Opening the Seals
“I believe that we can bring the deepest language from the mind. This language. All of it. I believe that when we listen deep, deep as cavefolk cut, we find the scratch or cough in stone from which the letters rose, still rise — the written language that comes before all speech… For we are primates of the sign.’’
OPENING THE SEALS represents poet Robert Kelly’s workings, starting in 2000, with the radical suggestions by the historical linguist Patrick C. Ryan towards the reconstitution of what he calls Proto-Language — a linguistic substrate, ca. 100,000 BC, to all extant human languages — the real Nostratic before Nostratic, ‘our’ language. Ryan argues for a set of meaning-bearing monosyllabic sounds, that work like roots or racemes or perhaps leitmotifs in subsequent languages.
In Kelly’s poems, each section begins with one of the Meaning-Bearing Monosyllables, and “meditates as well as I can contrive on the sound and its range of meanings. And let me say that it is the range of meanings that Ryan finds subtended or implied by the syllable that first caught my attention and excited me: not so much, then, the sense of the sound as a root, but the sound as a complex aural seal, which has to be opened to find all the meanings it proposes — and thus connects…. As if the secret affinities of all things and processes in the world were already encoded in these beast sounds our sweet mouths still fashion.’’
ROBERT KELLY is the Asher B. Edelman Professor of Literature at Bard College and codirector of the Bard WrittenArts Program. He was the founding director of the Writing Program of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, and is a contributing editor of Conjunctions.