What We Agreed to Call “Snow” in Yorùbá by I.S. Jones
MARGINALIA • SKIP TO THE POEM
Years ago I was in Hà Nội in the middle of February, and it was 16° Celsius. I was shivering as I walk from one street corner to another, the chill seeping into my bones, introducing me to what cold is, like I’ve never known it. Jesus, you look like an Eskimo, he says, in what would otherwise be known as a series of red flags I should’ve seen coming, only I was too busy looking at so many things with wonder: the cloud that has become my breath, the steaming bowl of phở warming my face, the egg in my coffee and the foam moustache that came with it. He laughs while I hug myself, not unkindly, but not kind enough either. Either way, I wasn’t a stranger in this place and yet I feel slightly strange anyway, my body trying to adjust to the weather.
What is a cloud if not a mass of water in the sky. If not dust, if not smoke. It comes from clud in Old English, and I wonder how old my language is, descended from myths and bamboos and a melting culture pot before the Spaniards went looking for spices.
How can you work for a man who wants you to give him an English word because he can’t be bothered to pronounce what your parents have named you. This is a question I wanted to ask them all, as we sit around a big table where our fingers will barely touch even if we leaned forward and tried to reach. She introduces herself as Michelle. But isn’t your name Thanh, I asked. Today it’s Michelle, she said. Her friend looks around before telling us her name is Hue, which means lily, and that she likes the idea of laying on a cloud of flowers. Did you mean a field, I asked. No, a cloud, she said. Let’s just call you Lily then, I heard him say.
It’s so cold I wonder if I’ll ever feel warm again. It was a grey morning and I was walking towards my favourite bakery as if I truly lived in this neighbourhood and I’m not a mere visitor. If you’re this cold how can you even survive the snow, the lady at the counter laughs, tropical girl. I gasped in wonder: You have snow! She laughs all the way to the kitchen.
But they didn’t just leave for spice, did they. Before the colonisers were colonisers, they wanted to find the edge of the earth. The history of my family tree can be traced back to a galleon officer who got on a ship because of a man’s desire to learn if the world was round. When I was a child I ran this way and that way, saying, Look! The cloud is following me! How can oppression emerge from a dream.
The history of my language descended from several tongues. Say ulap. Say gabon. Say panganod. What remains after your self has fragmented. I was a cloud away from home, wandering the streets, finding wisps of myself in a temple, on a slice of dragon fruit, on the quiet lake on a Saturday afternoon.
What We Agreed to Call “Snow” in Yorùbá
Night falls & snow joins in ceremony.
I search the clearing for danger
only to be met with ache.
Snow is now; there are things that can’t be translated.
Don’t give up on me, says the snow.
Again, I try. Snow is a landscape of loneliness.
It returns to Earth if only to be touched a little longer.
What of ègbọ̀n òtútù, meaning “cold weather,”
though it passes through the threshold of language
as “cotton cold,” ègbọ̀n not for its color
but how it doesn’t fear coming undone.
Snow derives from the Old English snaw,
“that which cascades,” what makes new language for grace.
Nǹkan tó ń gbọ̀n sílẹ̀ láti ọ̀run, which does its best
to translate to: “something shaking from heaven.”
The snow, my hair, a brief marriage. Yìnyín comes close
but means “ice” & snow is a measurement of longing.
I walk to the center & let heaven fall over me.
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This poem appeared in Spells of My Name by I.S. Jones, published by Newfound Press, 2021. Shared here with profound gratitude.
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