Commentaries - May 2013
Translation from Mayan by Dennis Tedlock
FOR THE DESIRE THIS MADNESS BRINGS:
“One Lord, one and only Four Lord, Sky Lord would have been in chaos, Sky Lord would have been dark when you were born. Who are you, owner of chaos? Who are you, owner of night? You are in chaos, Great Lord of Days, the eye of the sun was plucked out when you were born. Who is your mother, what father begets you when you do penance? She is Red Rainbow, White Rainbow, she is the point of the lancet, the tip of the penis, this is your mother, your father, begetter, together behind there, together behind the sweat bath when you were born, the desire in that chaos, desire in that darkness, the spitting snake was on the rock when you were born, desire in the darkness. Master of Drunken Madness, you are the desire in the chaos, you are Master of Stupid Madness, you are Lascivious Madness, you are Jaguar Madness, you are Master of Macaw Madness, you are Deer Madness. Who is your tree? Who is your bush? What served as your bed, your bower when you were born? The red tree of madness, white tree of madness, black tree of madness, yellow tree of madness, the red macaw acacia, white macaw acacia, black macaw acacia, yellow macaw acacia are your trees. These are your trees, you Macaw Madness. The red mamey, who is the white mamey? Who is the black mamey? Who is the yellow mamey? Who is the red viper tree? Who is white, black, yellow? The red frangipani, who is white, black, yellow? These are your trees, Lascivious Madness. Who is the madness? You are Stupid Madness … you will be where she is, a needle for drawing blood, a needle for gore, respite comes for the chaos, respite comes for the darkness, the bond is shaken loose where she is, a needle for drawing blood, a needle for drawing gore, the seizure is shaken out, there where he vomited water, only it wasn’t water flowing, it was gore flowing, Master of Traveler’s Madness, Master of Drunken Macaw Madness flowed out. What about the desire of chaos, the illness of madness? Drain them away then, you Four Gods, you Four Who Pour the Years. They will fall where she is, Yellow Sun Face, Yellow Dripper of Gore, where she is, the sole owner of the accursed gore. Drain it away then, to the place where she is, the sole owner of accursed gore drain it away then, you Four Gods, you Four Who Pour the Years, it will fall where she is, the star of Stupid Madness, it will lie four days in the place where she is, the star of Stupid Madness. He bit his arm, relieving the chaos, relieving the darkness, and he also tasted the blood of the sweat bath, and he tasted the blood on the foundation stone. Well then, throw the desire of chaos there, desire of darkness, you Four Gods, you of the Four Directions, it will fall into the heart of Hell where its father sits, Ultimate Enemy of Fire, where she is, the Foreigner, Doorkeeper of the Earth. This is its mother, this is its lustful father when it arrives in the heart of Hell. Raucous, thunderous are the cries of the birds. What about this chaos, you Four Gods, you of the Four Directions?” This will be the dialogue concerning the Ultimate Enemy of Fire when speaking to the Four Gods, the Four Directions. “Raucous are the cries of the birds, the bringers of omens on her behalf, the Foreigner, Doorkeeper of the Earth, red-breasted birds, white-breasted falcons, red-breasted falcons, thrushes in the sky, thrushes in the clouds: these will portend your fall into the heart of Hell. What about stupid madness? What about macaw madness? What about jaguar madness? Well then, the desire of chaos is yours to level out, you Four Gods, you of the Four Directions. Aha! The water spreads thin, but what flows is not water but blood flowing, gore flowing from the tree of Master of Macaw Jaguar Madness.” This will be the dialogue when speaking to the Four Gods, those of the Four Directions, concerning her, the Foreigner, Doorkeeper of the Earth.
[TRANSLATOR'S NOTES. Among the animals invoked by the incantation is the kan ch’ah, or “spitting snake,” an unidentified species that is said to be large, yellow, and nonpoisonous. The omen-bringing birds called sak tan sipipi, chak tan sipip, or “white-breasted falcons, red-breasted falcons,” are probably collared forest-falcons (Micrastur semitorquatus naso), whose hollow cries carry far and whose breast colors include white and buff. Also named as bringers of omens are ixk’o, or “thrushes,” described as being in the sky. These birds would be clay-colored thrushes (Turdus grayi), which sing in rich and varied phrases while flying.
