It’s snowing again. Every few days for the last week, a new squall, blizzard, or nor’easter has rolled across the coast of Maine, blanketing the fields and gardens around the house. My parents-in-law, frugal New Englanders, don’t heat this part of their home. My toes and fingers are numb, but I know this quiet is where I need to be right now—a quiet that allows me to revisit this Dispatch.
In her essay, Zohra Saed recounts the experience of living with a forgotten, handwritten poem that Langston Hughes translated on his journey through Uzbekistan. She writes, “To say, ‘I found it,’ is too easy. There was magic in my stumbling upon it, the process of reading, of holding this manuscript moment in my hand and dwelling in Hughes’ handwriting.”
While bringing together these works for Tongue, we editors experienced a kindred magic. In Safiya Sinclair’s poem, “Spectre,” her speaker says, “Call me an easy animal / this dark season, a door for you to walk through.” That’s what Hughes’s handwriting was for Saed: a door into her own family’s history in Central Asia. Saed and Sinclair each give us this palpable sense of living with what is left behind, remnant things: ghosts, glimpses across uncrossable distances. They remind us to, in Sinclair’s words, “touch mouths / with the mostly dead.”
I’ve read Kimiko Hahn’s unsettling and playful “Erasing ‘Host Manipulation'" many times in the process of creating Issue 3 of Tongue. But I find myself still lingering in its void and matter. Though a poem of erasure, the poem reminds us how much is gained by engaging with the difficult truths about our world, our bodies, our fragile ecosystems and tentative organic selves we tend to forget are host to millions of other selves. Protozoans. Archaea. Viruses. The occasional parasite at play in its host.
Hahn has put the thought in my head that poems and essays and photographs can be invasive little beasts: they get inside you, disturb and unsettle, re-configure. That line buried in “Spectre,” has this effect on me: “smiling / green in the ear of his god.” I’ve become its host, of course: some part of me will be irrevocably changed if I let the poem do its work.
As Mrigaa Sethi noted in our first Dispatch, the disquiet out in the fields of America and the wide world tonight can make art (and pausing to live with art) seem futile. But we send you these poems, this essay, these photographs knowing we are all better for the quiet and storm, ghost and flesh, the selves and the strangers that they carry.
I love picturing Zohra Saed as she allows Langston Hughes’ handwriting—that testimony of presence, his attempt to translate another into his own words—to put her in touch with the echoes of her family’s past, what they lost, what they gained in exile.
Presence and absence, stranger and friend, present and past. Sitting here in the winter silence with these words and images, these carefully hewn lines and re-discovered fragments, I am grateful for how challenging and new, how intimate and familiar each work of art continues to feel. How they reveal the truths of our fragile and permeable and multiple selves.
Invented a story, invented a girl
for you to talk to. Call me an easy animal
this dark season, a door for you to walk through.
How my deer carcass slits to limbs
in your refrigerator, each pretty word a cigarette
you will put out in your skin.
Here each fault consumes the hoarding
of numb silences, the way you give voice
to nothing. Your hands still folded,
the phone unringing. A nothing hiss.
Nevertheless. I knell and touch mouths
with the mostly dead,
my self entombing itself.
The woman splits indefinitely.
My father spins his web of sensimilia
in the country, mother smiling
green in the ear of his god,
both teenagers budding new selves
in the cane fields. His voice is her voice,
their unlived life, my siblings and I
one in four chance to leave the slums
of this boyhood. The answer of his father
still unknown to him. But daughter
is always a sightless gamble. At night he dreams
of hands closing tight about her throat,
this poisoned root we must cast out.
My mother says nothing
and looks away, a worse
kind of violence.
Her good hair, her skin,
her bright hibiscus.
Her shoe thrown hard in solidarity.
I was born with one ankle
dangled in the sea, body grasping
for another horizon.
Hungry infant reaching for the salty night,
I ate leaves of scripture left open
to avert the spirits of the dead—
but already I was unruly and invited them in,
imbibed them in my fevered dreaming
until my skin was no longer my skin.
Now years later, I am blue October
caught in this southern gloom, thinking of
the man I have just welcomed inside me,
an eager creature still answering
the call of her body. Already he is
a spectre of some future patricide,
my long face in the mirror nothing
but the yellow smear of shame,
and he the same Western sky
I have been chasing, my country
nothing but a satisfied lover
now with no reason left to call,
the rain this morning nothing
but my father’s spit at my back.
