Home > Essays > Sibboleth
Published: Fri Jul 1 2016
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.


Imagine a flower.

I do.

Its petals bloom by folding inward, like arms reaching into a mouth, not another’s mouth, but the mouth that is your own. The petals bend into the dark pollen of their own being and it does not look like blooming until the petals reach so far through themselves they invert and blossom in reverse.

Maybe I’m not speaking in the right dimension.

Maybe the stars are bees whose buzz brightens them in this other dimension. Maybe the flowers are invisible. Maybe you need to be made of light to see them, like the bees. I mean, like the stars.

Or imagine in the fact of someone’s face the dark pupil of her eyes, of just one eye, and magnify that darkness so that it’s as large as the sky.

So many ways to imagine flowers and the night.

So many ways to make open and closed the unopenable, uncloseable things; these images of the mind not mine. This pure intent. This virtue-crime.


A euphemism is to use an auspicious word in place of an inauspicious one. For “death” we say “passed away” or “went to sleep.” Often we say these words to children who, being closer to those fears we presume ourselves immune from, know what we mean in what we don’t say. They hear the unspoken word. That’s why they’re so afraid to go to bed.

The verb in the Greek from which the word derives is εὐφημέω. In the dictionary I keep in the no-space of my smart phone, the definition goes: “avoid all unlucky words, during sacred rites: hence, as the surest mode of avoiding them, keep a religious silence.” The italics aren’t mine; I don’t know whose they are. In the imperative, it means Hush! Be Still!

For so long I’ve felt that to speak in euphemisms proved a kind of cowardice, an unwillingness to say those words most difficult to say. But every time I tried to speak the truth when doing so was difficult I resorted to less inauspicious words. I told the truth, but I told it slant.

In class people wonder why I blush so often. You can’t see your own face, so I don’t know I am blushing. But looking in the faces of others who are looking at your face, though it sounds like a riddle, is to get the smallest glimpse of yourself, even if the realization is no more than “I exist,” a fact we never speak of it is so common and holy. Then the blush deepens by burning brighter, shame at my own nakedness, even in class, when I’m wearing all my clothes. Just like in those dreams all have of going to school or coming into work and realizing you’ve forgotten to dress. The euphemism is that “you look nice today,” but what is silent in the words is, “I see you’re naked, too.”

It’s hard to know when the rites are sacred, or when daily habit is just routine. Making the children’s lunches. Getting them to school. Feeding them at night. Doing the dishes. Readying both girls for bed. Reading them stories. Turning out the lights. Singing to Iris in the dark, the dark of which she is very afraid, while Hana listens to music no one else can hear, in her headphones, in her room. I might describe it all this way: “It’s tiring; but it’s nice.” By which I might mean: “My soul is dead; this is the sacred work.”

Now I’ve learned that euphemism isn’t cowardice, but a kind of virtue. It is speaking so as to keep silence, lest a word that is unlucky enter into the sacred blank light of day or page and defile it. Maybe this is why so many people make clichés into mantras. But I have no mantra. I just say a lot of words to many different people, and I fill pages with lines and sentences. I don’t know why it is I do these things: talk so much, write so much. Maybe there’s no other way.


Jacques Derrida, writing about Paul Celan, defines the Shibboleth: “The Ephraimites had been defeated by the army of Jephthah; in order to keep their soldiers from escaping across the river (shibboleth also means ‘river,’ of course, but that is not necessarily the reason it was chosen), each person was required to say shibboleth. Now the Ephraimites were known for their inability to pronounce correctly the shi of shibboleth, which became for them, in consequence, an unpronounceable name. They said shibboleth, and, at the invisible border between shi and si, betrayed themselves to the sentinel at the risk of their life. They betrayed their difference by showing themselves indifferent to the diacritical difference between shi and si; they marked themselves with their inability to re-mark a mark thus coded.”

