“Systemic Functional Linguistics” by José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes

José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes


History is who did what to whom,
expressed in nominal and verbal groups.
The clause conveys the meanings we assume.

The circumstances vary: in covert rooms,
beyond the border wall, aboard the sloops
of war. We speak of who did what to whom,

participants and processes. The theme
orients us to the message, to the new:
The loss conveys the meaning. We assume

the purpose shapes the grammar, ends drive means.
We must strike down this evil at its roots.
History is who did what to whom,

who may respond, become a who that names
losses they can and must and will recoup.
The clause conveys the meanings we assume,

and truth lies in the words we all consume:
We killed because they killed our troops.
History is who did what to whom.
The clause conveys the meanings we assume.

from Poets Respond
January 12, 2020


José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes: “As part of my research, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a robust (and highly technical!) theory of how language works. The recent events in the Middle East made me reflect on the inescapability of language—how we learn about such events through language and how they will eventually be recounted in history books using language. My poem was also partly inspired by two other poems that explore grammar, Steve Kowit’s villanelle ‘A Grammar Lesson’ and James Najarian’s ‘Armenian Lesson’; and by Thoreau, whose sentence from Walden (‘There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root’) is echoed in line 11.” (web)

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