Sunday, June 12, 2011

Longing for the Mother Tongue by Joseph Farley

Longing for the Mother Tongue by Joseph Farley, March Street Press, Greensboro NC, 2010.

Review by Carol Hamilton

On my first read-through of LONGING FOR THE MOTHER TONGUE, I experienced the satisfaction felt when I hear another articulate feelings I have had. Joseph Farley, longtime editor of AXE FACTORY, has released this slim volume of 16 poems with March Street Press. In it, he has found a graceful and deeply felt way to express his reactions to life's disorienting changes.

These poems will speak especially to those who have lived in two worlds. The author writes of living inside his past ( home, native tongue, a known self and comfort) while living a new life with its excitement, exoticism, freshness, but also with its frustrations and even incomprehensibility.

The first poem of this series is a simple love poem which works to set up the contrasting realities the poems explore. The poem speaks of black and white photographs of the beloved from an earlier era seen against the
full-color, flesh and blood, aging but present reality. The two images are held together by love, but in a tension that struggles to understand how these two realities are truly one.

From this universal emotion, so clearly and simply evoked, Farley moves into his theme in the next poem, "Welcome to Ji'an." Complex events and backgrounds are shared in this narrative piece presented with Oriental understatement and slender line breaks to create an Eastern feel to the pages. The ex-pat tells of being saved, while trying to save his own son, by Lao Wai Po, great grandmother of 90 years, while being attacked by a gang of construction workers angry at his:

golden hair,
among a sea
of black hair.

The author comes away from the encounter feeling he must be very ugly to cause this violent anger, though he knows he has done nothing wrong. Still, he found:

I stayed away
from mirrors
for the rest of my stay
what I might find
looking back at me.

Farley's title poem, "Longing for the Mother Tongue," expresses the yearning the ex-pat feels for the comfort and the rhythms of one's language heard in the womb, the quicksilver understandings so little appreciated until its facile use is of no use:

Stammering idiot
babbling nonsense
to the locals,
they cannot understand
my words.

The story becomes even more difficult when he comes to realize that even those closest in this new world, new family, have no understanding of his own beliefs. There is not a world view that can be truly shared. This difficult truth is forced to the surface with the events of Tieneman Square.

In "The Eye of the Beholder" the author realizes how time changes even the common threads of youthful desire for freedom:

Money makes things good,
or so it seems,
and history is a dusty book
sitting on a shelf.

In the end, one understands that there will never be an ideal understanding between different worlds. The father tries to help the son understand the importance of night soil, despite his own disgust.

The child of such unions is the one who finally melds the two worlds, as expressed in the short piece, "East Meets West." But then the same muddling of tongues takes place again, this time between the generations,
which have once again come together from different worlds.

These poems, Oriental in their simplicity and understatement, but full of Western sentiment, express a confusion and near despair which is somehow redeemed by love: love for the old life, love for the new life, and a deep love for the people and places never fully understood. This collection confronts us with our human condition. Farley's work is a sweet way to swallow this bitter pill.


***Carol Hamilton is a writer and storyteller born in Enid, Oklahoma and graduated from Midwest City High School. She has a BS degree from Phillips University and an MA in English from the University of Central Oklahoma. She lived in Connecticut, Scotland, New York, West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana before returning to Oklahoma. She taught elementary school in North Haven, Connecticut, Indianapolis Indiana, and Tinker Elementary on Tinker AFB and helped develop and teach for the last 12 years of her public school career in the elementary gifted school for Mid-Del Schools, the Academic Center for Enrichment. She was Teacher of the Year for Mid-Del Schools in 1982.

She taught in the English Department of Rose State College for 10 years and 7 years on the graduate faculty of the Creative Studies Division of the English Department for the University of Central Oklahoma. She has also taught Spanish, astronomy, and creative writing in continuing education programs for Rose State College, Oasis, the Vo-Tech System, and other programs. She translates for an Oklahoma City health clinic for women and children and often goes as a translator for medical teams working in Third World countries. She received a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Central Oklahoma for 2007.

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