The Brown Girl’s Burden: a villanelle

My supervisor approaches words with a kind of delicacy. The ice queen of my interviews, I think of her as a musician, extremely precise in the way she tunes her instrument, pressing on each metaphorical key with purpose. An accent like marble, she articulates the technical aspects of poetry with words of crystal, her fingers lightly illustrating her points when she speaks. Writing a highly structured poem for her, then, (five tercets and a quatrain, with two repeating rhymes and two refrains) was interesting, having to mould my thoughts into the specific shape of a villanelle. 

This was written as an assignment during Michaelmas term, in the second half of isolation. After a particularly hard first week, sitting on my windowsill with a mug of tea and a poem to write was a welcome change.

         The Brown Girl’s Burden

I’m sorry I write in this strangers’ tongue

with this new alphabet of ink and gilt,

we are still seeking somewhere to belong.

Iqra, my love, read it out and along,

stilted syllables and a foreign lilt,

I’m sorry I write in this strangers’ tongue.

Forgive me for being too dark, wild, or young,

accidentally occidental, my guilt

still seeks its roots, but this path will be long.

Lips that trembled, cracked voice and watery lung,

the mouth that stuttered and the words that spilt,

I’m sorry I forgot my mother’s tongue.

Broken speech cobbled into a strange song

sentences stitched together, a patchwork quilt

of vowels that taste like elaichi and laung.

Past silence and sound, and left, right, and wrong,

Still longing for home, those lands that you built,

I’m sorry I write in this stranger’s tongue,

But there is nowhere left for us to belong.

Cheat sheet:

Iqra = imperative ‘read’ in Arabic, mainly in the sense of recitation/reading out loud, the first spoken word of the Quran, also a woman’s name

Elaichi (el-EYE-chee) = ‘cardamom’ in Urdu

Laung (pronounced like a stretched out ‘long’) = ‘clove’ in Urdu

**Arabic/Urdu alphabets are read from right to left

At one point, I wondered whether this was the form I should be using for this particular poem — a ghazal might have been more appropriate – but appropriating a French form to write an English poem about Urdu reflected the strangeness of not being firmly grounded in any particular tradition. It’s imperfect, the meter doesn’t always flow and I hate the middle of the poem. But the repetitive nature of the villanelle was a useful way to navigate recurring feelings of dislocation and separation. Repetition isn’t necessarily static. Instead, it can reveal insecurities in the poem (‘gilt’ into ‘guilt’) or lend itself to transformation. Altering the refrains in particular was an interesting way to track a shifting thought process, while reflecting the consistency of the feelings that run behind it. 

‘Belong’ breaking down into ‘be’ and ‘long’, ‘long’ shifting into ‘lung’, which becomes the Urdu ‘laung’, then back to ‘belong’ at the end, was a chance to mirror the idea of separation and coming together to which villanelles seem to lend themselves. Rhyming two languages was an attempt to seek a kind of reconciliation (even if I had to break the rules of the strictly repeating refrain). English blurring into Urdu tries to resolve the conflict with a word that sounds almost identical to ‘long’, but ultimately one language needs to prevail, and the refrain is restored by the end of the poem.

As for the title, Kipling’s poem and the civilising missions of those like him are indirectly, but inextricably, related to the language I type this blog post in. His burden has become mine. 

from @wordsinurdu

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