I’ve seen the shame, and felt it myself, when in a class a student reading aloud comes to a word she doesn’t know how to pronounce, pauses and waits for someone to rescue her, and hearing no help, stumbles through the syllables, knowing it is wrong just as we know it is wrong, assumes she has been excluded from the knowledge she’s there to learn, but no one helps because no one else knows how to pronounce the word either, including me, and each one of us is excluded, too.

Teaching Celan’s poems while in springtime it snows. His mother shot to death in a forced march in the snow. We speak of I and You. Of God and I and You. Of a God that sings but does not sing of I and You. O one o none o no one o you. That God. We spend our hour on one poem:

With the voice of the fieldmouse
you squeak up to me,

a sharp
you bite your way through my shirt to the skin,

a cloth,
you slide across my mouth
midway through the words
I address to you, shadow,
to give you weight.

Whose voice speaks? One that does not say I.

Whose voice is your voice? It is the fieldmouse’s squeak, the bite of the tooth, the cloth across the mouth. You is also no voice at all. When on the street I hear someone say “you” I turn around with my whole face open and look at them; and when I say “you” to another, she does the same. Emmanuel Levinas says that the command of the other we hear in our own voice when we say “you.” Her face turns toward us and says in our own words, “Thou shalt not kill.”

Such is the “nudity of he who borrows all.” This is the way I’m nude; it’s the way you’re nude, too. All of language floats above us—so I think of it—some cloud in which the letters combine and recombine, eternal and impossible, the alphabet speaking itself forward and backwards at the same time, and from this cloud we pull a word, a line, a sentence or two. Writing volumes diminishes it none. It does not cease; it does not decrease. From it we say all in our lives we do say. At the grocery store, at home, to those we love the most, in those unlit chambers made only of ourselves, we clothe our thoughts in what we do not own.

Celan in his nakedness on the page. To feel with him his shame so we can feel our own.

He translates from Beckett: “And yet I am afraid, afraid of what my words will do to me, to my refuge, yet again…If I could speak and yet say nothing, really nothing? Then I might escape being gnawed to death.”

In the poem we do not know what the fieldmouse’s squeak means. Is it greeting, or warning? Happiness, or fear? Does it bite to wake up the man speaking, or does it bite to escape him, or to hurt him, or to gnaw him to death?

I don’t know.

Celan describes a poem as an encounter, as a “handshake.” The poem is a thing between You and I. It builds, line by line, a ground across which You and I can meet, can see one another, can be in the moral bind of the gaze.

An elegy is a poem to a “you” gone missing. When the poem sings, “you” appears.

But what if there were a world in which, on a forced march, a guard calls out not a name, but yells out only “you,” and a young man, a prisoner, steps out from the line in which he trudges through the cold forward, and realizing he wasn’t the one being spoken too, blushes as if embarrassed at his mistake, and then the guard shoots him. What if there were a world in which children were packed into train cars and shipped to camps, and those that were too young to know their names had them written on a scrap of cardboard hung on a string around their neck, but with no food, no water, and the train ride so long, the children ate their names for they had no other food, and when they arrive, no one knows what to call them, those children to be called only “you.” But what if there were a world in which a crippled boy in a camp speaks over and over a variant of one word but no one knows what that word means, and he limps from person to person saying mass-klo or matisklo, and others in the camp think it is the child’s name, and some thing it means bread, or meat, but no one knows with any certainty this one word the boy speaks, his only word, and now nothing of him remains, because in the camp he died. What if there were a world in which that word remains speaking forever in the air. What if there were a world…o one, o none, o no one, o you…in which that word were the only word of witness.

Celan writes, “You of the same mind, moor-wandering near one.” To be near and far at once. Same and wholly other. To invoke the “you” you must also avoid, this “you” so deep inside yourself it wanders far away on the moors.

A shadow or a shade, the ancient way of considering the person in the afterlife, you still yourself, but without substance, though in other ways your nature stays complete. Your character that built a life remains without a life around it. If it were not so, the poet’s “You” could not drag up from underneath the daylit world the one he is addressing.