All of the trees mentioned have medicinal values, as described in treatises written by Mayan healers during the colonial period. The boiled bark and leaves of the prickly ash (Zanthoxylum fagara), named here as tankas che, or “tree of madness,” are ingredients in a bath for sufferers of fevers, fainting spells, or eruptions of pustules. An unidentified disease that makes the gums and the palms of the hands turn greenish can be treated by a bath whose ingredients include the boiled leaves of a species of acacia (Acacia filicioides), named here as the k’ante mo, literally “yellow tree macaw” but rendered as “macaw acacia” in the translation. The fruit of the mamey (Calocarpum mammosum), named here as jas, is a remedy for diarrhea. The k’ok’ob’ or “viper” tree (Pilocarpus racemosus) is named after an unidentified snake that is said to be the most poisonous of all the vipers of Yucatán. The bark is irritating to the skin, but it can be boiled to make medicines for dysentery. The flowers and leaves of frangipani trees (Plumeria spp.), named here as nikte, also found use in such medicines. The sap of these trees provides a salve for burns.]
Writes Tedlock further: “The attached two paragraphs of notes need to be restored to ‘Jaguar Macaw Madness.’ Removing them detaches the incantation from the local and practical knowledge of real, specific plants and animals that belong to a real, specific place, pushing it too far into what could seem to the reader to be the imaginary world of a madman. The reality of these plants and animals is all the more important now, in a world that must be made greener.”
with John Bloomberg-Rissman
SOURCE: Dennis Tedlock, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature, University of California Press, 2011.
A principal thrust of the European Conquest was to drive the old languages & religions into a new darkness, an outsiderness by force of arms. And yet, as Tedlock & others have told us, “The ancient gods of Yucatán continued to hear their names during the colonial period.” The languages kept being spoken & the books – those few that remained & those now secretly transcribed & hidden– entered a furtive underground existence, some in the new alphabetic writing, some in traditional conveyance by word of mouth. What survives & continues to be written & invented even now amounts, as Tedlock has assembled & brought it forward, to 2000 years of Mayan written literature.
Writes Tedlock further: “Among those who invoked [the ancient gods] were healers who treated a wide variety of illnesses, using combinations of herbs and words. At some point during the early seventeenth century, some of these practitioners used alphabetic writing to create collections of curative incantations. Today their works are known only from a single compendium ['Ritual of the Bacabs'] that dates from the late eighteenth century, based on two or more earlier sources and written in two different hands. … It seems clear that the purpose of the writers was to create scripts that could be memorized in advance of a performance, or perhaps read aloud. … First among the illnesses addressed by the incantations are various forms of madness whose symptoms include a lack of judgment, spasms, frenzy, fury, and shameless lust. The common term for all of these illnesses is tankas (or tamakas), which is also a term for the Milky Way."
In March 17, 2007, reading in the Segue Series at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York, Will Alexander read four poems: “Exercise is Particle Neutrino,” “Coping Prana,” “Compound Hibernation,” and “Above the Human Nerve Domain.” An audio recording of the complete reading (17:59) is available on Will Alexander’s PennSound author page, as are segmented audio for each poem. Here I’m pleased to feature “Compound Hibernation” [MP3; 2:22]. The text of the poem was published in Zen Monster.
In 1978, Tom Leonard recorded “Three Texts for Tape” at his home in Glasgow using his Teac A-3340S tape recorder. One of these three “texts for tape” was a performance piece, a chanting of another poet’s verses — a multiple reading of a half canto of Percy Shelley’s “The Revolt of Islam” in many voices. Here is that recording (with thanks to the Archive of the Now): MP3 (4:37).
The visual creole of John M. Bennett
1. "All human cultures are creole," John M. Bennett writes. Our language and our world view are hybrid, influenced by and adapting influences from the global village and our post-global home. They are inevitably syncretic and creole.
Absolutely. But Bennett’s use of the term ‘creole’ brings to mind the other meaning of creole. Creole as in the ‘creolisation’ of languages. How the language of a colonizing or dominant culture devolves into a pidgin and then develops into a creole, a rich communication tool with its own grammar, form and traditions, though often with a vocabulary based on the dominant language. So: Haitian Creole and its relationship to French.
