I teach on Tuesday and Thursday nights till 9:30 (and tonight, the students got so involved in their research projects, they actually lost track of the time--wonder of wonders!). It's a good day that ends with my having to tell students, "Well I'm not sleeping in the library tonight"; then, at home, being able to get the daily antibiotic pill down my sick cat's gullet before she's even noticed... It's a good night when living alone feels not merely ordinary, or lonesome, but like a playground where I can go on the swing set OR the slides, as often as I like.
Tonight I reveal my obsession with so-called minor languages: half-sunk-in-forgetfulness and half-reclaimed, languages that once occupied bodies and souls, kingdoms as well as the mouths of their speakers. --But I'm not going to begin with Yiddish immigrant poets whose dreams fueled my book, Recovering 'Yiddishland.' Instead (I promise) I'll end with them, when we get to Shabbes and I'm writing my last post here. Tonight--I'm thinking about Ireland; street signs and restaurant menus in Gaelic; and a book called Invoking Ireland: Ailiu Iath N-hErend (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2005) that I discovered when I was in Sligo (in Yeats country) two years ago. The author: John Moriarty, who (I just found out, online) died of cancer, just a few months after I stumbled upon his book.
First: the Ireland that I would invoke for you: which is a peculiar one, because the viewpoint is that of a Yidishe meydl, a Jewish "girl," whose grandparents lived in a language that was never permitted transmission into her--ears, mind, care. Assimilation, upward mobility (oh, and the destruction of East European Jewry, and the rise of Hebrew, fostered by Israel)--that and probably much more saw to it that Yiddish, her language, would falter and be largely "forgotten." So, on a university trip, with a non-Jewish colleague, and (of course: this is Kentucky!) ten non-Jewish students, she arrives in a Catholic country; a very Catholic country.
--She arrives in a Celtic country.
--She finds herself in a land where "holy wells" layer over "thin places," where chapel ruins are populated by fairies, and where Gaelic ("Irish") is the living repository of an indigenous people's past. In the Republic of Ireland, Gaelic is considered the equal of English and much effort is being dedicated to its restoration; it's a required language in the schools, and yes, public signage is bilingual and there are Gaelic TV shows as well as English. And in the Ghaeltacht, the West of Ireland, Gaelic has never gone out of use (despite English edicts and years of cultural suppression).
--And this Jewish-American/Yidishe meydl wonders again: what happened to my language, the language of school children and forests and superstitions (and New York City fire escapes, newspapers, tar beach, and crowded cafes?).
Which brings me to: John Moriarty's amazing, radical book, in which Ireland is revealed to be a land
where the ancients--megalithic, Celtic, Catholic--are accessible, in language. He writes of being able to "read' the Irish landscape for its magical properties, for the time of the "birdreign" of Celtic kings: a time of intimate connection between people and land, when people were the land's own thoughts (imagine that!). Moriarty writes: "The geography of my mind is the geography of the world I walk in. In the geography of my mind and therefore also in the geography of the world I walk in are Sidh ar Feimhim, Linn Feic, da Chich na Morrigna and Connla's Well [all physical features of the land that are linked to Celtic mythology]... [B]eing human is a habit. It can be broken" (39).
The sounds of Gaelic: soft, blurred, but sometimes rough, grating. (I haven't heard it enough, and I can't figure out how to read it! And I would love to read it... ) The way Cromwell's marauders and Queen Maeve get figured into the same history, delivered by an impish curator at the Sligo Abbey. The myth and history layered into the folk's-language: which Moriarty translates, transfigures into English. --For if you break the "habit" of being human, what might you become? "At a sleeping depth of me that I'm not aware of, maybe I am a salmon in Linn Feic, and maybe I swim upstream everynight, all the way up into the Otherworld, all the way up into Nectan's Well. At that depth of myself, maybe the shadows of the Otherworld hazel are always upon me..." (44). (And Yeats whispers: "I went into the hazel-wood/ Because a fire was in my head... " --if I am remembering correctly.)
For some reason, I start to hear the words of a Yiddish folksong--
"Vos ken vaksn, vaksn on regn?
Vos ken brenen un nisht oyfhern?
Vos ken benken, veynen on trern?"
What can grow, grown without rain?
What can burn without ever stopping?
Whan can pine and weep without tears?"
These words are so faint... but there's something I learned in Ireland, and that I learned in a whole different way through John Moriarty's work, that attunes me to them.
And now it's late indeed, and I've written too much, and I hope I haven't lost you... So: "oicha mhaith" (which my Irish phrase book informs me is pronounced eeha wah; and zise khaloymes, sweet dreams, and a gute nakht.