A Conversation with Chus Pato, by Michael Kelleher, is an interview with “one of the most significant poets writing in Galician today”; I confess I know little about Galician and less about Galician literature, so I was glad to read it. (Note: a Galician version of this conversation is available here.) Kelleher begins:

In Secession, you write, “my native language is a linguistic conflict.” Your native language is Galician, a language once outlawed by Franco (under whose regime you grew up), a language that now exists as co-official with Spanish within the “autonomous community” of Galicia in Northwestern Spain. Can you talk about the complexities of Galicia as a place, of Galician as a “co-official” language, and what it means for a poet to write in Galician? In other words, what is this “linguistic conflict”?

Chus Pato responds:

That’s what I wrote, and that’s how it is. […] I belong to an intermediate generation; my parents were native Galician speakers but always spoke to us in Castilian, as they didn’t want their children to have painful issues in adapting, as they’d had. […] Today, the situation of Galician is opposite to that when I was born. The younger generations now don’t speak Galician because it was not transmitted to them. They don’t know how to speak it [on a daily basis]; they can read and write in it but it’s a dead language for them, for the majority of them. Of course, Galician is alive in a minority that could become a majority if there were decent linguistic policies. Will this ever happen? Anything is possible.

Then we get an interesting discussion of an unusual title; Kelleher asks about “the first remarkable book, m-Talá, in the pentalogy Erín Moure has translated into English. ‘m-Talá’ is a word with no meaning at all in Galician or English, a kind of cry. Is meaninglessness or the unspeakable, then, a point of departure for you, or a limit, or both?” The response:

Are the limits of language apparent? Rather than limits, I’d speak of the different uses of languages, and would oppose those uses that are instrumental to poetic use. If we consider instrumental uses of language to be “apparent limits,” I’d go along with your formulation, and would further affirm that the language or idiom of the poem tries to break through those limits and arrive at that language which has none. […]

In effect, “m-Talá” is indeed a word that lacks meaning or, to put it another way, direction. I created this title not really as a cry but as a proper name, of a person or place (a toponym). Most such names lack meaning and, notwithstanding this, they name all that we are. They signal our identity; by them, we are called and turn our face toward the one who calls us. In many cases we receive them from an ancestor, thus connecting us to the infinite links in the genetic chain that has led to the appearance of the species to which we belong. This is just to set out some of the qualities of proper names. It’s the same with toponyms; with them we name the places we most cherish, or those from where we came or toward which we want to go. It’s precisely their quality of lacking meaning that constitutes names as key to the entire language. Thanks to that non-sense, that lack of direction, we can enter and traverse the language we use; all of it, and every one of our verbal constructions, are based on non-sense, on the arbitrariness of sounds that constitute both words and the relations that grammar establishes between words. As such, in consequence, to me “m-Talá” functions as a proper name, an identity that, in its impossible referentiality, reveals the arbitrariness and non-sense of the articulated language of the human species.

Obviously, a name’s lack of direction can include the unsayable. Life itself is unsayable, unspeakable, unutterable; birth—the emergence, budding of life—is unsayable, and death as well. Life is improper, in the sense that it is not our property, we don’t own life, or birth, or death. Our life is improper and unsayable. Perhaps this fundamental impropriety is one of the reasons why language fails us at the grandeur of a birth or the farewell of death. In any case, in all that this might raise for discussion, I want to point to the opposition between the limit and the illimited. I’ll say that the poem is a limited entity or being, I’ll say that life is the eternal flow of what lacks limits, life is the absolute of time that never stops flowing, as do the waters that surround the continents on which we live, as does the movement of galaxies in the heavens. I’ll say that in the poem, the articulated language of the human species wishes to brush up against that which has no limits and which in some way shatters its limits, to be contaminated by, infected by, the absolute through which life unfolds, and this very contact infuses the poem with a rhythm, a breathing that makes it transcend the sayable and lift life closer to that unsayable magnitude. A poem is a birth (in that sense, yes, a cry always emerges from it, the cry of birth), an arising, a desire to breathe the unsayable. In short… well, it’s not simple to write on these questions. In any case, m-Talá, both book and title, tried to attempt to draw close to all that is so difficult to articulate here: the question of limits, of the illimited, of sense and of the absence of direction.an or English, a kind of cry.”

I’m reminded of Godard’s coffee-cup monologue from one of my favorite movies, 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle, which I wrote about in 2003 (you can see a YouTube clip of the scene here). Thanks, David!


  1. Clearly there is a lot to say about the unsayable. This is only to be expected, since communication chugs along under its own steam. Words appear, followed by more words. Speakers embark and disbark at their leisure.

  2. There’s a Russ daughter’s obituary in the NY Times that’s worth reading if only for its final sentence. Mr & Mrs Russ were from Galicia (the other one).

  3. Galician gives me (Portuguese speaker) the most uncanny feeling of familiarity and alterity at the same time, but I can’t put it into words very well. It’s like, you’re magically able to understand this other language without any previous preparation, but it still feels like another language.

  4. From the Russ’s daughter’s obituary:

    “Joel Russ didn’t arrange his daughters’ marriages,” Mark Federman, Anne’s son, wrote in “Russ & Daughters: The House That Herring Built” (2013), “but did retain what is called in business today the right of first refusal.”

    If the father had a right of first refusal (in the business sense) over his daughter’s suitors, it meant that they had to offer to marry him first, on the same terms, and they would only be able to marry his daughters if he refused to marry them himself.

  5. *snicker*. But you know what was meant.

    Despite being an eight-minute walk away from R & D, a trivial distance for a New Yorker, and having passed it numerous times, I’ve never set foot there. I’ve only been in Yonah Shimmel’s Knish Bakery, which is even closer, once.

  6. Oh great, now I want a knish from Yonah Schimmel’s.

  7. Bill Boyd says

    To gain a sense of Galician (for those who speak Spanish or Portuguese), consider watching “Bitter Daisies” (also titled in Galician “O Sabor Das Magaridas”), a who-dun-it on Netflix. With subtitles in Spanish (and in English and I’m sure a couple other languages), at times for me who’s studied Portuguese, it felt like typical peninsular Spanish while on other occasions sounded much more Portuguese. Now I’m looking for a film done in Upper Aragonese.

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