So: what if visual poetry is a creole language, one that has created its own grammar, forms, and literature based on the ‘colonizing’ verbal and visual language of the dominant mode of communication/language/culture?
2. Everything is a Face
The vispo is pareidolic. (Isn’t everything? That potato looks like my mother. And my mother looks like Mother Teresa. Or the moon.)
The image ('Discipline,' above) appears as some kind of creature (human, monster, jellyfish) with eye-like figures at the top of its ‘face’ (though the left ‘eye’ is also mouth-like.) The image is both face and body. The red y is limb-like. Or tongue-like. An ear? Something penetrating or escaping? Whatever it is, it seems to move toward the top of page and seems organic and full of agency. Those e’s falling from its right ‘eye’. Or flying up into it. But maybe the image is a gate. A doorway. A hat. An abstract field of markings. Engaging with the idea that we can’t help but ‘read’ into marks, into inscriptions. The piece has a powerful emotive quality. Trembling with the energy of the psyche. Vibrating with visual energy.
3. Pictures ∴ Writing
When do pictures become writing? When does looking become reading? Runes. Talking knots. Knob-sickles. Oracle bone-script. Tortoise-shell inscriptions. Marks that are pictographic, ideographic, mnemonic, hieroglyphic, or consumercapitalistoglyphic.
So: protowriting. And thus the protoreader. What would post-writing look like? The post-readerly text? Or the post-reader? (The moon, Mother Teresa, my mom?)
4. A characteristic John M. Bennett visual.
Ripped paper, rimpled text on torn paper. Bennett’s signature curly ink scrawlings, rubber-stamped letters which often call attention to the fact that they are glyphs pressed from ink. The physicality and gesturality of making marks. The materiel of language which comes together as constellations on the flat screen of the page. Often Bennett’s work explores different textures and different modalities (registers/of text, of mark-making, of drawing). It often involves collaboration with others. A kind of multilevel polyphony or heterophony (polyglyphony? heteroglyphony?) There’s an implied sense of community, of working together, of ‘jamming,’ exploring, of taking this thing on the road and seeing what happens. And the actual images: there is an engagement with the visceral, with the gargoylesque, the “ugly,” primitive, or grotesque. The childlike.
GB: How do you conceive of ‘reading’ in the context of your work? How do you imagine a reader approaching it? What would happen in their readerly head? What strategies would you hope or expect that they might use? Would they analyze or drool? Would they seek an overall sensory impression, or parse the visual in some way, weighing the resonance, associations, or possible associative or denotations of the images?
JMB: To respond to your questions en bloc: my "visual" poetry is on a continuum of all my work, and what people see as visual or not varies with the person. I myself don't bother trying to define where it's visual and where not; such an exercise is useless to me. In fact, ALL of my work is visual and textual and oral and performative, all at the same time.
With regard to the piece you selected, your comments on it seem to make sense; as with all my work, everyone reacts to it or sees it quite differently.
I think my art - maybe all art - is a mirror, in which the viewer/reader seems herhimself. I always hesitate to say what I see in one of my pieces, because then people assume that's "definitive," which it isn't at all. I'm really no different from anyone else, or at least in any meaningful way. My reading of a piece is just another reading, and it will be different each time I read it.
The piece ("Discipline") was part of a series made in response to an extensive encounter with Mayan writing, and with Mixtec picture writing. In a sense the whole thing is a glyph, and a kind of picture writing which is NOT what most "visual poetry" is. It's meaningfulness, or one of its meaningfulnesses, lies in the hybridization of Mesoamerican culture with my own complex culture. It's a way of saying the world or my experience of the world in a creole visual language. How someone else responds to, and deals with, this work is not my problem; as I said, everyone will find (or not) a way with it or in it. And that's how it should be. I cannot tell anyone else how I want them to approach my work.
[T]he concept of "creolization": in fact, all human cultures are creole; there is no such thing as a "pure" culture, and therefore there is no such thing as a non-creole literature. I suppose what most people mean by the term are manifestations of culture that have changed recently due to new or changing cultural contacts.
