Here’s the introduction to a long and mesmerizing poem by Robert Kelly, written ten years ago as “preliminary meditations towards the Osnabrueck conference on language and identity”:


When he saw the shape of the cloud
over the monastery dining hall
a foreign word came quickly      [ko.mong]
to his nearby mind,

           O yes
it is the words
who are the aliens

oyez oyez
they have lived here with us
nearer than mitochondria

they moved into our brains and altered
our minds over millennia

Harappa, oyez, Sumeria.

Every language
is a foreign language,

an invasion
from outside of space.

The poem is full of lines I couldn’t resist reading out loud: “Examine, traveler, and sit still”; “philology alone is good for you”; “wild carrots, clover, ragweed, poetry”; “and you call this a Protestant?” I don’t know what it all adds up to, but then neither does Kelly:

I had a theme
but lost it in Los Angeles
when a pregnant lady with a lisp
looked me in the eye

But it’s about language as much as anything, and I enjoyed it and hope you will too.

I came to it via a link at Mark Woods’ invaluable wood s lot, which has recently celebrated its third blogaversary and which—for one day only!—is renamed ::: woods’ lot ::: in response to an irritable request for greater specificity by Eliot Gelwan of Follow Me Here, who complains about Mark’s self-effacing posting habits and his links to “the solipsism, self-indulgence, and preciousness in some of the postmodern discourse which Mark favors” but can’t stay away, any more than the rest of us. (Today, for example, besides a couple of Kelly links he features a Walter Benjamin quote with illustrative picture, an anti–Columbus Day story from Counterpunch, the story of “Howl”, an essay by Michael Cronin on “the position of translation in the context of the relationship between technology and culture,” a paper by Reuven Tsur called “Aspects of Cognitive Poetics,” and much else, beginning and ending with wonderful poems by Wallace Stevens. If you haven’t already bookmarked it, now’s the time.) Many more anniversaries and obscurities, Mark!

Oh, and I suspect “ko mong” is Vietnamese but don’t have the appropriate dictionaries with me at work, so if anyone knows what it means please say so.

Addendum. Doesn’t appear to be Vietnamese; if it were, of course, it would be co-mong, but there doesn’t seem to be such a word with any of the possible variants of o. (There is a Mong-Co ‘Mongolia,’ but that’s not much help.)

Update (Nov. 2019). I finally had the bright idea of asking Charlotte Mandell, Kelly’s wife (and a fine translator), with whom I have been corresponding off and on for years, and she reports:

We know the language is Tibetan, but we have no idea what Robert meant by ko.mong! We’ve asked our various Tibetan friends what it could mean, and they have no idea… I tried various permutations of the word in the Tibetan dictionary but the closest I could come was, the word for bird. Maybe R made it up, hence words are the invaders? Sorry we can’t be of more help, we did try!

Thanks, Charlotte!


  1. is “oyez” pronounced exactly the same as “oh yes”? I have always assumed it is.

  2. The second syllable can be -yes, -yez, or -yay according to the dictionaries; I’m not sure which I’ve heard most—it’s not something you come across very often unless you frequent English courts.

  3. Well, it’s an oldish-French imperative “hear!” so the pronunciation depends on how old-French you want to sound. 🙂
    I think there’s a 16th c. English madrigal somewhere whose rhymes indicate the -ay pronunciation. I could be wrong about this, however.

  4. Still wondering about [ko.mong]…

  5. PlasticPaddy says

    Ko: you
    Mong: I

  6. But that’s two words. Komong appears to be a word in Kalenjin, but I have no idea what it means.

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    Ok. Since the poet likes erotic images I just thought you/me might be what he sees in a cloud shape ☺

  8. that’s two words

    And the other way round:

    Direct (ang) Indirect (ng) Oblique (sa)
    1st person singular ako ko akin
    2nd person singular ikáw (ka) mo iyó

    But it’s such a (phonologically) unremarkable word, the likes of which can be found virtually everywhere, eg:

    こもん2【小紋】 ローマ(komon)
    a fine pattern.
    ▲小紋の fine-patterned
    ・小紋のちりめん thin silk crepe with a fine pattern.
    __江戸小紋 the art of dyeing in fine patterns prevalent in the Edo period.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    I can narrow the field significantly by stating categorically that the word is not Kusaal.
    (One down, 6000 to go …)

  10. But it’s such a (phonologically) unremarkable word, the likes of which can be found virtually everywhere

    True, but I like that Japanese word, and I hope it’s what he had in mind!

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    The Japanese makes sense. And it seems reasonable to limit the possibilities to languages which are not so exotic that a nonspecialist wouldn’t even have heard of them. Kelly doesn’t seem to have a biography which would suggest acquaintance with the sort of languages that a typical Hatter would think of as exotic.

    Despite the fancy [] brackets, the word can hardly be meant as IPA, and several Japanese-English dictionaries use [] like that.

    I think Juha’s guess is as good as can be achieved without actually interrogating the poet.

  12. Which I may in fact do.

  13. Since the poet likes erotic images

    肛門 “koomon” – “anus”

    might be what he sees in a cloud shape


  14. David Eddyshaw says

    As another poet remarks, “All human hearts have ugly little treasures.”
    He draws the line at Alpinism though. And quite right too.

    Actually, this is a mere pretext for citing the whole context:

    The mountain-snob is a Wordsworthian fruit;
        He tears his clothes and doesn’t shave his chin,
    He wears a very pretty little boot,
        He chooses the least comfortable inn;
        A mountain railway is a deadly sin;
    His strength, of course, is as the strength of ten men,
    He calls all those who live in cities wen-men.

