Sights without Sounds
Written by Cari Deschak, RMI ’15
One innocuous half-wall of a Washington DC gallery holds a ringed twist of scrap metal. That description could include many art pieces at their most elemental, especially here along the cutting edge of modern artistic license, but this one must have been magnetic. It shot me a pulse of unexpected familiarity.
My sister appraised me as I stood in the gallery’s center jabbing my finger at it, words having yet to escape my open mouth.
“That’s it!” I finally managed, exclamation point voiced by re-throwing my fully-outstretched arm.
“I mean I’ve tried to describe … I can’t believe it’s perfect the … can’t be an accident, that’s it!”
I was awarded a well-deserved look of disdain as my sister recognized another one of those situations where my words weren’t going to reach where I was going.
I could have said, “It’s mā,” as my first instinct offered. It was mā, but that wouldn’t aid a description for most people any more than would dumb silence. I could have said, “It’s breadfruit,” but I had tried that before with a similar success rate to using the word “mā.” In fact, the whole reason I was so surprised to see that piece on the wall was that I had failed to describe over and over the thing it was representing. Google images had even come up wanting, with scattered sterile photos of under-ripe fruit probably stuck with an anthropologist’s sample pin just outside camera view. No bumps, no perfectly flawed geometry, no wavering green tones, and without the wet weight of its dense center. No backdrop of searing bright sand crowned by flamboyant palms, no thick somber trunk of the fruit’s mother tree stretching up from center-island.
For a lack of these monstrous trees and their fruit in greater DC, I’ve rarely felt like I managed to describe them accurately to friends. It seems like I have only two choices – extracting a fat winding narrative from my vocabulary’s closet, or shutting up and looking for an actual breadfruit as demonstration (though no luck here so far). I shouldn’t be surprised that the latter methodology is the only useful one; it is the way of the Marshall Islands. My first chunk of boiled breadfruit was served hot by my unsmiling aunt in a pot lid. I thanked her for it, and couldn’t help but ask what it was (I hadn’t yet learned to tame my exuberant verbal questioning; I was new). She deadpanned me with a look I took to mean “It’s food, so eat it,” and as I did I was fascinated by the density of the white meat. Like some familiar vegetables, and like clear water itself, breadfruit’s lack of flavor is what defines its taste. It makes you try to savor it, searching out its nuances, and when you do you’re rewarded with a rich and satisfying food staple of the islands. Could my aunt have waxed poetic about the joys of breadfruit in any semblance of common language?
Well, no, and what’s more she never would have. WorldTeachers like me are often people of words, which is helpful when one’s daily task in the classroom is teaching them. Outside the classroom I delighted in my self-appointed role as a student of different words: the Marshallese language. Distinct even from its nearest kin, unimaginably distant from English, Marshallese shocks with a mass of tangled intricacies at the same time it couldn’t be simpler. There is a single word which describes the act of covertly eating your fish while still fishing, and another which refers solely to the art of lying face up on the ground with an utter disregard for your surroundings. You know – everyday situations. On the other hand, one barked syllable is often plenty to communicate exactly what you want. Arriving to the Marshall Islands armed with too many words, especially when you tend to string them with a question mark like me, is a mistake. Life flows cleanly eye to eye, not mouth to mouth: not because of what is said, but what isn’t.
No one has ever learned to fish by talking: they watch, they try, they watch, they fish. Words barely lap the surface of the deepest familial divides or even sweet emotions; such a disturbance shifts the vibe, and the change will be felt by all who pay attention. Outside the imported school house the only written words are the same handful of scrawled last names repeating themselves on every artificial surface, as if they would otherwise be forgotten. Islands eat paper. And in one short year there I started to learn that however much I treasure words as an extension of experience, words fail. Sometimes they fail to color the widest and wildest things, and sometimes they even fail to describe something you can hold right in your hand.
“Is it like an apple or what?” my sister asked.
“No, fat, starchy, it has bumps all over but each bump has a little shape in the center and the core inside, you don’t eat that part but still, and when it falls from the high branches it splats like a splatty thing”
“ … So starchy like a potato? Maybe like a potato with a peach pit, but big like a pineapple?”
Once more I reached inside for words that had never been there. Stretching wide and far my mind found itself looking down from tall hospitable branches, my guam puffed around me like a wildflower as it filled with the ocean, red-shirted students eagerly popping out of plastic chairs, cornering a rogue chicken with two of my brothers, the wrenching rip of coconut fiber from the stake, a silent moon fully eclipsed, the tough breadfruit skin spattered mathematically with green stars.
This I thought: I said nothing. I held her eyes, recalling my still-fully outstretched arm indicating the wall sculpture only when a fellow art patron nearly lost an eye.
“Nobody likes a mime,” she reminded me.
So, following my finger, we silently approached that unassuming wall to marvel at a metal bit probably salvaged from an impound lot. From a rusty collar spread an incongruous flat form dividing itself into waves of small octagons. At their center each shape rose into a bump and broke into a tiny hole. Unfinished, warped, and probably inedible, this chunk was still somehow the perfect skin of a breadfruit.
We looked together. We looked, but I don’t know what she saw. We just looked, and I let words fail me. Then I reached out, and I touched.
And as I and the museum guard both jumped at the howl of the alarm, I tried to conjure back a few of those words as explanation.