Commentaries - August 2012

'Eye of Witness' (2): 'From a Shaman’s Notebook'

[As a preliminary to what would later become Technicians of the Sacred, I gathered as a section of my then magazine, Poems from the Floating World (1962-1963), a series of poems that were workings on my own grounds of poems that I had begun to assemble from a range of largely tribal/oral cultures. There was no real claim here to any kind of neo-shamanism on my own part except perhaps for the intuition, already there, that a crucial tool of historical shamanism was a relation to a form of languaging that, if not poetry in our sense, was as close to poetry as we were likely to get. I would be less than honest as well if I didn’t allow that the move herein to an experimental ethnopoetics grew out of my earlier infatuation with “deep image” & the surrealisms, Dadaisms, & romanticisms that came before it. In the book I’m now preparing with Heriberto Yépez, Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader, that progression in my own work, with much found but little abandoned along the way, has played a crucial role. (J.R.)]

          Perhaps the art which we are seeking is the key 
          to every former art: a solomonic key that will 
          open all the mysteries.
                  Hugo Ball

          
Mighty magic is a mother.
                  Robert Creeley

          We are all the same man.
                  Paul Cezanne

AN INVOCATION TO THE RAIN

Dad a da da
Dad a da da
Dad a da da
Da kata kai

Ded o ded o
Ded o ded o
Ded o ded o
Da kata kai

                  (Australian)

THE SEVEN

They are 7 in number, just 7
In the terrible depths they are 7
Bow down, in the sky they are 7

In the terrible depths, the dark houses
They swell, they grow tall

They are neither female nor male
They are a silence heavy with seastorms
They bear off no women their loins are empty of children
They are strangers to pity, compassion is far from them
They are deaf to men’s prayers, entreaties can’t reach them
They are horses that grow to great size that feed on mountains
They are the enemies of our friends
They feed on the gods
They tear up the faces of evil they are the faces of evil

They are 7 they are 7 they are 7 times 7
In the name of Heaven let them be torn from our sight
In the name of the Earth let them be torn from our sight

                  (Mesopotamian)

GHOSTS AND SHADOWS

                                    The soul is a dark forest.
                                             D.H. Lawrence

Ghosts in this forest, shadows
thrown back by the night
Or in daylight
like bats that drink from our veins
And hang from moist walls, in deep caves
Behind this green moss, these awful white stones
We pray to know who has seen them
Shadows thrown back by the night
We pray to know who has seen them.

                  (Pygmy)

THE KILLER

Careful: my knife drills your soul
           listen, whatever-your-name-is
           One of the wolf people
listen, I’ll grind your saliva into the earth
listen, I’ll cover your bones with black flint
listen, " " " " " " feathers
listen, " " " " " " rocks
Because you’re going where it’s empty
           Black coffin out on the hill
listen, the black earth will hide you,
           will find you a black hut
           Out where it’s dark, in that country
listen, I’m bringing a box for your bones
           A black box
           A grave with black pebbles
listen, your soul’s spilling out
listen, it’s blue

                  (Cherokee Indian)

A POISON ARROW

Enough poison to make
your head spin, and chains
to pin you down, and once
they’ve shot the arrow
and once it lands, well
it’s just like the fly and the horse:
I mean a fly that’s bitten one horse
will damn sure go after another
And I mean too that this arrow’s
like a pregnant woman
           Hungry for some meat
And even if it doesn’t break your skin
           You die
And if it breaks it just a little bit
           You die
And if it gets in and does its stuff
           You die
And if it sort of touches you and drops right out
           You die
     And as long as you stay out of my blood
    what do I care whose blood you get in
           Kill him
     I won’t stand in the way

This is a fire that I’m setting off
And this is a fire that I’m lifting up
And this is a shadow that’s burning
And this is the sun that’s burning
Because the poison I’ve got is stronger than bullets
           And it’s louder than thunder
           And it’s hotter than fire
And what do I care who it gets, kill him!
           I won’t stand in the way
As long as you stay out of my blood

                  (Nigeria, Hausa)

THE DEAD HUNTER SPEAKS THROUGH
THE VOICE OF A SHAMAN

To be beyond you now, to feel
joy burning inside me when the sun
burns through the terrible sky
To feel joy in the new sun, aie!
in the sky’s curved belly

But restless more likely, restless
These flies swarm around me, dropping
eggs in the rotting collarbone,
into my eyes, their cold mouths moving
I choke on such horrors

And remembering the last fear, I remember
a dark rim of ocean, remembering
the last fear, the broken boat drifting,
drawing me into that darkness, aie!
Now the other side holds me

And I remember men’s fear in the boats
I see the snow forced into my door, fear’s
shadow over the hut, while my body
hung in the air, the door hidden, aie!
When I cried in fear of the snow

Horror stuck in my throat, the hut
walled me in, slowly the ice-floe broke
Horror choked me, the thin sky
quivered with sound, the voice
of the dark ice cracking, cold mornings

                  (Copper Eskimo)

THE STARS

For we are the stars. For we sing.
For we sing with our light.
For we are birds made of fire.
For we spread our wings over the sky.
Our light is a voice.
We cut a road for the soul
for its journey through death.
For three of our number are hunters.
For these three hunt a bear.
For there never yet was a time
when these three didn’t hunt.
For we face the hills with disdain.
This is the song of the stars.

                  (Algonquin Indian)

101 Poetry

Last week in the Williams class we encountered not just modernist difficulty but the discomfort of difficult content: our discussions centered on the medical gaze and the American idiom, and on our encounters with Williams’s attitudes toward difference. I was left wondering what kind of space we need to create in our classrooms to address material that is triggering. We ended class with a too-brief discussion of the troubling scene in “The Use of Force,” in which Williams’s speaker gives a diphtheria test to a young girl, overcoming her resistance to his treatment with brutal and sexualized force. The story has been widely discussed as a case study of medical ethics as well as a text that dramatizes the crossing of boundaries between literature and medicine; as Brian Bremen puts it in William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture, “For Williams an act of diagnosis is as much a poetic act as it is a medical  practice.” In his efforts to resist scientific reduction, as critics like Bremen argue, Williams frames anecdotes that are dialectical, nonironic, even open-ended. We hate the doctor’s brutality even as we appreciate that he achieves the diagnosis.

Still. As one of my students put it, “I liked the other Williams better.” Stories such as “The Use of Force” or “The Colored Girls of Passenack” upend the other Williams of “Smell!” or “The Catholic Bells.” Both kinds of texts revel sensorily in the object, but it is difficult to reconcile the naturalization of women’s bodies (and their violent sexualization, and their racialized exoticization, and their misogynist objectification) with the other things the poetic object can do. It is difficult to reconcile these poetic operations also with the affective forces in the poem, with the work of feeling the poem can do.

There are more than two Williams, yes, and the course is organized as such: the doctor, the imagist, the epic poet, the art critic, the Americanist, the transatlanticist, and so on. This is the first in many weeks of reversals, which may be a hallmark of the single-author course: not Poetry 101 but 101 Poetry, to cite the unusual classroom placard, above. Even if we leave biography aside, we frequently teach texts in ways that fix the figure of their authors: Williams writes X, argues Y. Less frequently do we get to teach a work in relationship to many other works and to confront the impossibility of reconciling a writer’s many opposites. I hope it’s a productively uncomfortable place to occupy.