In Greek the verb λαμβάνω means to grasp, take, receive; to seize with the senses; to understand. The compound form ὑπολαμβάνω means to pull up so as to see; to grasp and pull up as one might a plant to examine its roots. For Paul Celan—for whom poetry was the grasp of the hand, a reaching across because a reaching toward, a reaching out over abyss that may be infinite even as one’s own body falls back in retreat away from the approaching other—poetry seeks a “reality it is also stricken by,” and the verb that speaks of the poem’s action is one that grasps to know, that pulls up from underneath to understand.

But what if there were a world in which the words one wrote become those traces by which others harmed your safety, your refuge, as the plow cuts in two the fieldmouse’s burrow? And the shadow, that “you” the poem addresses, that dear one called up from her far-wandering in the moor of the mind, memory-field buried in springtime snow—what if the words of the poem let her also be found, let others find the “you” you love so deeply that you write the poem that must be written which is the same poem as the one that must never exist. Then does “you”

…slide across my mouth
midway through the words
I address to you, shadow,
to give you weight.

Does “you” herself bind the mouth that speaks her back into existence? Cut off the words whose utterance alone gives her weight again if not completely being? For then you can be found. You can be called out on the march. You can be in the snow bank by the river killed.


“River” is one definition of shibboleth.

Only those who pronounce it right can cross the river to refuge.

To speak it is to show who you are.

Euphemism might be a means of survival.

Remind me? Is there another word for “river”?


In ancient Greek vase painting, the Gorgon alone looks out with both her eyes. All other figures, heroes and gods and goddesses are painted in profile. Her gaze is the gaze of the one so real she is unreal, for this is what to see her with your own eyes does to you, not merely to become stone, but to be alive as a stone would be alive: insensate, merest appetite, dead to all but the merest hunger, merest sense, to see without looking, to hear without listening, a human that is left by her gaze not human.

It is shameless. She looks out at us as one from another world whose gaze breaks the boundary the keeps monstrous forces at bay. Sometimes our survival depends on this sense of shame by which we know to look away.


In class, the difficulty of Celan’s poems, discussing.

Sometimes the transitive verbs speaks more truly when forced into becoming intransitive.

Only then do we feel the grasping within it, when it cannot reach the object it pursues, when sense is an approach but not an arrival.

Only then do we sense the shibboleth of our own speaking, when we feel we might be doing it wrong, this thing we do all the time, talking, thinking, writing grocery lists, writing poems. Or is it we learn to speak, to write so that no one who reads the poem knows exactly how to say the words in it, and so that “you” brought up from shade into substance can live there in that field with the fieldmouse and be safe from the approach of any other but the one who says “I.” Or is even that too much, and even I can’t know how to say the words of the poem, even those of the poem I wrote. Aren’t I the one who is the danger, plowing the blank field with my head searching for the home I wreck by finding it. Or am I just one of the dangers, among many. Or is my refuge only found in that “you” whose only refuge is the poem.

I guess I don’t know.

All these questions that end in periods.

What we say to others we also say to ourselves. We hear the words we say; it can be no other way.

Pure shibboleth of the crippled boy saying over and again mass-klo, matisklo mass-klo matisklo. Maybe the word meant nothing at all, had no referent, not signification, he just wanted someone to tell him if he was saying it right, if he could be let in, deep inside the word, cross the river of its utterance, where alone he might be safe from death. Mass-klo. Matisklo.

Every day I say thousands of words. So do you. O Gorgon, turn your head aside. Each one of them goes:

Sibboleth sibboleth sibboleth


Dan Beachy-Quick is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Arrows (Tupelo Press, 2020) and a translation of Ancient Greek lyric poetry, Stone-Garland (Milkweed Editions, 2020). His other poetry collections include gentlessness (Tupelo, 2015); North True South Bright (2003); Spell (2004); Mulberry (2006), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for poetry; This Nest, Swift Passerine (2009); and Circle’s Apprentice (2011). He is also the author of A Whaler’s Dictionary (2008), a collection of linked essays responding to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. His work has been supported by the Monfort, Lannan, and Guggenheim Foundations. He teaches at Colorado State University, where he is a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar. (updated 4/2022)

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