The sorrow & shock of the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor’s death among the nearly 100 killed in this September’s Kenya Mall bombing & massacre is still another horror to live with. Kofi was our friend & comrade in the early 1970s, a fellow poet & contributing editor to my magazine, Alcheringa Ethnopoetics, & a companion & guest at our dinner table in New York. His magnificent translations from Ewe oral poetry (“Poems & Abuse Poems of the Ewe”) appeared first in Alcheringa & in Technicians of the Sacred, & his presence among us was warm & his council invaluable, his accomplishments many. While there is more to be said about the madness that took his life, my tribute to him now is to show him writing through two of the Ewe oral poets that he translated, along with some comments of my own from Technicians of the Sacred in acknowledgement of the continued relevance of the traditional “abuse poetry” that he revealed to us. The first poem, below, is almost a memorial in itself.
by Henino Vinoko Akpalu (b.1888)
I shall sing you a song of sorrow.
When my turn comes, who will sing for me?
There is silence, earthly silence.
This way they said is how the poet dies.
Alas for someone who will bring him over the gulf
and he will come bearing along his voice
Only night shall fall; another day will dawn;
he will sing a song of sorrow.
The skull proclaimed: it is my mouth that sent me.
In the desert the rain beat me
soon the brushfire shall roar Over me.
Folks came asking for song.
Akpalu the poet asked: what song
shall I sing for you?
If I threw a long rope, night will fall.
Let me cut it short.
When you have a short sleeping mat
you do not nod in an easy chair
nor do you sleep on the earthen floor.
We are the owners of song.
Call the poet, call Akpalu from Anyako
he will cut it short, cut it very short for you.
There are guns; those who want to bury me.
To them I say when we meet I will step aside for them.
We know them in life, those who say:
"Die that I may bury you. "
Those on whom I had been counting
to look after me when evil matters fall,
when I meet them I will step aside for them.
I thought I had a child called "all is well behind me. "
Another, I thought, was called "to whom shall I tell it?"
The third was called "I am spread. "
Alas my children turned out to be my songs
that is how things have gone with me.
Let everyone know them, those who say:
"Die that I may bury you. "
Those on whom I had been counting
to look after me when the end comes
there are guns, those who want to bury me.
When I meet them I will step aside for them.
I was made by a great God.
I was made together with other poets.
You call yourself a poet, can you sing with Akpalu's voice?
Who deceived you? I was made by a great God.
I was made together with other singers.
The song of the drum, I do not sing it merely,
It was from old men I heard it;
a child who thinks he understands so much
cannot understand Agoha.
Agoha cannot die.
You may understand the top but not the deep words.
Anagli is going to bark.
You say you are a singer, can you sing with Akpalu's voice?
Who deceived you?
Is there any poet who can sing with Akpalu's voice?
I was made by a great God.
I was created together with other poets.
by Komi Ekpe (b. 1897)
Poverty moved into my homestead
Can I be this way and earn the name of a great singer?
Shall I fear death by song
and refuse to sing?
Hm hm hm. Beware,
I will place a load on Kodzo's head.
Nugbleza informed me that
it is the women of Tsiame
who goaded Kodzo into my song.
Questioners, this became the evil firewood
he'd gathered; his hands decayed
his feet decayed.
I am the poet; I am not afraid of you.
Kodzo, winding in the air, his asshole agape
his face long and curved
like the lagoon egret's beak.
Call him here, I say call him
and let me see his face.
He is the man from whom the wind runs,
the man who eats off the farm he hasn't planted
his face bent like the evil hoe
on its handle. Behold, ei ei ei
Kodzo did something. I forgive him his debt.
I will insult him since he poked
a stick into the flying ant's grove.
Amegavi said he has some wealth
And he took Kodzo's part.
The back of his head tapers off
as if they'd built a fetish hut on his breathing spot.
His face wags, a fool with a white ass.
The money opened his asshole
in display to the owner of the farm.
The lion caught a game, alas,
his children took it away from him.
Kodzo’s homestead shall fall, shall surely fall.
Questioners, let evil men die
let death knock down the evil doer.
