Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Stories and Words
I received my copy of Easy Access, the newsletter for the Northwest Archivists, about a week ago. I have been thinking long and hard about the President's Message written by Terry Baxter. In it he talked about what we archivists are--we are the keepers of the stories-- and what records are--the stories told by someone and waiting for someone else to listen.
He quotes this powerful poem, The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart, from The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 by Jack Gilbert:
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love we say.
God, we say. Rome and Michiko, we write, and the
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of cooper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the window's labor.
Her breats are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and
And yet and yet.... When I say ma maison you may wish to translate that into English as "my house" and not "my home", but that's not quite right either. If there are not two words--one for house and one for home-- does that mean French speaking peoples have any less feeling for home and everything that home represents? Do they not get homesick even if there is no word for it?
And the people in northern India may not have words like our words that are endearments. We may recognize little bird and twinklet and poppet as endearments, but would they? Surely they must feel love and if they do then they must express it to each other. And, well, if they don't then that's the reason their people are dying out, not because they lack the words to express love.
Archivists are indeed the keepers of the stories, but the stories are not the same for us all. They're not told in the same ways. Stories important to one people may not be important to another. Some stories are sacred and profound. Some are secret. Others have more than one meaning. And all stories are more than mere words.
P.S. See The Whale Hunt, "an experiment in human storytelling" in which photographs only are used to tell a story.