Learning to Speak

by Wallace Kaufman

(for my friends in the US0SU Radio Operators’ Expedition, Chukotka 1989)

Last year when it was over,
when I took off Dimitri’s parka
Valery’s boots and Sergei’s fur hat
that had kept me alive,
we embraced and were very sad
and looked at each other as if to say,
“If only we could speak.”
From one station in a shipping crate
from one antenna in the snows,
across the pole and frozen Siberia
around the world went our hope
in two languages and Morse code
speaking of one world.
But looking at each other
We could say only, “Good-bye and Dos Vi Danya.”


Learning a new language at fifty
is like learning ballet at seventy.
I love the music of new words
the dance of new thoughts,
a drumbeat of names:
Pevek and Anadyr, Roytan and Wrangel,
Larisa, Volodya, Valya and Slava,
Pyotr, Victor, Ludi, Villi, Yuri.
I want to come back to the north
and talk with you about polar bears,
and the ice floes, about icebreakers,
and the long night,
and the flowers on the tundra,
about where you came from
and where you are going,
and if the arctic will still be white
when our children have children.


I stumble along in Russian now,
but my mind is like a bad fish net
with many holes and often
when I try to pull in a few words I need,
they escape just as I think I have grasped them,
especially the big ones.
I have boxes and boxes of little cards
with words and phrases on them.
I am like a man building a tree
out of dry leaves.
In my own language I can write poems and stories
that make people laugh and cry.
But if you could hear and read
the words and sentences
exactly as I speak my new language
you would have to laugh at me and cry for me,
how I mangle your Russian words.
That’s okay.
I trust you.
We will laugh and cry together.
So it is in the best families.

Wallace Kaufman’s poetry, fiction, and non-fiction have been widely published along with several books of non-fiction and one sci-fi novel that takes place largely in Kazakhstan. Visit www.sicvita.com to learn more about the author.