting trips to poetry readings).

But this openness of form extends also to content. What makes up the body of an issue of Tongue? The editors speak of “a space for new kinds of collaboration and hybridity”. This hybridity is an evident characteristic of the journal: The first issue is peopled with voices from diverse cultural milieux. We read the Japanese poet Kiwao Nomura next to Mexican poet Alfonso D’Aquino; we find the “Kaaps” of Adam Small next to the French-Lebanese voice of Venús Khoury-Ghata. It is indeed an “expansive conversation”, as the editors put it, that Tongue aims to make possible.

This conversation extends beyond the interesting juxtapositions of voices. It is also reflected in the wide array of poetic genres and styles in this first issue. The dreamlike reflections on the complexities of relationships in Sally Wen Mao’s “Aubade with Panopticon” sit around the same table as the sensuous incantations of Ewa Chrusciel’s “Mexican Prayers”; the sweepingly ambitious “Coprolite: Tornado: : Turkey Vultures” by Darren Morris, reflecting on questions of death, the past and humanity; and the intimate and fantastical sketches of domestic experiences by Venús Khoury-Ghata.

The editors talk of “honest dialogue and generous confrontation”, characteristics that we also see reflected within the individual histories of many of these poets, as their voices are often the products of many different tongues and cultures. Nathalie Handal is a particularly interesting example in this regard, often incorporating both Arabic and French into her English poems.

In navigating through the journal, I followed the injunction of the editors: “It’s about what you see.” Reading through Tongue, certain voices resonated with me and pushed my hunger to read more – scattering me in all directions in my hyperlink-hopping. In this way the journal can be viewed as a broad cross-section of scattered voices working like a springboard for further exploration on the part of the reader. Three voices continued to echo in my head, and as a result I went on to find out more about these poets, read more of their work, and felt I could come back to the poems in Tongue and read them with new eyes.

The first of these is Nathalie Handal. Looking at her poetry, I found a voice emerging in an honest, stripped language, and though it seems focused – narrowed -- her poetry contains a quality of surprise that gives it an air of the other-worldly, the mysterious. Watch her reading “While Waiting for Death”, or consider the ending of her beautiful poem “Ojala” in Tongue:

There are different varieties of loss—

His is trying
to understand
what God willing means,

or if that is what we say
to erase the fog on our tongue.

I was also intrigued by the work of Venús Khoury-Ghata, a French-Lebanese poet who writes with a voice at once expansive and intimate. Her poetry is infused with an element of the fantastical, the surreal. She seems to loosen language – or language’s already accepted modes of expression – stretching it out in surprising metaphors that meld her sentences together. This loosening is echoed in the formal aspects of her verse: the inconsistent length of line-breaks and lack of punctuation give the effect of lines washing into one another just as her metaphors stitch together the unlikely, as in this beautiful title of one of her poems:

she closed her arms and her shutters to keep the odor of
thyme in her casserole and the odor of bees in our hair

Khoury-Ghata’s poems in Tongue meditate on the domestic experiences of childhood and a mother who is given a mythic presence by the use of the indefinite article. Her cadences are sensuous, predicated on the evocation of a kind of longing, perhaps best executed in contemporary literature by poets such as Anne Michaels and Michael Ondaatje. The following lines serve as a good example:

Those outside said we were soluble in darkness
because a pomegranate tree had stolen our share of sunlight (p.61)

Another poem worth noting is Polish-American poet Ewa Chrusciel’s “Mexican Prayers”, which is the final poem in the collection. Chrusciel brings to life a panoramic view of Mexico, interspersed with meditations on, and prayers to, the Aztecs, whose presence lies within and underneath the land. The poem is punctuated by a ripeness of details strung together into a chant simultaneously playful and profound, as can be seen in this extract, the last section of the poem:


Morenita. mother of mestizi.
products of conquest and rape.
Give us the four petalled jasmine
on your tunic which indigenous knew
as Nabui Ollin, “always in the
movement.” Virgin of the motion,
we search for food among the animals’
stalls. Multiply four petals
into eight.
Oh planet Venus,
into tulip trees
Oh, morning star,
into a sphere, a ring,
a biding circumference
Oh, birth in pregnancy
into breathing
Nahuatl—our dead mother
into inexhaustible apparition
of ruffled grouse
pounding its wings on the log
until the whole forest hears
until the log sparks
into Lumens

In this colourful world you’ll find gaucamaya, jaguars, the blue of jacarandas, gourds, magnolias. It is a chant in essence, one that harks back to the pagan roots of much poetry, reminding me of something W.H. Auden once wrote:

For poetry is magic: born in sin, you
May read it to exorcise the Gentile in you

Looking over the content of Tongue, there are many connections to be found between the individual poetic voices in the first issue. The most explicit tools at the editors’ disposal for emphasising these connections are the use of images, and the inclusion of translations. Regarding the latter, the mere fact that translations imply reworking something from within one cultural milieu into another, suggests an interpretation of one culture through the lens of another. The translator searches for a common means of expression, while simultaneously attempting to utter something outside of the cultural framework of the translated language. In this sense, the reader becomes privy to what is gained and what is lost in the process of this linguistic exchange, through reading the translations next to their originals. Having the privilege of understanding both Afikaans and English, I could see this happening in Mike Dickman’s often very effective translations of Adam Small’s poems.

The editors also make use of images in forging artistic connections in Tongue. Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ photographs interact with the poems in the journal by responding to a particular line in a poem, thereby offering visual interpretations of the poetry. Zhang Xiao’s photographs, captured via a cellphone camera, seem to provide an unmediated glance at the co-habitation of ancient Chinese folk tradition and modern life in Shanxi Province, a collage of ancient pagan custom and modern setting.

In the first of Xiao’s photographs we encounter a Chinese woman from Shanxi Province in traditional dress. The viewer looking at this (perhaps) unfamiliar culture is placed behind the stage, not viewing the performance from the audience, but brought in, given privileged access. At the end of Xiao’s sequence of photographs, we are met again with the same photo, thus viewing the same scenario, but this time from a further distance, as if we are leaving it.

I think the opening photograph is a useful metonym for the way the journal has been organised, and the way we as readers come to it. For there is something unsettling about opening yourself up to be taken on journeys through unfamiliar lands and cultures, this being in part what Tongue does. And it’s this meeting of horizons that immediately turns one’s reading into a kind of adventure.