Eulogy, a Poem by Sherman Alexie

"When she died, we buried all of those words with her"

May 12, 2017  By Sherman Alexie
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My mother was a dictionary.

She was one of the last fluent speakers of our tribal language.

She knew dozens of words that nobody else knew.

When she died, we buried all of those words with her.

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My mother was a dictionary.

She knew words that had been spoken for thousands of years.

She knew words that will never be spoken again.

She knew songs that will never be sung again.

She knew stories that will never be told again.

My mother was a dictionary.

My mother was a thesaurus,

My mother was an encyclopedia.

My mother never taught her children the tribal language.

Oh, she taught us how to count to ten.

Oh, she taught us how to say “I love you.”

Oh, she taught us how to say “Listen to me.”

And, of course, she taught us how to curse.

My mother was a dictionary.

She was one of the last four speakers of the tribal language.

In a few years, the last surviving speakers, all elderly, will also be gone.

There are younger Indians who speak a new version of the tribal

language.

But the last old-time speakers will be gone.

My mother was a dictionary.

But she never taught me the tribal language.

And I never demanded to learn.

My mother always said to me, “English will be your best weapon.”

She was right, she was right, she was right.

My mother was a dictionary.

When she died, her children mourned her in English.

My mother knew words that had been spoken for thousands of years.

Sometimes, late at night, she would sing one of the old songs.

She would lullaby us with ancient songs.

We were lullabied by our ancestors.

My mother was a dictionary.

I own a cassette tape, recorded in 1974.

On that cassette, my mother speaks the tribal language.

She’s speaking the tribal language with her mother, Big Mom.

And then they sing an ancient song.

I haven’t listened to that cassette tape in two decades.

I don’t want to risk snapping the tape in some old cassette player.

And I don’t  want to risk letting anybody else transfer that tape to

digital.

My mother and grandmother’s conversation doesn’t belong in the

cloud.

That old song is too sacred for the Internet.

So, as that cassette tape deteriorates, I know that it will soon be dead.

Maybe I will bury it near my mother’s grave.

Maybe I will bury it at the base of the tombstone she shares with my

father.

Of course, I’m lying.

I would never bury it where somebody might find it.

Stay away, archaeologists! Begone, begone!

My mother was a dictionary.

She knew words that have been spoken for thousands of years.

She knew words that will never be spoken again.

I wish I could build tombstones for each of those words.

Maybe this poem is a tombstone.

My mother was a dictionary.

She spoke the old language.

But she never taught me how to say those ancient words.

She always said to me, “English will be your best weapon.”

She was right, she was right, she was right.

__________________________________

From YOU DON’T HAVE TO SAY YOU LOVE ME by Sherman Alexie. Copyright © 2017 by Sherman Alexie. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.




Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie
A National Book Award-winning author, poet, and filmmaker, Sherman has been named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists and has been lauded by The Boston Globe as "an important voice in American literature." He is one of the most well known and beloved literary writers of his generation, with works such as The Long Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Reservoir Blues and has received numerous awards and citations, including the PEN/Malamud Award for Fiction and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award.







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  • elmom

    just beautiful. love your books, loved this poem.

    • Rob Ganson

      Miigwetch, miigwetch, miigwetch.

  • Sherman Funmaker

    Good job man.

  • Fawzia Begum

    Simply beautiful!

  • Elle Cuardaigh

    Heartbreakingly beautiful.

  • Gene Argel

    that is heartbreaking…
    I love all your writing

  • Northof60

    A beautiful tribute for your mother and all the mothers of the languages.

  • DjZ

    It is beautiful to create something from the ashes of the passed. I have few words that can respond to this poem but I send resonant thoughts. My ancestors were dictionaries and had their tongues ripped from them.

  • Ben Mitchell

    That is a beautiful eulogy,

  • Rmarcus8

    Read your wondrous poem. Compelled to send you mine in the same spirit.’

    You Do Realize

    1.
    You do realize
    They’re going to all be gone soon.
    The last ones with the comic accents;
    Mishpucha, famiglia, kin, kith.
    Brooklyn. South Boston. Chicago.
    Tongues mixed with poverty and cabbage.
    They’re almost all used up.
    Almost all gone.
    The last ones who remember us as children,
    Whether we want them to or not.

    Our children find it hard to believe.
    You don’t understand, we say,
    You don’t understand.
    They were giants.
    Little, tiny giants who owned appliance stores,
    Who got very far up in companies;
    Who should have invested.

    They’re going to all be gone soon.
    The “Greatest Generation.”
    The one that saved the world.
    Disregarding that they saved it
    From their own generation, but
    That’s another story.

    They’re fading fast.
    Drying up.
    Busy, busy all day now,
    Like in the brochures.
    Pictures of swimming pools and dining rooms.
    Whispering away in Boca, Boynton Beach, Port St. Lucie,
    Whispering away with memory of the bright big bands,
    Echoing across the lake,
    The twinkling lights.
    How rich it was when they would go dancing.
    How rich the world was.

    2.
    They’re going to all be gone soon.
    We find that hard to believe,
    That they will all be gone.
    They find it hard to believe.
    You can bet on that.
    They were the generation that saved the world.
    You can bet on that.
    Then we had to save it from them.

    Our own children go about
    Making their own dominion,
    Saving it for themselves.
    Making their own history
    Anyway they goddamn please,
    It seems to us.

    3.
    They’re going to all be gone soon,
    We still ask about their history.
    They still shake their heads.
    “You wouldn’t understand.”
    “Times were different.”
    “Things happened.”
    “We had responsibilities.”
    They’re right.
    We’d never understand.
    We didn’t really want to fill their shoes.
    Which is maybe why they are in Boca,
    Boynton Beach and Port St. Lucie.

    We’ve worked hard to forgive ourselves.
    Worked hard to make sure everyone understands.
    Our own children don’t ask.
    We want them to.
    We tell them
    We understand the world right now.
    They don’t believe us.
    Backwards on backwards.
    We’ll see if it stays that way.

    4..
    They’re going to all be gone soon.
    How can that be?
    There were so many of them.
    They did just about everything.
    And now they’re going to be all gone?
    How can that be?

    We make room for friends and more friends,
    To join us in this choir of middle aged orphans.
    We say to stricken faces. “Yes, we know,
    They were giants.”
    We must be firm with them.
    “They’re going to all be gone soon.”
    Yes, the greatest generation.
    Gone. Every last one.
    Such a silence we can’t imagine.

    Whispering away with memory of the bright big bands,
    Echoing across the lake,
    And the twinkling lights.
    How rich it was when they would go dancing.
    How rich the world was.

    – Richard Marcus

    Published: Thrive Magazine, Sept.2007

    5230 SW Custer St.
    Portland, OR 97219
    (503) 788- 9967
    rmarcus8@comcast.net



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