Saturday 3 February 2024

Language of Seagulls

Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel (London: Vintage Books, 2012), p. 672 ['Joe Gould's Secret'; 1964]:

 ‘Just now, when you told the waitress that you were an authority on the language of the sea gull,’ I said, changing the subject, ‘did you mean it?’ Gould’s face lit up. ‘When I was a child,’ he said, ‘my mother and I spent summers at a seaside town in Nova Scotia, a town called Clementsport, and every summer an old man would catch me a sea gull for a pet, and I sometimes used to have the impression that my sea gull was speaking to me, or trying to. Later on, when I was going to Harvard, I spent a great many Saturday afternoons sitting on T Wharf in Boston listening very carefully to sea gulls, and finally they got through to me, and little by little I learned the sea-gull language. I can understand it better than I can speak it, but I can speak it a lot better than you might think. In fact, I have translated a number of famous American poems into sea gull. Listen closely!’ He threw his head back and began to screech and chirp and croak and mew and squawk and gobble and cackle and caw, occasionally punctuating these noises with splutters. There was something singsong and sonorous in this racket that made it sound distantly familiar. ‘Don’t you recognize it?’ cried Gould excitedly. ‘It’s “Hiawatha”! It’s from the part called “Hiawatha’s Childhood.” Listen! I’ll translate it back into English: By the shores of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, Daughter of the moon, Nokomis. Dark behind it rose the forest, Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees, Rose the firs with cones upon them …’ Gould snickered; his spirits had risen the moment he had begun talking about sea gulls. ‘Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translates perfectly into sea gull,’ he said. ‘On the whole, to tell you the truth, I think he sounds better in sea gull than he does in English. And now, with your kind permission,’ he went on, standing up and starting to get out of the booth, a leering expression appearing on his face as he did so, ‘I’ll step out in the aisle and give you my interpretation of a hungry sea gull circling above a fish pier where they’re unloading fish.’ I had been aware, out of the corner of an eye, that the counterman had been watching us. Now this man spoke to Gould. ‘Sit down,’ he said. Gould whirled around and looked at the counterman, and I expected him to speak sharply to him, the way he had spoken to the waitress. He surprised me. He sat down meekly and obediently, without opening his mouth.