GB: Could you say more about how you view the 'creolization' of the visual, of the written, of multi-media language, about how we must negotiate this creolization/hybridization of multiple inputs, traditions both through time and space?
JMB: Creole [as I use the term, denotes] a mix of sources, yes. With regard to language that can involve the retooling of everything; not just grammar, but lexicon, metaphors, images, puns, particular expressions, pronunciation, and so on. As I said, I don't think there's such a thing as a "pure" language: all are creole, ultimately.
With regard to multi-media literature, I'm inclined to think that the above is the case as well. That is, people are referring to what seem to be new wrinkles or emphases in something that has always been there. From the very beginning of writing, there have been visual elements, for example. Glyphic and picture-writing processes are being used by some today, myself included, but those are not new processes. Very old ones, in fact. Perhaps there is a new explicitness in how they are being used today in some new writing; perhaps a new and greater frequency of use than in the recent past. Perhaps also they are being used in what might seem at first more jarring and intimate relationships with semantic and alphabetic writing. But they've always been there.
John M. Bennett has published, exhibited and performed his word art worldwide in thousands of publications and venues. He was editor and publisher of LOST AND FOUND TIMES (1975-2005), and is Curator of the Avant Writing Collection at The Ohio State University Libraries. Richard Kostelanetz has called him “the seminal American poet of my generation”. His work, publications, and papers are collected in several major institutions, including Washington University (St. Louis), SUNY Buffalo, The Ohio State University, The Museum of Modern Art, and other major libraries. His PhD (UCLA 1970) is in Latin American Literature. His website is a treasure trove of his many works and projects.
Among the readings for the graduate seminar in black philosophy and theory that my students and I completed not long ago were the collected writings of philosopher and artist Adrian Piper, in which, among so many other projects, she reproduces the calling card she had printed up for use in one of her on-going projects from the 1970s. Because Piper is, as we so deftly put it in America, a light-skinned black person, she has had the experience of being in a group of white people and hearing one of them tell a racist joke. She had cards printed up that she would present to the tellers of such jokes, cards that explained that she was in fact a black person and that she found the telling of the joke objectionable. This was not merely a personal campaign, you must understand, but was a sort of philosophical theater, for the presentation of the card was not simply a means to carry out a personal fight with racism. The reporting of the event and the circulation of the card as reproduced in Piper’s writings and exhibitions as well as in the writings of others was an extended event that brought insufficiently reflective people to a reflection upon the workings of race in consciousness. My students and I had the discussions you might expect regarding the transformations brought about in the presentation of the card, those moments in which the recipient had to make an immediate ontological and epistemological shift as a person previously seen as white became, in the moment of reading the card, perceived as black. Then I presented my students with an additional conundrum. We had been reading texts by Charles Mills and Tommy Lott in which those philosophers proposed a number of mind-boggling thought experiments regarding race. I asked my students to imagine a situation in which a white-appearing person, a person much like Piper herself, presents the teller of a racist joke with a card announcing that the presenter of the card is “really” black. Then I asked my students to consider what difference it might make in their understanding of this situation should they subsequently learn that the white-appearing person presenting the card was in fact a white person.
Adrian Piper was/is a central figure in an earlier era of American conceptual art. Her day job for many years has been work as a philosopher specializing in Kantian aesthetics. In both worlds, American art and academic philosophy, she has had to contend with a larger discourse that doesn't recognize her presence, has difficulties with the merest fact of her being as a black person doing these things. Her art has often taken that fact, the ways that our conceptions of race frame our conceptions of art and philosophy, as the reconceptual core of her works. In one extended work she created a male persona complete with side burns and mustache, seemingly of mixed race, which she inhabited in the streets and public places of New York. Responses to her (as him) were part of the work.
I think of Piper and that work a great deal while listening to the arguments surrounding conceptualism in poetry in the present. There are questions I would enact if I had her knack for embodying them. Why is the public face of conceptual poetry so incredibly white? Is today's conceptualism a sort of white masque? Is the enlisting of poets such as Harryette Mullen, Claudia Rankine and others in the anthology Against Expression a mask for that expression of whiteness or an act of acknowledging black conceptual poetics? If the latter, then why is the public face of conceptual poetry so incredibly white?