If I were the fetish in the creator's house
that will be your redemption.
Kodz0, this imbecile, evil animal
who fucks others' wives fatteningly
his buttocks run off, his teeth yellow
his penis has wound a rope around his waist
pulling him around and away,
his backside runs into a slope
his eye twisted like the sun-inspector,
he has many supporters in Tsiame
his mouth as long as the pig
blowing the twin whistle.
Something indeed has happened.
A devotee offended Yewe
and the owner of guns did not fire.
The Creator sent me along this way;
I am all alone. He is not very wise.
I joined a cult whose shrines I cannot build.
Komi Ekpe says his deity lingers in a brass pan.
The beautiful children are in rebellion.
My mother in tears passed the poet on the roadside.
Whence did you pass before entering this world?
Did you fuck a deital virgin still on her way home?
Or did you receive the power of witchcraft?
No. I went acourting, and I was forced
into marriage. My murderers swore an oath.
If I say something please understand it.
I was about to sing so I called my Creator in abuse.
I became the offender of my Creator.
Slowly, I shall go home.
I shall question him closely
for he knows not that I shiver
from companions’ cold.
My enemies, I beg you,
do not eat salt till your heart hurts.
I will die soon. And this town will be empty
for you to crawl over one another.
Questioners, what ancient laws did I break?
The royal palm fruit comes down when it ripens.
The salt lagoon says the strong wind touches
not the tender shoots of the royal palm.
The earth is empty of my loved ones.
Even this bare life I lead annoys.
The palm eating bird soon goes blind.
Kill me, and I shall die.
My life is empty.
You who seek my death
at the eating and drinking place
and seek my death so passionately
I have moved my feet away.
It is man who passed the judgment of death
upon me. If the elders call me
I am corning.
If death's messenger arrives,
I shall go. I shall go.
I cannot refuse to go.
Kofi Lisavi, raise the shout over my head.
The elders have called me
I cannot refuse to go.
She with the jaw-bone of a cow
falling upon her chest like sea egret's beak,
her waist flat,
earlobes hanging, oversize intestines,
it was you who took my affairs to Sokpe
and asked him to sing against me.
I do not refuse;
I am not afraid of song.
I shall stay at home; if anyone likes
let him come; whatever he has
let him say it;
I shall listen.
I was far up north
when Kunye of the mad ram's face
carne and insulted me.
There is no one. I shall tell
a little tale to the slave;
let him open his ears wide and listen.
They heaped slave-insults upon Aheto’s head
and he swore a lengthy oath
full of boasts and boasts
that he was not a slave.
Atomi came and said it
We caught him, sold him to Zogbede
Zogbede bought him with his own wealth.
Your grandmother was taken from Yosu
from there she came to Tsiame.
You people of Dagbame, do you wear underclothes?
A small pair of underpants was put upon your grandmother
and she burst into tears.
It was the bird that sent
me into the night; I went away
with good deeds
Adzima boys, the beautiful ones cooked
for their husbands
This destiny is mine.
I salute you.
The needle follows the string
The Creator himself salutes you.
Salutations! The collapse of a town
is my divination.
The gun shall leap into the forest!
A fruitless effort, the owner of cloth
is the spinning wheel.
Monyo is nobody. I cannot marry him.
I shall wait and marry a priest
So he will give me a priestly child
The priest did not know I will survive
The priest Awoonor did not know
I will survive.
I cannot walk the walk
of little infants.
The animals begat twins,
But the lion begat only one.
Why has it become a matter of such anger
I want to climb and untie the fresh leaves of the Ago palm
But I walk the walk of flesh eating birds
It fell upon evil for me.
[A NOTE ON THE HALO OR ABSUSE POEM AS REVEALED BY KOFI AWOONOR. Centered on public events such as wakes & funerals, the halo contests between poets remind us of traditions as diverse as Eskimo song battles, the flytings, etc. of pagan Europe, & the more recent African-American “dozens.” A reminder too that good-feelings per se have rarely been the central aim of a poetry derived from the workings of shamans & sacred clowns engaged (more often & more like ourselves than we had previously imagined) in traditional rituals of abuse & disruption. (J.R.)]
