Tag Archives: poetry

tlhIngan Hol Quj

Those who know me mostly know my academic “dirty little secret”: that in addition to my chosen profession of archæology, I dabble in linguistics as a hobby and have done since high school. As a consequence of my lifelong interest for the richness of languages, triggered by my early beginnings learning conversational French and fanned by an encounter with written Inuktitut during primary school, among the widely-ranging but largely incoherent body of skills I’ve acquired is the ability to speak or read six languages. Four of these are of relatively substantial utility in the modern world – French, Spanish, Turkish, and my native English. The other two, however, are spoken fluently by a combined total of less than thirty people in the world, and their utility has been primarily in the sheer fascination I have for them. One of these is Ubykh, a North-West Caucasian language whose last fully competent native speaker, the good Tevfik Esenç (whose voice I’m so very familiar with from sound recordings, even though I never had the pleasure of meeting him) died in 1992; I’ll tell you more, one of these days, about my decade-and-a-half of work with that language. The sixth language I speak, and probably the one in which I (disturbingly?) have the greatest competence besides English, is Klingon. Yes, Klingon; the language devised by Dr Marc Okrand for a race of bumpy-headed aliens depicted in the Star Trek series of films. I was in high school – perhaps sixteen years old? – when I first encountered the concept that the construction of one’s own language out of whole cloth was not only possible, but had in fact been successfully achieved: not just once, but many times. The history of constructed languages is a long and rich and enthralling one that I won’t rehash here, but well worth reading about – if you’re interested in more I’ll just point you to Dr Arika Okrent’s wonderful book In the Land of Invented Languages (which, for good measure, includes some segments on the Klingon community, researched first-hand and using interviews with some of my Klingon-speaking friends) – but suffice it to say that I became interested very quickly, and Klingon in particular gave me special intrigue, not least because of the science-fiction milieu in which it’s set. But it’s not only that: as I’ve said before on this very blog, as I came to know the Klingon community I also grew to realise that they’re some of the most wonderful and worthwhile people I know. And like a pack of childhood friends playing in the same sandpit, our shared experience with Klingon gives us a complex, extraordinary, and yet neatly-bounded playground in which to revel. We talk, we sing, we recite poetry (remind me to tell you more about my Klingon version of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner sometime), we tell jokes, we spin stories, we order meals, we party; we do all sorts of things in Klingon. (I’ve been told by other Klingonists I’ve roomed with that, at times, I even speak Klingon in my sleep.)

One of the other things we do in Klingon, particularly at the qep’a’ (the KLI’s annual conference), is play games, which helps us to expose ourselves to Klingon in a fun way that helps to reinforce and strengthen our language skills. Charades and Pictionary are particular favourites; an official Klingon-language version of Monopoly also exists, as does a uniquely Klingon game called Klin Zha, a strategy game not unlike chess but played on a triangular board. (Beating my friend Captain Krankor at Klin Zha in Chicago is still one of my fondest memories of that game. I got lucky, to be fair; I’m not very good at Klin Zha.) Word games like Boggle and Scrabble are popular as well, particularly because they’re games that force one to enhance one’s lexicon and to be able to know which words are legal and which aren’t; since Klingon also relies rather heavily on prefixing and suffixing, one has to know which prefixes can go on which verbs, what order the suffixes have to come in to form a grammatical word, und so wie. For example, the Klingon word juquvHa’moHta’ you have set out to dishonour us comprises one root (quv, be dishonoured), a prefix (ju-, you [do something to] us), and three suffixes (-Ha’ dis-, –moH cause, –ta’ perfective of intent) and all of the suffixes must appear in a specific order: *juquvta’Ha’moH is a grammatically illegal word (and in Scrabble therefore an illegal play). An unofficial Klingon version of Scrabble was developed back in the late 1990s, but although people would often play it at qep’a’, as I had the pleasure of doing at my first qep’a’ in Reno in 2011, the general consensus was that the distribution of the letters was somewhat off (particularly of the qaghwI’, the glottal stop), that the balance of consonants and vowels wasn’t quite right. This letter distribution was based only on a single text – the authoritative edition of Hamlet – and while it was certainly the most substantive source material we had at the time, the fact that it was written almost entirely by a single author and in a single style meant that it was potentially going to skew what kinds of words were used, what types of grammatical constructions were deployed, and consequently, what the distribution of the individual characters was going to be.

