Friday, June 11, 2021

Poetry Friday -- an unexpected #PoemPair

Learning Arabic

is more than just driving on the left in England.
It's driving on the left
with no cognates on the map,
an alphabet consisting of small bits of flowering vine,
and luckily a lay-by
where you abandon the car and the map
taking a path instead
walking like a botanist, field guide in hand,
poring over every blossom, every curving leaf,
breathless when you begin to find meaning
in this brand new ancient world.

©Mary Lee Hahn, 2021

Yes, I'm learning Arabic with the DuoLingo app. Why? Because it's beautiful, it's hard, and my friend speaks it. 

I didn't think this would be a #PoemPairs post, but then I listened to today's episode of Poetry Unbound featuring "A special bilingual poem in Anishinaabemowin and English by Margaret Noodin, a linguist who writes primarily in Anishinaabemowin" and then the followup conversation between her and "Pádraig Ó Tuama, about the story behind that poem as well as the Anishinaabemowin language, translation, and the importance of language preservation." I was especially fascinated by the connections the two made between language and place, and between the Ojibwe and Irish languages.

So now, when I'm asked why I'm learning Arabic, I will add to my answer this new thinking from Margaret Noodin and Pádraig Ó Tuama: that language includes a connection to the land and to the soul of a place and its native speakers, and by learning this language, I will help to celebrate language diversity.

Carol has this week's Poet Friday roundup at Carol's Corner.


  1. You never cease to amaze me! Now you are learning Arabic! And you write a beautiful poem, where the words feel like flowing vines! And then that last line, "this brand new ancient world." And then you make this huge leap to the podcast and learning language. Holy cow!!!! Amazing! I hope there will be more of these posts!

  2. Great poem! I've thought about bilingual poems as well and I will have to check out the podcast thanks for sharing.

  3. I love your botanical description of learning Arabic. Beautiful.

  4. Oops, I don't know if I accidentally posted my comment before I finished writing it, or if it just got lost into oblivion.

    Trying again...

    I love "brand new ancient world." So many things are like that - old, but new to us when we discover them.

    I loved that podcast too, and the bonus one where he had some more conversation with the poet/linguist. But I wanted them to talk about that name for the Great Lakes - it sounded just like Longfellow's "Gitchee Gumee" in Hiawatha. I wondered how she might react to Longfellow writing about their stories, whether it was offensive or considered a good thing?

  5. I admire you for taking on the challenge of a new alphabet/language, Mary Lee. I love the way you described it, 'not like driving on the left in England'. I spoke French (once) & am trying to get it back, at least the reading of it. I just shared a book in both English & Anishinaabemowin, a special picture book you might enjoy: 'This is How I Know' by Brittany Luby. Enjoy your weekend!

  6. Oh, Mary Lee, I can relate! I'm living in a land of language diversity, where everything is written in English and Arabic, so the lessons are always there. I have celebrated these "small bits of flowering vine" for more than seven years now. I love to get on that path "poring over every blossom, every curving leaf" and make meaning. It is magical to make sense of tiny smatterings of Arabic. Your poem is perfection!

  7. Definitely no cognates, which is similar to Hebrew—no cognates there either. Treasures to you as you "find meaning/in this brand new ancient world." Thanks for the link to Noodlin's poem, so much packed into 8 lines.

  8. Celebrating language diversity is a way to honor each and every child who comes from a diverse background. My grandmother who came over during the immigrant migration in 1921 believed that her offsprings should be Americanized. Thus, I was not allowed to speak Italian when I entered school. I did not even know that my mother came over to America when she was 1.5 year-old until I was in college in an ethnic relations class. Your last lines in your poem are beautiful-:breathless when you begin to find meaning
    in this brand new ancient world.


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