‘The more languages you speak, the more people you are.’
– Eastern European proverb
It’s true. You start as an actor,
rolling ‘r’s and memorising lines
that slowly shoulder their meaning.
At first, you do not wholly inhabit
these words on the page, you and they remain
The day you made yourself
understood at the station, a return
ticket to the next town, a shadow stepped out
of you like a double. No going back now.
Your teacher spoke of a skeleton,
the grammar that keeps your phrases standing straight.
Day by day and tense by tense you felt
your hips, spine, rib cage shift alignment,
reworking your body’s rigid syntax
into a strange new frame.
The drug was potent and you drank it down,
greedy for news bulletins that slid into focus,
exchanges in the street with strangers,
each new word devoured to feed your growing bones.
You grew fat on the unaccustomed language of cuisine,
sang along to songs in detested styles,
tasted the spice in old habits with this new tongue.
Conjunctions pumped through your veins,
your cells conjugated as you slept.
Nobody knew you here, the new you was you;
finding phrases you’d never have dared at home,
you redrafted yourself, liberated.
The night you passed, briefly, for a native,
the job seemed complete;
you surprised yourself in the mirror,
the smile strange, the clothes not your own.
The shadow was behind you, speaking in your mother tongue,
distant like a tape recording of a child.
It said, “Who are you?” and the words seared through you,
pierced to your lungs where your old self
struggled for breath and found
no words to reply.
The winning poem of The London Magazine’s Young Poets Competition