“You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”
– Chancellor Gorkon, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

And this brings me to possibly one of the nerdiest things I’ve ever done – beyond having linguistics as a hobby, beyond learning Klingon to the point of conversational fluency (I’m one of only two Australians ever to be certified to Gold-level by the Klingon Language Institute’s certification program), beyond flying around the world to attend qep’a’mey (three times so far). My most significant contribution to Klingondom is the development of the current Scrabble letter distribution. After some discussion amongst the top-flight Klingon Scrabble players, who were largely (though, to be fair, not exclusively) in agreement that the letter distribution we had needed work, I took this task upon myself. I sat down with four major Klingon texts by four separate Gold-certified authors, totalling over half a million raw characters, and from them constructed a statistical algorithm to determine which consonants and which vowels were most common in connected text; I subsequently used the model of the original English Scrabble set, which has 100 tiles scoring a total of 200 points, to distribute the point values for each tile appropriately with further subjective input from Klingon Scrabble aficionados. (For what it’s worth, the highest-scoring possible opening move in this scoring system is tlhorghqang it is willing to be pungent: 134 points.) Once I’d developed the scoring system appropriately so that it balanced out to 200 points exactly, one of the authors who’d contributed a text (the Klingon novelist Qov – Robyn Stewart – whose novel nuq bop bom is the longest extant single text in the language) did some research to locate a business that could use a laser mill to make custom-made timber Klingon Scrabble tiles, and this she had done, ordering several sets so that Klingonists who wished to could own their own set of Klingon tiles for Scrabble. And I have to admit, seeing the completed tiles, with the letters and scores on every tile in both the romanised Klingon transcription and the native pIqaD writing system, gave me a feeling of some pride that I’d been able to contribute in my own small way to this awesome community I have the joy and deep honour to belong to. Here’s a photo of a completed Scrabble game between me and Qov, showing the tiles with my score distribution on them in all their glory.

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Lasciate ogne speranza

In this post, as the Klingons’ Second Rite of Ascension calls for one to say, tIqwIj Sa’angnIS I must show you my heart. I both warn you all and apologise in advance; I’m unloading a lot of stuff here in order to help me push it out of the unhealthy residence it’s been taking up in my head. One of my best friends has suggested I write more #weirdthingsivedone posts, especially since she claims I somehow manage to scale new heights of Peak Nerd in her eyes every time we talk. (I’m not sure I’ve ever been complimented so wonderfully in my entire life.) And I will do that in future posts, I promise. But for now, here, I need to wax maudlin for a short while, so I ask for your indulgence while I do.

I read this small chunk of prose by a poetically-inclined denizen of Facebook a couple of nights ago – the ancient historians call these prose fragments gobbets when set as stimulus fragments for essay exams, and that term I’ve been utterly unable to get out of my head for every single one of the fourteen years since I last did an ancient history essay exam – on the news feed of a friend, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind for a couple of days (a wonderfully pleasant Friday evening notwithstanding, spent picking out new glasses and having dinner with the same dear friend who accused me of perpetual apex geekery – that was a perfect distraction that I desperately needed and am grateful for). I don’t know if it qualifies as prose-poetry as such, but certainly the style isn’t typical of standard prose; far more highly emotive, a cry of empathy with the deeply wounded. Because of the psychological place I was in, reading this piece was like a shout into a vast canyon with perfect acoustic balance, echoing countless times within the vaults of my mind and the power to silence it or call it back utterly out of my control.

