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jig street


its very sound was barbed wire to my ears. A pretty girl with braids, Polish, wearing a black patch over one eye, mollifi ed me. She was called Jolanda, the j pronounced like a y. She was, in the space of only three hours, the fi rst to make me fl uent in love. Aged six, I wept to see her leave. Do widzenia, Jolanda. Although normally I spurn psychological explanations for one’s shortcomings, I wonder if that philological struggle did not disable in me a capacity for languages. Only Latin agreed with me, but it wouldn’t take up permanent residence in my brain. French, I mutilated. And what could be more gruelling than Polish with its myriad irregularities, its combinations of letters that were virtually unsayable? And yet, as of late, or, rather, after my father died, those words, as if themselves the fl oating ashes of language or else fi refl ies in the dark of absence, words I thought I had forgotten or which I had never absorbed in the fi rst place, began to insinuate themselves onto my tongue. Suddenly T.S. Eliot’s lines acquire new force:

And what the dead had no speech for, when living, Th ey can tell you, being dead: the communication Of the dead is tongued with fi re beyond the language of the living.

Was this not, then, my father tongued with fi re? It was as if he belonged now to a dimension of pure sound, where meaning, which, after all, belongs to the exigencies of life, was no longer of use. Th e words were now without strings attached to them, free to go as they please. It seemed as though from time to time (od czasu do czasu) the world was being remade in accordance with those peculiar syllables. Poziomka, wild strawberry. Jabłko, apple, whose sound so perfectly conveys its shape. Mój pies, my dog. Th ere were always dogs in the house. Czy pan rozumie po polsku? Sadly no, I understand very little. Often, though, I get the gist of what’s being said. When my father and my uncle spoke, especially on the telephone, their most common expletive was cholera, with a silent c, which in Polish is a strong curse, a match for the strongest English ones, and when coupled with jasna (‘bright’; again the j like a y), it is stronger still. If one accepts the argument, which I do only partly, that profanities are derived from what people most fear, cholera jasna bespeaks some old

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