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Light and Language
Moon rising

For several months I wrote a column called LANGUAGE MATTERS as part of my NC Poet Laureate job. Here is the last column.

Light and Language

When I was studying Spanish in college, I traveled to Mexico for summer school at the university in Saltillo. Before my departure I dreamed about an animal leading me into a labyrinth. When we reached the center, I saw that the beckoning animal was a jaguar holding a heart in his paw. I later learned that the jaguar is sacred to the Mayans, and I took this dream as a good sign, because the darkness was filled with pulsing light from the jaguar’s presence.

On one of our trips into the Mexican countryside, my classmates and I encountered a woman who wanted us to take her picture. The day was overcast and she kept asking," Hay bastante luz?"

Is there enough light? That question resonates still in my imagination, the way light enters into so much of what we long for and speak about at this time of year.

I remembered the woman’s question when my four-month-old daughter sat in her baby seat before our large living-room windows, conducting the morning light with her hands and singing back to it. The rest of the day, it seemed to me there was never enough light, especially when her colic returned, and instead of singing, she cried.

One of our most renowned poets, Betty Adcock, a NC resident, wrote a poem entitled “Word-Game.” It begins with these lines: “A child watching a moonrise/ might play a game of saying,/ might hold the word moon in his mouth/and push it out over and over.” In lines that could serve as the motif for this season in our part of the hemisphere when slowly the light grows longer, the poem concludes:
In a net of sound like the body’s
own singing web, a child
will be rising
with light for a language.

In the Christian tradition, the Word is the light of the world. Likewise, in other religions and cultures, Light brings its own particular revelation, regardless of the language in which it is spoken and celebrated. Some politicians clamor for a law decreeing English the official language of the United States, but nothing will be able to stop the words that rise up from the languages of the various peoples who live here. Nor will they be able to stop the different ways the return of the light are observed.

This past Christmas I wished my readers holiday greetings in Hindi -Krismas ki subhkamna, in Arabic -miilaad majiidas, and in Cherokee-- Danistayohihv, along with the more familiar feliz Navidad, joyeux Noël, and Fröhliche Weihnachten. If I'd had more wordspace, I would have offered greetings for all the other ways light is celebrated. Each expression casts a slightly different "light" on the season it celebrates, much the way the lightcatcher hanging in my bedroom will soon begin to gather the mid-winter light and spread its spectrum around my walls. The poet Elizabeth Bishop called these lights “rainbow-birds,” but my daughter and I called them “rainbow fish,” because her astrological sign is Pisces, and I thought of her then as my little fish: ma petite poisson. These rainbows remind me that what looks like a beam of light is really composed of many colors—that light is both particle and wave. What we call reality is really the many manifestations of light, and our words capture that reality in their multifaceted sounds and meanings.


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I cherish the last line of Bishop's poem about the fish: "Rainbow. Rainbow. Rainbow."