She’s lost a word
and searches for it everywhere –
behind the sofa, at the back
of dusty cupboards and drawers.
She picks through the buzzing rubbish sacks.
Under the carpet she finds lots of others
she’d forgotten she’d swept there,
but not the one she’s looking for.
The trouble is it’s small – only two letters –
though no less valuable for that.
She stands racking her brains
for the last time she used it
but all that comes to mind
are failed attempts
when her mouth was full
of someone else’s tongue.
Summary and Analysis
The poem, as the title tells us is about a lost word. When we lose a thing we cannot use it for our needs. So when we cannot use a word we can regard it as lost to us. How do we lose words? We lose words if we forget them or do not use it for a very long time. At the same time if we have not learnt to use a word then it is as good as a lost word. But our learning and using of words is largely dependent on the society we live in. We don’t use words that the society does not allow us to use. In the title of the poem the word ‘lost’, refers to a word which the woman has not learnt to use or has forgotten how to use.
In the first stanza of the poem we find a woman searching for a word she has lost. And she is searching for it in places which are hidden from view or places where we keep our rubbish. But isn’t it unusual to look for a word in places where we find things? The hidden places mentioned here are places which do not require our attention on a day to day basis. Or rather places we tend to ignore in our daily lives, places which are difficult to reach. The poet then seems to suggest that the woman has lost this word in the world of her domesticity. This domestic world is not just a physical world it also is a mental world. The woman is so preoccupied in this world that she fails to remember this word which is certainly an important word.
We should try to go beyond the literal meaning and explore the things that are implied. This is especially so in this case where the thing lost is not a thing at all but a word. Like these physical spaces which are hidden we all have mental spaces which are hidden as well. And they remain hidden because we do not choose to speak about them, or we afraid to speak about them. Often we are afraid to speak about things that are not acceptable to the people and society we live in and consequently we push these thoughts to the back of our minds. The back of the mind is a place to hide thoughts like the back of a sofa to hide things. All of us have some experience of hiding our feelings or not saying things or even lying about things. This is especially true in case of women in traditional societies. From our childhood we are told about what is acceptable and what is not. And we learn to avoid speaking. Much of this has to do with structures of power that exist in our families and the society we live in. For instance in our society the father remains the head of the family and we are supposed to obey him even when he is wrong. This is especially true for girls. They are supposed to concentrate on cooking and learning how to keep the house because they are expected to be home makers when they grow up. They are not allowed to have a voice in the sense of having an independent identity. The woman in this poem seems to be trapped in the power structure of her world. So much so that she has forgotten something vital to herself.
In the second stanza the same theme of the lost word is continued. We see her looking under the carpet and there she finds many other words that she had swept under the carpet but not the one she was looking for. The phrase ‘swept under the carpet’ is used to indicate that something was hidden deliberately. What are these words that ‘She’ had swept under the carpet? We tend to sweep under the carpet things we don’t want others to see or things that embarrass us. And we tend to hide or suppress things when we are not very confident about them. The woman here seems to be in the habit of sweeping many words under the carpet. It shows that she is not a very confident person. She has hidden and suppressed or forgotten to use many words because she is not confident about using them.
Using language is the beginning of our socialisation. Language is not just a vehicle for communication it is also something that transmits values. For instance we always use good before bad and in opposition to bad. This is a system of hierarchy. We always use day before night, man before woman, God before Devil and so on. What it implies is that, day is superior to night, man is superior to woman, and so on. We learn these things as children and carry them for most of our lives. We must examine the search for the ‘lost’ word in this context. There are some words that give us a sense of independent identity. ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ are such words. We often hear our parents use these words to control us. The power to say yes/no comes with authority. It seems the ‘She’ of the poem is a woman without much authority and that is why she needs to sweep words under the carpet. It is also quite possible that she does not have much authority because she is a woman. What word is she looking for now? It is a word that is very valuable. The last two lines of this stanzas throw more light on the nature of the particular word that she is looking for now. It is a very small, two letter.
In the third stanza she takes a break from this frantic search to think about the word. She tries to remember the last time she had used this word. This is a very common way of remembering about things which are lost or misplaced. But this attempt also ends in failure. She can hardly remember the last time she used it. The only thing that she remembers now is not the use of the word but the failure to use it, though she had tried several times. And she had failed to use it because her mouth was full of someone else’s tongue. When the poet says that her mouth was full of someone else’s tongue it does not mean that she did not have a tongue of her own. Tongue here is used in the sense of a voice. When the woman tries to remember the word she has lost she is unable to do so because she had been using not her own but someone else’s language. She was saying what others wanted her to say.
The ending of this poem does not give us any definite clues about the word she is looking for. If we probe further and think about the word she is looking for we will realise that it is a two letter word and that it is an important word. The woman, it seems, has never been able to use the word because she has never used her own voice. We know that voice, or in other words the freedom to choose and express ideas and opinions, gives us an identity. And the loss of this results in loss of identity. Thus we can guess that the word she is looking for would be a word which could give her an identity. Words like “me”, “am”, “no”, assert one’s individuality. Perhaps it is one of these words that she is looking for. Is she looking for the word no? We know that the ability to say “no” gives us a sense of freedom. Perhaps she has never been able to say “no”in her life. If we look at the position of women in traditional societies we will realise that for a woman to say “no” is, often, a great challenge. And they often fail to say “no” because they are taught to obey what others ask them to do. Perhaps, the woman here is looking for the word “no”, so that she can regain her voice. But her attempt ends in failure once again because when we lose our voice we have nothing more to say. Thus the poem ends on this abrupt note to suggest that when we adopt the tongue of others and speak in their voice, it is very difficult to break free and find one’s own tongue. So we end up having very little to say and the only option that is open is silence.