I know what it feels like to live on the edge of loneliness
to have every hope crushed and everything you touch die
and to try so damn hard only to realize
nothing is going to change anytime soon
so you deal with the pain the best you can.
Reggie Nulan

I’ve been entrapped by this proselet largely because it feels almost like this Reggie Nulan has looked straight through – perhaps past – my eyes to see directly into the darkest, grimmest walls of my mind, and has unhesitatingly read the spidery scrawled inscriptions of my worst fears, shallow glyphs scratched weakly into prison walls of piled grey stone by the most anguished part of my psyche. My October was exactly like this verse says. It was a period during the start of which which I did feel occasional snatches of something like motivation, a feeling I hadn’t had in some time: motivation to work, to write, to move forward with my life in aspects that had previously been stagnant and beginning to grow heavy on my shoulders. It was a time during which I didn’t just make plans, but also took steps to – as the revolting business jargon would phrase it – action those plans. (As the great philosopher Calvin – no, not that one – puts it, verbing weirds language.)

Eek. I just wandered off searching for that link, got distracted, and fell into the Internet for about half an hour. I can’t even think about this for long enough to get through the writing of a full post on it. I’m sorry. Where was I? October. That’s right. Much as I’d have liked to forget. September came to an end on quite a high, with notifications via email that one of my academic articles had just been published and two further articles had been accepted for publication in the professional journals. This is probably, I’m pretty sure, what gave me the motivation to start building on the momentum I was experiencing: to keep it rolling forward while it was there, and try to avoid falling back into the lethargic inertia I’m prone to. (I’ve long since come to the conclusion that Newton’s first law of motion has relevance to more abstract forms of progress, too – that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, and conversely, an object at rest will tend to stay at rest.) I was getting my medication régime back under control with the assistance of a good psychiatrist, some academic success had come my way in the form of these three papers, there was promise of upcoming paid contract work at my alma mater, I’d had an offer from a friend to move out of the living situation I’m in that’s contributing to my worsening health, and I was feeling ready to step back out into the world of romance by asking out someone who in recent months I’d been both getting to know better, and growing to fancy, roughly in lockstep with each other.

None of these things have really worked out, though. It brings clouds to my eyes just to type that, but it remains true nonetheless. The romantic thing didn’t work out, which isn’t a problem in and of itself (particularly since the person I fancied had the immense integrity and wondrous grace to sit down with me and talk honestly and openly about why it would be best if we not date, at least for now) – it just feeds into a long, long history of romantic missed opportunities, missteps, and failures to act (more than forty in all; I counted once, in a particularly deep fit of despondency) that always, always make me criticise and harshly judge every aspect of myself to see in which ways I don’t measure up. In addition, my friend’s offer of moving out of my problematic living situation had to be cancelled entirely at the last minute because of the breakup of her relationship (that week was not a good one for relationships – another couple I know also had their civil partnership come to a screeching halt at that time). And I feel doubly awful for that because I know my friend and her partner were both themselves struggling with serious mental health issues, issues that ultimately contributed to their breakup but that must have caused them extraordinary hurt during that process and that make me feel really guilty for feeling upset about the situation for my own (and utterly selfish) reasons. The offer of work I’d had has also had to be postponed several times for a variety of reasons mostly revolving around people being in the field or caught up with other commitments that couldn’t be broken, taking me past the end of my third full year without full-time employment and making me feel even worse about my prospects for beginning to build a life that I can in any way take joy in. As a consequence of these three situations – romance, habitation, employment – I’ve taken a solid backslide even under the increased dosage of the medication my psychiatrist has been working with me on (no doubt situational rather than fundamentally biochemical, which at least does give me a tiny but mathematically non-zero degree of consolation), which has subsequently impacted upon my ability to focus on the writing of further academic papers, on the writing of job applications, and on the continuing effective conductance of my life on a day-to-day basis.

Ultimately, all this is why I feel so keenly the sting of the wound that propelled Reggie Nulan to write his lovely but heart-wrenching prose-poem. Living on the edge of loneliness feels like my reality at the moment; I feel lonely at virtually every moment, even as I try to push myself to address it, to connect with friends, to remain in contact with people I care about. And all that I hoped would come to fruition during October shrivelled on the vine. Life is as stagnant now – moreso, perhaps – as it was at the end of September. At moments like this, I almost fear that my depression and my anxiety are the correct and true way of experience, slyly and underhandedly suggesting that optimism is abhorrent and hope to be shunned. On one level, I’m used to feeling that in my own head. I suppose it just causes a rather deeper ache to feel that the universe around me should be nodding its head so vigorously in agreement.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.
(Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.)
– Dante Alighieri, Inferno III.9

