Daniel Evans Pritchard reviews new book of poems by Susan Barba

Daniel Evans Pritchard in the Kenyon Review:

Cover_barbaThere’s an Armenian saying that goes, You are as many people as the languages you know. It’s not an especially novel idea. In the eighth century, Charlemagne observed that to have another language is to possess a second soul. But it may be especially pertinent for speakers of Armenian, a language that occupies a distinct branch of the Indo-European linguistic tree and uses a unique script dating back to the fifth century AD. Armenia lies at a continental crossroad in the South Caucasus, bordering Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkey. For centuries, empires have battled for regional dominance: Byzantine, Persian, Russian, Ottoman, Soviet. During the Armenian genocide (the Turkish government disputes that characterization), one and a half million Armenians were put to death by the Ottoman Empire, an event which prompted the vibrant diaspora that exists today, stretching from Tehran to my own neighborhood in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Americans, for our part, are notorious monoglots. Back in 1887, Rear Admiral George Balch penned a version of the Pledge of Allegiance that specified “one country, one language, one flag.” It was rejected in favor of the now well-known rendition, but Balch’s spirit survives in our current disputes over bilingual classrooms, translations of the national anthem, and an official language. To many Americans, multilingualism seems either an unpatriotic pretension or a sign of foreign allegiances. President Trump went so far as to refuse a translation headset during the G7 talks this spring, preferring to mime comprehension with all the awareness of a dog that has been trained to raise its paw.

No such isolation for speakers of Armenian. The majority of Armenian citizens today speak Russian fluently, a consequence of long imperial rule. Many others speak French, Persian, or Greek. A large and growing number speak English too, influenced no doubt by the soft imperialism of global markets.

More here.