Joan Houlihan–Language and Community
Some say language creates the world. A well-known hypothesis of language learning (1)
states that after around five years old, deprived of the conditions leading to language
development—overhearing and interacting with speakers—children can no longer learn
how to form syntactical structures, they can only memorize individual words and their
definitions. The relationship between words cannot be formed. But what is the world if not a
relationship between, among, to and for?
To consider relationships between words is to also consider relationships between
people—parent and child, siblings, friends, couples, groups, cities and nations—in short,
community. While the pronoun “us” gave rise to my imagined community of hunter gatherers
in The Us, and while discovering and uncovering the life of this particular
community, line by line, in each poem, I discovered/uncovered the essential truths of any
community: food, warmth, safety, and belonging (“Us nest fine a weather long / between
the heat of kin / the least of us in huts / built round with stones.”) It seemed to me then, while
writing the poems, as it seems to me now, reflecting on them, that the language itself both made
and served the group. Saying “us” created an us, and each time the us speak as one in a collective
voice they confirm themselves anew. They state their existence as a community. In The Us,
language creates a world of relationships: between words (syntax) and between people
Furthermore, because I wanted to portray the group as always at the threshold of
language (and thus civilization), I felt their language needed to be as simple as possible,
directly concerned with immediate surroundings, basic transactions of need, and without
adornment. Because the natural world of the group was close and dangerous, sometimes
awe-inspiring, in its very nearness this world became almost a member of the group itself
and therefore had to be treated as an entity, another sentient life-form (“From dirt, a stir
put forth its mix, smell / of weed and green-held bud, deep cups / sweet and sharp.
Warmer started day. / Sun lay wider where us walked.”)
The concerns of this imagined group are the concerns of any community, and The Us
functions as an allegory of community, especially in the group’s drive to find a home—a
physical location free from attack by enemies (“thems”) and able to sustain life (hunting
and/or farming). As with so many migratory or diaspora groups, the us are forced to
keep moving under harsh conditions (“Froze by winter blast / us could not grip on meat
or crust, / ours fingers blackened down to all the hand”), and the resting place they find
is an island untouched by civilization, in a time when all relationships, including those
between humans and animals, exist before the community of all living things is shattered
and splintered. (“Then horses low and red / came slow for us to ride / necks
outstretched for hands, / eye cast down and soft / and nuzzled forth and bent for us to
The idea of community then, is a central concern of the book, and I examine this idea in
two main ways: first, through the viewpoint of the collective “us,” and second, through
the viewpoint of a separate consciousness formed by the independent action of one
member (“ay”). The emergence of a separate member’s viewpoint parallels the emergence of
individuality through separation: ay sees his mother suffering and being left behind by
the group, and he therefore must choose to act separately from the us (“ay am hers son
and could not leave her colding.”). This loyalty to a first “community” (the bond between
child and mother) supersedes the bond to the later community (the us).
When his mother dies, and ay experiences the further trauma of being captured by the
“thems” and enslaved to them, his separation/individuation continues. He has lost his
primary relationships (father, mother) and his community (the us). The ultimate trauma
is an experience of violence (an attack by one of the us, who is called greb, leaves ay
brain-injured and unable to move or speak), and he is driven into internal dialogue, his
sole relationship residing within himself, as he literally talks to himself (thinks).
In the final sections of the book, ay explores his thoughts through rhetorical questions
and interior monologue (“When hurt stops the mouth / what talks on?”) as he is forced to
struggle with ideas of his own origin and purpose:
Rain made me here. What would speak me
have a noise? Even bird would fold
and pleat then leaf-stirred make its cry
and go. How could winter matter touched rattling
to a tree, holding white and close
another sleep? Ay could not tell.
Ay came back simple, milded, felled.
Displaced by his injury into a mute state, ay develops a heightened connection with self
(or god–mind–spirit), the only connection left to him, one that does not require exterior
speech or response. In his speechless state, immobilized and dependent on being lifted,
carried, and fed by the us, ay returns to a primary bond, that of the infant and mother, as
the us tend and protect him as a collective mother.
In the process of taking care and looking out for ay, the us re-forms the community
around him, embedding him, healing the piece of the collective that has been wounded so
that unity can be regained. (“Lifted like a brae, soft-turned by hands, / murmured on,
wrapped in cloth, ay were / still. The us made a shade to lay me down”).
The progression or movement from inner silence (pre-language) to connection with
another human (language) enacted through the infant’s pre-lingual connection to the
mother and later, through language, to a family and wider community, is one that I
attempted to recreate through the injury to the ay and his loss of language as
“Mother tongue”—the phrase is apt, as language is not merely a means to (or result of) a
primal bond, but the keeping together of those in the same family, tribe, citizenry, nation;
not only a tool of creating community, but a reelection and expression of the community as it
knows itself, its identity. In this sense, the language of a community is an action, an enactment of
bond, and the language itself, in its syntactical relations, forms its most useful and harmonious
arrangement of parts, a community of words.
(1) Eric Heinz Lenneberg. Biological Foundations of Language. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1967.
Joan Houlihan is the author of four books of poetry, most recently, Ay (Tupelo Press, 2014). Her other books are: The Us (Massachusetts Center for the Book’s “must-read” book of 2009) The Mending Worm (Green Rose Award from New Issues Press), and Hand-Held Executions. Her poetry has been anthologized in The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (University of Iowa Press) and The Book of Irish-American Poetry–Eighteenth Century to Present (University of Notre Dame Press). She is a contributing critic for the Contemporary Poetry Review and author of a series of essays on contemporary American poetry archived online at bostoncomment.com. She has taught at Columbia University and Emerson College and currently teaches in the Lesley University Low-Residency MFA Program and Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Houlihan is founder and director of the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference.