The Sealey Challenge: Mother Tongues

Tsitsi Ella Jaji's MOTHER TONGUES as if sprouting from a yucca plant
Mother Tongues

Tsitsi Ella Jaji’s Mother Tongues is a beautiful, elegant book: a poetry of homeland and of exile, of health and language and culture, from Benin to El Greco and beyond. It is longer than most of what I have chosen this year, but on a beautiful unsettling day after a storm that ripped out trees and knocked out power, I wanted something with heft, and Mother Tongues is a gem.

Language is an intimate thing, a facet of identity (and nationality), a thread running throughout Mother Tongues, from bilingual children and their language choices to language and word choices in the poems themselves. It can be a tender thing, in Mother Tongues, but it is language, and so too it can be harsh, fitting as a glove to its maker’s needs.

From odes to thyroids to meditations on music and pianist’s hands, from paeons to scholars and performers, songs to children in refugee camps or families fighting about the color of a peacoat (definitely not navy, apparently), Jaji explores the complexities of our world, each poem elegant in structure and in content—and, always, remarkably tender.

There is no Columbus here, not directly—but there are mentions of the sadistic worlds he helped to create, in poems such as “The Body Counts.” Nor does Jaji shy from the world’s horrors: death saunters across pages, in elegies and in explorations of wars and coups d’état.

Mother Tongues is also a poetry of place, from Zimbabwe—and the Limpopo River—to the United States, replete with its white supremacy. (And how many of the poets I’ve read this Sealey Challenge would argue that speaks itself to Columbus’ work? At least a few.) It is grounded, rooted poetry, poetry that speaks to land and to family and to ancestors, reaching back to the past in order to sing to the future.

Mother Tongues is elegant, spare and tender and unstinting, rooted and questioning. It looks to the past in order to reach to the future, speaking to this present all the while. It wants time, and a second reading, and a third—and it is very much worth every one.

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