A short poem, a long ramble

雲おりおり
人をやすめる
月見かな
“Occasional clouds
bring a person respite from
gazing at the moon.”
– Matsuo Bashō, 1644-1694 (my translation)

Poetry is a secret vice of mine, though one about which I’m involuntarily selective. Much as I’d like very much to expose myself to more poetry in the hope of discovering new and emotive mental fodder, my experience with doing so in the past has been that the moments of true enjoyment of poetry are few and very far between. When I read prose, very often I can find a wide range of material I like within a certain genre, or a specific author’s style and expression will enrapture my imagination. This latter is particularly true of some authors. When I first read Stephen King – my first exposure was The Shining, I think – his glorious, intrusive-thoughts writing style and my imaginative faculty slotted together like the two halves of a giant clam’s shell, summoning imagery in my mind’s eye that was rich, vivid, entirely memorable; he takes his craft extremely seriously and has produced fine, engaging prose as a result. Similarly, the power and fluidity of expression emanating from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series captured me more or less immediately as I began to read A Game of Thrones, such that after finishing it I immediately went out to purchase every subsequent available book in the series. (And this was no small feat, as I was struggling with a deep period of depression at that point and had read no new fiction in more than two years: virtually unthinkable, since as an undergrad there were long stretches – and I’m talking months and years on end – where I’d buy and read two or three novels a week, every week, almost without fail. The woman who ran the book stall at the flea market used to know me by name, and moreover, I knew hers too. Gwen. I probably bought upwards of four hundred books from her over the course of a few years.) Others whose books I’d read more or less on the strength of their author’s name are Robert Silverberg, Tim Willocks, and Isaac Asimov, all of whose writing styles and subject matters I find a pleasure to engage with.

But with poetry – and I’m mystified as to just why this is – it’s more that a specific poem has to speak to me somehow on more than one level at a time. It’s not enough to just be by a poet whose style I happen to like; I may love one of a poet’s works, and loathe the next even if it’s similar in subject matter, style, tone. A poem has to move past intellectually objective criteria to touch me emotionally through its form, through its topic, through its power to evoke imagery, through the context in which I first heard it. That doesn’t mean, of course, that only poems of one specific form and subject are eligible for this. I love complex full rhymes just as much as half-rhyme and blank verse, I’ve been touched by epic just as much as by haiku. Indeed, what I think is one of the finest pieces of English-language poetry of the last hundred years isn’t what many would think of as a “poem” at all: it’s Eminem’s Lose Yourself, which is not only a deeply emotional story delivered with richly evocative language, but is also a mindblowing tour de force of rhyme and vocalic assonance so complex that it defies straightforward analysis and makes Alexander Pope’s poetry look like it was written by a primary schooler. But I’m also enamoured of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (my love of the poem was what drove me to translate it into rhyming Klingon verse, my longest complete composition in the language), which has a much simpler rhyme scheme and a much more rigid metre, but expresses itself with such vibrant and almost psychedelic imagery that it conjures its supernatural and deathly visions effortlessly – due, no doubt, to Coleridge also being a well-known and incorrigible dope fiend. The fact that the Rime‘s so widely quoted and alluded to means it’s got some historical importance, as well: an albatross around one’s neck; water, water, everywhere; and so forth. There are several other poems I enjoy just as much – such as John Donne’s A Fever, William Blake’s The Tyger, A. B. Paterson’s Been There Before. And the haiku I quote above is one of these.