A translation of "Old Uzbek Poem"
—marginalia by Langston Hughes
Zohra Saed from "Found in Translation: Langston Hughes from Harlem to Samarqand"
In 1932, after a failed film project in Moscow, Langston Hughes visited the newly Sovietized Turkestan, later renamed Central Asia, with a troupe of African American artists and activists. He rode the Turksib (Turkestan-Siberian railroad) from Moscow down through Kazakhstan, to Uzbekistan before jumping off the train in then a small rural stop, Ashgabat. He left the safety of a guided train tour with his record player, jazz albums, and notebooks to make up his own mind about Soviet Central Asia. Hughes did not speak a word of Turkestani, nor Russian, but armed with French and English, he managed quite a tour of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, built friendships with Russian and Turkestani writers, and wrote one of the first Soviet-commissioned works, a chapbook in English and Russian titled, A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia.
In a dusty hotel room in Ashgabat, he met the Hungarian author, Arthur Koestler, who was on tour himself to write about communism in Central Asia. Together with the Turkmen poet, Shaali Kekilov, they visited the cotton khoiz (collectives) of Turkmenistan and, later, Uzbekistan. It was Kekilov who had brought these particular notebooks that Hughes would use for the remainder of his trip. These four notebooks, the hundreds of photos he took, and assorted notes make up a good bulk of the works in The Langston Hughes Papers archived at The Beinecke Library of Rare Book and Manuscripts, Yale University Library.
Among those collected materials, I found a loose page—a translation of a romantic poem (a duet if sung) that Hughes simply named, “Old Uzbek Poem.” Actually, to say, “I found it,” is too easy. There was a magic in my stumbling upon it, the process of reading, of holding this manuscript moment in my hand and dwelling in Hughes’ handwriting.
As an undergraduate, I had made my money for books by reading palms and seeing the future in the stylistic idiosyncrasies of individual script. Reliving those memories in Hughes’ cursive, I read only the past in his curls, tripping over an unfinished, topless “p.” Even in the immaculate Beinecke reading room, I felt the rush of time in his diary scribblings—the way his sentences dipped down and magnified in the slight dust, on the softness of the paper...
Uzbek girl on a cotton collective
in Uzbekistan (ca. 1932)
About our contributors
Safiya Sinclair was born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica. She is the author of Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press, 2016), winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the PEN Open Book Award, and named one of the American Library Association's “Notable Books of the Year.” Sinclair is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, fellowships from Yaddo, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Amy Clampitt Residency Award. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, Kenyon Review, Granta, The Nation, New England Review, Boston Review, TriQuarterly, Oxford American, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in poetry at the University of Virginia, and is currently a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.
Zohra Saed is the co-editor of One Story, Thirty Stories: An Anthology of Contemporary Afghan American Literature (University of Arkansas Press) and editor of Langston Hughes: Poems, Photos and Notebook from Turkestan (Lost & Found, The CUNY Poetics Documents Initiative). Her collaborative poetry chapbook with Sahar Muradi, Misspelled Cities/Falsch Geschrieben, was published for the dOCUMENTA 13 Notebook Series in English/German. Her essays on the Central Asian diaspora and their food history have appeared in Eating Asian America (NYU Press); along with Leila Christine Nadir, she edited Interviews/Essays in “Projects by Afghan American Writers and Artists” for The Asian American Literary Review. She is the co-founder and editor of Brooklyn-based UpSet Press and an Assistant Professor in English at Bard High School Early College, Queens.
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Joplin, Missouri, and grew up in Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio. In the 1920s, he gained a reputation as a poet, becoming a leading figure in what he called in his first autobiography “the black renaissance.” A prolific poet, prose-writer, and playwright, he served as an example to several generations of African American writers, always lending his support to younger people and new movements in the arts. From 1932-1933, Hughes traveled in the Soviet Union, spending much of his time in Central Asia and returning to the US with several notebooks, hundreds of photographs, and clippings of poems from the Central Asian writers he met there. This trip, along with his work in Spain on behalf of the Republic (featured in Lost & Found Series III), formed major episodes in Hughes’ public political engagement. While popular and known throughout the world, Hughes faced backlash at home. Despite his wishes to see work from this period gathered, these writings and photographs from his trip to the Soviet Union were never published in book form.
Kimiko Hahn is the author of three chapbooks and nine collections of poetry, including Brain Fever and Toxic Flora. Both "Erasing 'Host Manipulation'" and "The Secret Lives of Planets" (an additional poem available to read at tonguejournal.org) are triggered by rarified fields of science in much the same manner that previous work was triggered by Asian American identity, women's issues, necrophilia, entomology, premature burial, black lung disease, and on. She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College, City University of New York.
To read more work from these writers, view hi-res versions of images, and see archived issues of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, pleasevisit tonguejournal.org »