Interpreting There is No Word for Goodbye by Mary TallMountain

Let’s look at the meaning of this poem by Mary TallMountain.

There is No Word for Goodbye 

Sokoya, I said, looking through
     the net of wrinkles into
     wise black pools
     of her eyes.

What do you say in Athabaskan when
     you leave each other?
     What is the word
     for goodbye

A shade of feeling rippled
     the wind-tanned skin.
     Ah, nothing, she said
     watching the river flash.

She looked at me close.
     We just say, Tha.
     That means
     See you.
     We never leave each other.
     When does your mouth
     say goodbye to your heart?

She touched me light
     as a bluebell.
     You forget when you leave us;
     you're so small then.
     We don't use that word.

We always think your're coming back,
     but if you don't,
     We'll see you someplace else.
     You understand.
     There is no word for goodbye.

     ~ by Mary TallMountain


The poet, Mary TallMountain is part Athabaskan. The Athabaskans are Native Americans, and the word ‘Sokoya’ means ‘aunt’ in their language.

In this poem, the narrator, asks her aunt how to say ‘goodbye’ in their language. The aunt simply explains that they don’t say goodbye. They say the equivalent of ‘see you’ because they believe that people are as inseparable as a person’s mouth and heart. Even though people may not be together physically, they remain together spiritually. And even if they do not actually see each other again, they may meet in another place (The afterworld? Another life?). She is also telling her niece that although the niece may know little of her Athabaskan heritage (the niece doesn’t even know how to say goodbye), she will always be Athabaskan; her ancestry and culture will always be in her blood and in her spirit.


The writer uses a lot of nature imagery, especially water imagery, in this poem. She refers to ‘black pools’, ‘the river’, ‘the net of wrinkles’ (a fishing net?), and ‘ripples’ of feeling. This imagery emphasizes how close her aunt and her indigenous culture are to nature. It also emphasizes the permanence of the spiritual bond. Water doesn’t actually disappear. Water can surge, flow, flood, spill out, evaporate—it rarely remains in one place—but it always remains water, and eventually it will find its way back into the rivers, lakes and oceans. According to her aunt’s view, her family and her people are like this: they may go someplace else or even pass away, but who they are remains unchanged.

Your Interpretation

How would you interpret this poem?

~ by longzijun

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