What English Lacks


The beginning of wisdom is in getting things
by their right name.

—Chinese proverb


Ear. Nose. Eye.
We teach every child
to point and name.

The child goes to school,
learns “he” is the norm,
“she” the grammatical

variant. When the place
between her legs is left
unnamed, what lesson

does the child learn
but that what she discovers there
doesn’t quite exist

(except to be washed, face averted).

Eventually she’ll find
the dessicated,
reticent Latinates—

the language and labels
of diagnosis
and prohibition—

a linguistic burka, rooted
in pudere: be ashamed.
She’ll find the dysphemisms

of juvenile slang—
metaphors of confused fascination—
geographic euphemisms.

(Might as well call it Australia.)

Quarter of a million words
but not one with the raw
authority, the accurate—forgive me—

mouth feel
of the thing itself. So taboo
as to be nameless,

that place all human aching starts.

–Elizabeth Austen
The final line is borrowed from Li-Young Lee’s “Self-Help for Fellow Refugees.”

This is a poem I’ve been trying to write for a long, long time. It finally came together under the pressure of a deadline. I’d been asked to write a new piece based (as loosely as desired) on the theme of pie and/or whiskey for the Pie and Whiskey reading at Get Lit! this year.  I abandoned several fruitless approaches–jettisoning a version that included a long list of popular euphemisms–and let the poem be shaped by the reality that I can’t find language that satisfies. (An early version of “Untitled” appears in the Pie and Whiskey chapbook published by Lost Horse Press in April 2012.)

I’ve posted it here because when I began including it in readings, people (both men and women) asked me where they could find it. You are welcome to share the poem with others if you’d like, but please be sure to include the attribution to Li-Young Lee’s poem.

2 thoughts on “What English Lacks

  1. Wow. I love your work, Elizabeth, and I love seeing you live as well. But I’m sort of glad I didn’t hear this live because I’d be in tears. I almost am, just reading it. Wondering what my daughter thinks. What my son thinks. What a father, with this kind of awareness, might do differently. What I might have done differently. What I can still do. Thank you.

    1. Elizabeth Austen

      Thank you for letting me know this poems connects with you, Mark! When I first published this, I wondered if it would speak to men as well as women, and I’ve been so glad to hear how it does.

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