I’ve seen a number of innovative poetry films made with the words of multiple poets, but none with as many contributors (48), and few as profound and urgent in their message as this cento compiled and directed by the legendary Bob Holman, with folklorist Steve Zeitlin as producer, editor Lee Eaton and composer Saul Simon Macwilliams. In the Boro language of India, Khonsay (खोनसाइ) means “to pick up something with care as it is scarce or rare,” according to the film’s website.
There are nine different words for the color blue in the Spanish Maya dictionary, but just three Spanish translations, leaving six [blue] butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth.
Poetry, then, is precisely what is least translatable about a language – it is the ineffable, the things that only a set of words in a particular language can say. Translated into English from many languages, “Khonsay” is an act of audacious and unabashed imagination. It imagines the ecology of languages through a world poem. It seeks to capture the luminous originals in refracted light. The voices of the indigenous speakers draw us in, even if non-speakers do not understand what is being said. Yet what cannot be translated, what we cannot do justice to, is a measure of what is being lost as so many languages disappear.
Though definitions differ, poetry exists in every culture: the crystallization of experience into words, word into art, the engaging patter of consciousness itself. “Khonsay” is a tribute and call to action to support the diversity of the world’s languages. The poem is a “cento,” a collage poem; the name in Latin means “stitched together,” like a quilt — each line of the poem is drawn from a different language, appearing in that language’s alphabet or transliterated from the spoken word, followed by an English translation.
There’s a lot going on in this film, visually and linguistically, and you may find yourself hitting the pause button a lot, but there’s really no need: the website includes both the text of the poem in an easy-to-read format and a line-by-line commentary with information about all the languages and performers. According to the website, Khonsay premiered in New York City at the 2015 Margaret Mead Film Festival and was featured in the biannual Sadho Poetry Film Festival in New Delhi, India, where it won the Viewer’s Choice Award. In February, it was shared by the Button Poetry YouTube channel.
Incidentally, Holman’s documentary about endangered languages, Language Matters, is still streaming for free on PBS (though I imagine only for U.S.-based ISPs). Holman has a long-standing involvement with poetry film, including another public television production, the five-part United States of Poetry series directed by Mark Pellington, which aired in 1996.