It’s a classical Japanese haiku, and such is how I’ve rendered it in the translation above as well – a rigid sequence of three lines in five, seven, and five morae (though the original has six in the first line). The clean minimalism of the haiku format has always appealed to me, though as I don’t read Japanese except with the aid of a dictionary and kana charts, it’s an arduous task for me to access most classics of the genre. And I know virtually nothing of Bashō beyond the fact that he’s widely acknowledged as one of the greatest poets of premodern Japan, and even less about his poetry specifically. This haiku holds meaning to me for other reasons. To begin with, it’s a philosophically interesting idea to hold onto: the idea that not all of life is brightness and beauty and illumination, and that the coming of occasional periods of darkness is natural, to be expected, and perhaps can help one to better appreciate those times when the beauty and brightness shine forth most radiantly, filling one’s life with light. In Japanese culture the moon is also a symbol of autumn (for some reason best known to someone else), and in this poem I think the moon’s own inherent quality of flux in its constant waxing and waning, combined with its cultural embodiment of the season of turning leaves, probably reflect the Zen Buddhist concept of anityatā “impermanence”. This is the idea that nothing stays the same forever, and here Bashō seems to imply that anityatā isn’t to be avoided, but to be embraced – that even the clouds cloaking the moon’s luminescence aren’t inherently bad and may themselves be fruitfully considered from a positive perspective instead (if you’ll permit me a moment of mixed metaphysics):

五色令人目盲。
五音令人耳聾。
五味令人口爽。
“Too much color dazzles the eye.
Too much noise deafens the ear.
Too much flavor deadens the taste.”
– Agnieszka Solska (transl.), Daodejing 12.1-3

But the reason I know of this haiku isn’t because of its usefulness as an illustration of how one might see the silver lining in the clouds (…as it were). Rather, it had been printed on the program of the memorial service for an old friend and mentor, Tom Loy, back in 2005. Tom was a renowned lecturer in archæology at my alma mater (the only scientist mentioned by name in both the book and the film of Jurassic Park, no less); a great polymath, but more importantly a man I was proud to call friend, his theoretical perspectives on the discipline and friendly openness to fellow seekers of knowledge – whether full professors or lowly undergrads – have basically informed the entire direction of my professional development. I was enormously honoured to have been asked to deliver a eulogy at his memorial service, since no other archæologist has influenced me more radically. More importantly, Tom was also a Buddhist, and even in his archæological lectures he taught the utility of anityatā (though never referring to it as such in his lectures) for conceptualising cultural change, emphasising that even in periods of what may appear in the archæological record to be cultural stasis, people constantly die and are replaced, tools constantly broken and are repaired, buildings constantly decay and are rebuilt; what appears to be stasis is only what the Yijing categorises as a distinct type of change, the 不易 bùyì ‘non-change’ that comprises the continuous activities necessary to maintain a diachronically ‘steady state’ or ‘permanence’.

But I digress. (My apologies. Tom never published these perspectives before his unexpected death, so I rarely get the opportunity to discuss them or how they’ve impacted upon my own conceptualisation of how to do archæology.) In any case, Tom’s memorial service was a Buddhist one, and the program bore another translation of this haiku on the back, just above the standard funerary verse from the Mahā-Sudassana Sutra; it’s only just recently that I came across my copy of the program again, unearthing it from a drawer while searching for something else entirely. The first time I saw this haiku back in 2005, it was singularly appropriate to Tom’s death already as a reminder of the evanescence of things, but having seen it anew it’s stirred up a diachronic maelstrom of emotions. I relate to it in an entirely new way now, after my struggles with anxiety and depression ramped up in earnest, but at the same time the poem still serves as a conceptual memento of my friendship with Tom and of the emotions surrounding his death. And the novel set of feelings that’s been awakened clicks snugly, almost seamlessly, into the older emotions; just as it did back then, the poem still reminds me that the idea of the impermanence of experiences and of things isn’t only to be looked at through pessimistic eyes. It’s for just that reason that I was moved to compose a new translation of the original Japanese haiku – the English translation that’s at the beginning of this post – to share with a dear friend earlier in the week, a friend who’s also suffering through some psychologically rough times. For us sufferers of anxiety and depression, much of the time it’s hard to maintain optimism and hold onto the idea that though it might seem like good times and pleasant feelings are gone for good, bad times and unpleasant feelings are just as impermanent, are just as much anityā. So I wanted to share this haiku with her, and now with anyone else who might read it here on my blog; not just because it’s one of my favourite pieces of poetry, appealing to me in its form, its subject matter, and in the hidden depth of its meaning, but because it’s been helpful to me as a mental tool. I’ll be well pleased if it can serve as such for anyone else.