Miriam Calleja on Elegy for My Tongue by Saba Husain & Then telling be the antidote by Xiao Yue Shan

In Saba Husain’s poem Elegy for My Tongue, from a collection with the same title (Terrapin Books, 2023), the poet uses her language to explore her identity as an immigrant who has left her home in Pakistan and moved to the United States. Her poem speaks eloquently of the pain she experienced when leaving behind a part of herself – her tongue. She speaks of wanting to settle yet being unable to due to the lack of an anchor in her chosen new language. She speaks of trying to make do but also the pain of being unable to express herself fully in her new home. The collection is a powerful and moving exploration of displacement, identity, and belonging.

In the prologue poem, The Resettlement, we read, We clung to a music of our own and feel

a shiver in the clinging, in the leaving behind, in the subtleties of settlement and resettlement.  Is the meaning of the word in itself speaking of ‘making do’? Is it describing how we put roots down because it is one way of surviving?

I think about my resettlement story, of the roots that resisted a necessary journey inward. I wanted to say water them if you must, but don’t get too tangled in this temporary home. I wanted to let everyone know that they don’t understand how everything tastes different, how I couldn’t derive satisfaction in my own kitchen. How my tongue sat in my mouth in dissatisfaction. How is it that we can crave our own etymology? How do we go to the root of the root so that we can wear our meaning on our skin? But let’s not forget that for some of us, fear sits in the pit of our stomachs, because our sound in the world, the sound of our country, changes its meaning depending on the news that blares on TV.

Husein’s line Patience is a two-syllable word led me to Xiao Tue Shan’s Then telling me the antidote (Tupelo Press, 2024). For months, I am stuck in a limbo of coming to terms with my own language and emigration saga. I feel the essay I want to write forming in the slowest way. It drip drips into my mind. In these months, I get COVID twice, and in the mushiness of my virus-ridden brain, my language is confused. Am I arriving to a place of acceptance or am I doing all this only to... I refuse to finish the sentence. Instead, I find refuge in those who have said it before me. 

Shan constructs a porcelain mastery of a picture of time. Longing sits in the work’s liminal spaces, like a smell of garlic that you can’t entirely wash off. How can we remake silence?

I think I had to take more than one deep breath / to commiserate with the animal we named silence. – Shan

You see... when you are new, you bring with you an inexpressible loneliness. Even if you thrive in your own company, in your new job, in the neighborhood where you’ve landed, there is a steep learning curve, a discomfort as your personal history twists a helix inside you. For a time, you are an exaggerated person, slowly sinking into self-mythology, slowly revealing and projecting that which sits on shaky ground to begin with.

I resonate with Shan’s description of her own book as psychogeographical; this is the study of the influence of geographical environment on the mind and behavior.

all the locked outbursts of those days, / struggling wire limbs past the clasps of new-place, / grassy taste of language – Shan

Amidst a box of saved birthday cards, / I found a firsthand account / of an earthquake in northern Pakistan, / post 9-11. – Husein

I don’t want to follow, I want to change things. / but the script rises to my tongue /and ignites the seeming cascade of what can be said. – Shan

To settle can also mean to pay a debt. The new country that doesn’t speak your mother tongue holds you at arm’s length. First, you need to declare your intentions. Then, it is suspicious of you, wants you to test for disease, is particularly interested in STDs. Then it tells you it wants you, but you must prove yourself. It is a narcissistic lover; it is a suspicious friend. You bite your tongue and obey, hoping that you will be embraced and accepted in the fold in one piece.

forbidden words have no superiority over / the words we are given. – Shan

It takes time to shed the garments / that are the mark of a new immigrant. / It takes more to begin to understand. / To search for answers—to be an answer. – Husein

While Shan explores the long line, Husein writes poetry that tends to be shorter and less dense; Husein uses space intentionally, and Shan fills it. How do we navigate this new geography with our words? With our bodies? As a writer, even one who was raised bilingual in an ex-British colony, I still sometimes think, who am I to write poetry in English?  Does the language belong to me to do as I please?

Both poets use the word ‘language’ multiple times throughout their collections. Is it a way of making it theirs? Is it a mantra? Is it a prayer?

how easily language comes to us, then how difficult / to sculpt this substance into the broad positions of living – Shan

language took over / and I understood what hunger / has to do with sour teeth and bitter tongues. – Husain

And so we go on, in camaraderie, in complicity, unburdening our tongue in poetry, just for a moment until the next breath. We form words in our mouths that don’t quite sound right if right is the word you want to choose. And if you give enough meaning to where you are from from. Because over and over, that is what they will ask.

putting our language to sleep the way a mother seeks / a last scrap of fabric for the mouth of an ageless child. – Shan

Miriam Calleja is an award-winning Maltese bilingual freelance poet, nonfiction/fiction writer, ghostwriter, workshop leader, and translator who lives in Birmingham, AL. She is the author of three poetry collections, two chapbooks, and several collaborative works. Her poetry has been published in anthologies and in translation worldwide. In 2023, she was Highly Commended by the Stephen Spender Trust for her work in translation. Her latest chapbook is titled Come Closer, I Don’t Mind the Silence (BottleCap Press, 2023). Her essays and poems have appeared in Taos Journal, Odyssey, Whale Road Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Modern Poetry in Translation, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a series of nonfiction hybrid essays and translating a full-length poetry collection. Read more on miriamcalleja.com.