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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 13: May 2022
Prose Poem: 410 words
By Karen Greenbaum-Maya

Subjunctively Speaking


Chinese verbs never change. Certainly not for something that never happened before. If something did not happen in the past? Use the adverb meaning “in the past.” The subjunctive expresses a state that does not exist. In Cantonese, only what has happened is possible. No alternatives, so no reproaches. A restful if muffled certainty, essential to a stable society.

In English you will never risk piercing the surface. The subjunctive is squeezed into the verb to be. If she were to say what happens when she goes home. All other actions beyond existing only conceal. All other actions permit sustained avoidance. You can obsess as much as you like, sitting safe in knowing that you will never have to know, never be able to ascertain.

We use the subjunctive in Brazilian Portuguese when we want to express a possibility. Perhaps it has happened in the past. Perhaps it has never happened before. Who knows? You can flirt with ambiguity, you can set up airy constructs, but there is nothing to take to heart. Still, be wary. The subjunctive is used for everything unreal. Understanding the Brazilian subjunctive induces a dreamy mood. Everybody makes mistakes in Brazil. If you were traveling in Brazil you might enjoy an entirely hypothetical love life, and you would employ the plaintive subjunctive.

Even French cradle-speakers purchase guides to the subjunctive. All Parisians live in a subjunctive mood. They are torn between doubt and desire, necessity and judgment. I long for the tie with the peacocks. I know that it is vulgar. Oh, if I were to wear the tie with the peacocks, even if it be vulgar! Oh, that she might notice me! In French, feelings like doubt and desire require the subjunctive. So do preferences, advice, needs, and commands. No wonder outsiders do not understand French life.

In Italian there is no deliberation, only diving in, and maybe drowning. You will never know whether you have drowned, even if you are the diver. Russian is rich in what could have happened if only. All grammatical Russian speakers are visionaries trying to survive an ungracious reality, all shortages and barriers and unyielding winters. And in Greek, what is possible is only in the past. All future is hypothetical, as perfect and unreal as Euclid’s geometry. How I loved geometry. There, anything that could be established could be proved, and proved again. No attack could get through. At last, a life spent in certainty, in safety.

Karen Greenbaum-Maya
Issue 13, May 2022

is a retired clinical psychologist, former German major and restaurant reviewer, and a two-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her first full sentence was, “Look at the moon!” Poems have appeared in Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, B O D Y, CHEST, Spillway, and Rappahannock Poetry Review. Her collections include The Book of Knots and Their Untying (Kelsay Books, 2016), and three chapbooks from Kattywompus Press: Burrowing Song (2013), Eggs Satori (2014), and Kafka’s Cat (2019). She is currently working on a collection of poems about her husband’s illness and death of lung cancer in 2018. She co-curates Fourth Sundays, a poetry series in Claremont, California.

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