“Your mother tongue nurtures, has subtleties which give flavor to words”

~ by Marilyn Hacker

Consider the three functions of the tongue:
taste, speech, the telegraphy of pleasure,
are not confused in any human tongue;
yet, sinewy and singular, the tongue
accomplishes what, perhaps, no other organ
can. Were I to speak of giving tongue,
you’d think two things at least; and a cooked tongue,
sliced, on a plate, with caper sauce, which I give
my guest for lunch, is one more, to which she’d give
the careful concentration of her tongue
twice over, to appreciate the taste
and to express– it would be in good taste–

a gastronomic memory the taste
called to mind, and mind brought back to tongue.
There is a paucity of words for taste:
sweet, sour, bitter, salty. Any taste,
however multiplicitous its pleasure,
complex its execution (I might taste
that sauce ten times in cooking, change its taste
with herbal subtleties, chromatic organ
tones of cloves and basil, good with organ
meats) must be described with those few taste-
words or with metaphors to give
my version of sensations it would give

a neophyte, deciding whether to give
it a try. She might develop a taste.
(You try things once; I think you have to give
two chances, though, to know your mind, or give
up on novelties.) Your mother tongue
nurtures, has subtleties which give
flavor to words, and words to flavor, give
the by no means subsidiary pleasure
of being able to describe a pleasure
and recreate it. Making words, we give
the private contemplations of each organ
to the others, and to others, organ-

ize sensations into thought. Sentient organ-
isms, we symbolize feeling, give
the spectrum (that’s a symbol) each sense organ
perceives, by analogy, to others. Disorgan-
ization of the senses is an acquired taste
we all acquire: as speaking beasts, it’s organ-
ic to our discourse. The first organ
of acknowledged communion is the tongue
(tripartite diplomat, which after tongu-
ing a less voluble expressive organ
to wordless efflorescences of pleasure
offers up words to reaffirm the pleasure.)


Marilyn Hacker (linguist, great poet, teacher, erudite translator from the French) makes a comprehensive disquisition on the many meanings of tongue. Tongue as one’s language, as one’s speech, as one’s organ of taste — even as a delicatessen meat. Also as tongue kisses. And, let us not forget, as oral-sex lovemaking. And especially cunnilingus!

Marilyn Hacker has a particular weakness — a gift really — for writing in forms with repeating elements (villanelles, sestinas, pantoums, and sonnet crowns) the repeating elements often meaning something entirely different in each new context, the new contexts often produced by ingenious and subtle enjambments and caesuras. She produces these poems with a versatility that is quite unrivaled in late-twentieth-century literature in English. She has almost single-handedly revived the highest sorts of standards for the use of form among our poets. We have been reading her astonishing works since the 1970s. She carries forward the traditions of masters like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, W. D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich in writing openly autobiographic works about significant personal relationships and their vicissitudes.

One of the best poems to introduce readers to her use of repeating elements is Marilyn Hacker’s “Villanelle For D.G.B.,” one of our favorite poems.

Every day our bodies separate–
exploded torn and dazed.
Not understanding what we celebrate

we grope through languages and hesitate
and touch each other, speechless and amazed;
and every day our bodies separate

us farther from our planned, deliberate
ironic lives, I am afraid, disphased,
not understanding what we celebrate

when our fused limbs and lips communicate
the unlettered powers we have raised.
Every day our bodies’ separate

routines are harder to perpetuate.
In wordless darkness we learn wordless praise,
not understanding what we celebrate;

wake to ourselves, exhausted, in the late
morning as the wind tears off the haze,
not understanding how we celebrate
our bodies. Every day we separate.


Author: MDM

Michael Dennis Mooney is a student of humor and witticism in verse. At this site he is compiling a selection of the best works using extended metaphor in poetry, with a special interest in satire, parody, and humor. Suggestions are welcome. Send your citations of favorites, by email, to mike.mooney.home@gmail.com He has a site "New Writings" at http://jcbcast.blogspot.com And a site for essays, 'His Epistles To The Philistines" at http://tothephilistines.wordpress.com

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