For this assignment I chose the poem ‘second language/ first heartbreak’ by Meeni Levi. Meeni Levi is a young belgian writer/poet and zir work can be found at meenilevi.tumblr.com. Ze is also due to release zir first poetry collection ‘Skinny jeans’ in may. I chose this particular poem in order to explore and explain the concept of naming and the power a name has over its subject.
second language/first heartbreak
My legal name sounds weird
Because it is not meant
To be understood
My body is not meant
To be understood
Yet in English
I first touched it.
French wore the mask
Of authority, French is “vous”
Instead of “tu”,
French is the tongue that othered
Me from myself
Because I spoke it
For me English
Is open arms
Use me as you like
Tear me apart
Bend my backbones into stairs
And i will lift you.
English is adjectives
That do not need taking care of.
Not a she
Not a he.
You are real
You have a voice other
Than the first words you ever spoke.
You have a self other
Than when you were first born.
You have the words and style
To sing heartbreak and revolution,
And hopefully one day
French will be growing up.
The relevance of naming is prevalent in this poem, especially if we expand the concept to encompass any assigned attribute such as titles or pronouns. A central topic addressed in the poem is the power relation that stands behind a name. Who gets to name a subject is a question of power and of recognition. The question asked in ‘second language/first heartbreak’ is how can we name ourselves if the language we need doesn’t exist? It exposes a space of total erasure where societal conventions take away the queer individuals chance of naming themselves and thus their chance at existing in language. They and their identities are literally unspeakable.
In the following I will use a few sections of the text to showcase aspects of the ways in which naming is related to power in the poem.
My body is not meant to be understood in English// Yet in English I first touched it.
In this stanza english serves as the connector to the self, because the narrator’s first language doesn’t offer the language to do that. This is a common experience for many people who identify outside of the gender binary and whose native languages lack the vocabulary to describe those identities. Even a marginal existence in the english language is preferable to that, because it allows them to name themselves.
French is the tongue that othered me from myself
Consequently the native language can be experienced as othering and even denying the queer subject’s existence, forcing them to bend their self to the rules of the language.In contrast to that english can be bend to their own needs and used to realize themselves:
For me English// Is open arms// And// Use me as you like// Use me// Betray me// Tear me apart
The language also serves as a space that affirms their identity and give the subject a platform to be themselves and demand to be acknowledged:
English is// You are real// is You matter// is Listen!
Lastly, the poem also expresses a wish for change, for making space for marginalized identities:
And hopefully one day// French will be growing up
When a language lacks the vocabulary to describe an identity, it takes away the subjects power to name themselves. It makes their identity invisible and gives no platform to speak about it, explain it and connect to it. Coming into an identity requires the naming of the self, but if the language isn’t available, the subject remains alienated and feeling powerless.