    I’m not a spoil-sport, I would never wish
        To interfere with anybody’s pleasures;
    By all means climb, or hunt, or even fish,
        All human hearts have ugly little treasures;
        But think it time to take repressive measures
    When someone says, adopting the “I know’ line,
    The Good Life is confined above the snow-line.

    Besides, I’m very fond of mountains, too;
        I like to travel through them in a car.
    I like a house that’s got a sweeping view;
        I like to walk, but not to walk too far.
        I also like green plains where cattle are,
    And trees and rivers, and shall always quarrel
    With those who think that rivers are immoral.

    My family may perhaps be getting tired of my stirring rendering of the the first four lines of the last stanza. They’ve not said as much in so many words, though.

  15. Can’t go wrong with Auden, and I highly approve the sentiment. I may have to develop my own stirring rendering.

  16. “The heart cherishes secrets not worth the telling.”  —Elohim saying (Stephen R. Donaldson)

    “I haven’t seen much of the world, but cannot believe that any place is more beautiful than New England and the Middle Atlantic States, especially in the fall. I find plains dull, and mountains (real mountains) stark. What I want are hills, and trees, and green vistas, and set in the midst of it all, the glorious skyscrapers of Manhattan.”  —Isaac Asimov

  17. I listened to a few YouTube recordings of “Oyez!” at the U.S. Supreme Court, and the tradition there is firmly in favor of OH-YAY, with equally distributed stress. It is more chanted or even sung than spoken. The grammar of the whole invitation (every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 10 AM during the court’s term) is also pleasingly archaic: “The Honorable the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court!” (I have removed two commas inserted by someone to try to make sense of the the NP the NP apposition construction; they represent neither spoken pauses nor syntactic breaks.)

    In oyer and terminer, the royal writ or grant by which a criminal court could be held either by the King’s justices or a private person, or the court itself, the prounciation is just OY-er. In Latin it was audiendo et terminando ‘hearing and deciding’, and in English it was called sake and soke, this being the same word sake ‘interest, concern’ that now survives only in the for X’s sake construction. (Sometimes territorial lords could not show such a grant and claimed the right by prescription: they had exercised it since before the beginning of “time immemorial, or time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary” (July 6, 1189) and so it was presumed to be lawful.)

  18. Soke ‘right of local jurisdiction’ is apparently related to seek.

  19. Turns out ko.mong is Tibetan, though of unknown meaning — see Update above.

  20. Charlotte added: “R says ‘it’s a word that came into my head– hence the sense of language as invading, words as invaders.'”

  21. David Marjanović says

    the the NP the NP apposition construction

    That’s archaic? I’ve never seen it before.

    (…except arguably for The Cheat, who “can impersonate the other characters speaking English remarkably well for a The Cheat.”)

  22. @David Marjanović: English allows appositives without comma delimiters. I would not say they are archaic, but they are certainly uncommon. They are also fairly formal, because the omission of commas places the two appositives in essentially equal positions, so it would generally only make sense to use such a construction when (as in the Supreme Court Justices example) both pieces are fixed or formal designations—so one cannot be presented as a mere clarification or description of the other. Moreover, to clarify where the boundary between the two noun phrases lies, it is typically necessary to have the second one marked with a determiner; this works reasonably well in a phrase like, “the newspaper of record The New York Times,” where “The” is part of the formal terminology in the second noun phrase. (Of course, that example still works just as well—if not better—with a comma, but the point is that it is fine without.)

  23. David Marjanović says

    “the newspaper of record The New York Times,”

    That’s unremarkable. WIth a comma it means that The New York Times is the one and only newspaper of record, without a comma it means there are others.

    The construction “the Honorable the” strikes me as very different.

  24. It is, and I think Brett is conflating two constructions, one archaic and one current.

  25. @David Marjanović: No, that’s not right, actually. Both “The New York TImes” and “the newspaper of record” are unique identifiers of a particular newspaper. (From a legal standpoint, in America there is either no such thing a on official “newspaper of record,” or any paper qualifies as one. However “the [news]paper of record” is a sobriquet specific to The New York Times.)

    My perception is that that is the same construction as in the Supreme Court example, but examples are sufficiently uncommon that my native intuition may be insufficient.

  26. David Marjanović says

    Then, the newspaper of record, The New York Times needs its comma.

  27. PlasticPaddy says
    Newspapers of record are not like Highlander, I. e., “there can be only one” does not apply here. I still have no objection to not using the comma and parse the phrase like “the emperor Augustus”

  28. @David Marjanović: You might well think that, but I assert that the comma is not necessary. This is despite the fact that “the newspaper of record” is a nickname that, in context, is specific to The New York Times.

    PlasticPaddy is correct that, in certain contexts, “newspaper of record” can refer to other publications. For discussions of matters in the Cleveland metropolitan area, one can refer to The Plain Dealer as the relevant paper of record. However, absent any specific regional context, “the newspaper of record” is an unambiguous reference to one specific national daily.

  29. Quasi-national, I’d say. It is read (and therefore printed) all over the country, but it is still very much a New York City paper, unlike USA Today or the Wall Street Journal or the UK national papers.

    the Honorable the X is strange because of the second the; I do not believe it functions as an apposition, as honorable is not a noun.

  30. Exactly. Different construction.

  31. I don’t know. I perceive it to be the same construction as “his Excellency the President of the United States,” without commas. And the president example certainly seems to be a appositive.

  32. But excellency really is a noun.

  33. @John Cowan: Well, yes, that was part of my point. The word honorable is not a noun, but it seems to me that it can serve in place of one in this kind of appositive construction.

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