As a child attending a Catholic primary school in the western suburbs of Sydney my only exposure to poetry arrived via pop music and fiction. I don’t think I even knew there was such a thing as poetry but the words to California Girls and WonkaVite were never far from my lips. In fact, the six lines that begin ‘Those rolls of fat around your hips’ remain the only bits of verse I have ever committed to memory. This commitment to never straying far from the grid remained throughout my twenties where, as an undergraduate, the only poems I allowed myself to read came from The Norton Anthology. Again, song lyrics took up the slack. It wasn’t so much the anxiety of influence that kept me focused, I think, but a kind of nervousness about losing track of the few poems that I felt pinned me in place somehow.
Many of the works in The Best Australian Poems 2013 deal with this anxiety of influence – you could say it comes with the ‘Best of’ territory. In organizing the poems alphabetically rather than randomly or in order of a poet’s surname, the editor, poet Lisa Gorton, has expertly managed the potential for anxiety and dissolution by implementing what I think of as a metaleptic structuring device.
Metalepsis is a notoriously difficult trope to define. Harold Bloom has called it ‘a metonymy of a metonymy.’ An early definition comes from the Roman rhetorician Quintilian who dismissed it as ‘by no means to be commended’ and mostly of use in comedy. ‘It is the nature of metalepsis,’ he writes, ‘to form a kind of intermediate step between the term transferred, having no meaning in itself, but merely providing a transition.’ As Fischlin recounts, Quintilian’s contempt for the Grecian trope was ideologically motivated and formulated as part of an ongoing project to maintain the ideal of a “perfect orator” in order to sustain the Institutio oratoria that itself worked to maintain Roman nationalism. ‘We need not waste any time over it,’ he writes.
In The Arte of English Poesie, the sixteenth century rhetorician and notorious lady-hater George Puttenham endeavoured to keep the tradition alive: ‘the sence is much altered and the hearers conceit strangly entangled by the figure Metalepsis, which I call the farfet, as when we had rather fetch a word a great way off then to vse one nerer hand to expresse the matter aswel & plainer.’ For Puttenham, the user of this figure has ‘a desire to please women rather then men: for we vse to say by manner of Prouerbe: things farrefet and deare bought are good for Ladies’. Despite Puttenham’s dodgy feminist credentials, it’s hard not to love the example he provides from Medea:
Woe worth the mountaine that the maste bare
Which was the first causer of all my care.
Puttenham critiques what he perceives to be the kind of excessive feminine strategy that eschews straight talking – ‘she might aswell haue said, woe worth our first meeting … and not so farre off as to curse the mountaine that bare the pinetree, that made the mast that bare the sailes, that the ship sailed with, which carried her away.’ As Fischlin points out, Puttenham conveniently sidesteps the Renaissance connotation of “farfet” as meaning ‘rich in deep strategems’.
More recently, the quest for a manageable definition of the metaleptic trope has proven similarly and understandably circuitous. Literary theorists such as Gerard Genette have trade-routed intricate systems between the ports of its many worlds. Metalepsis, in short, has been characterised as ‘the paradoxical transgression of boundaries’ and, more optimistically, productive of a “heterarchy”, a structure distinct from hierarchy in that it possesses no single “highest level”.’
So, when Gorton writes of the anthology as offering ‘an experience of time that is now, and now, and now – instants that replace each other’ we can hear the metaleptic at work, and find as we attempt to navigate the anthology examples of a poetics of belatedness. Jennifer Maiden’s majestic “Diary Poem: Uses of Frank O’Hara” provides a model of what is at stake – ‘I would like to read you, but / of course now there is my current worry / that influence might be retrospective’. If you enjoy reading poems more than once but are against dog-earing anthology pages you’re going to have to change your ways. Or do what I did and discover a canny method for routing out a poem’s whereabouts. Anti-spoiler alert: I won’t reveal my strategy.
Part of the fun of this anthology lies in the ways it seduces you into thinking differently about how you’ll read poetry. If you’re after something in particular it challenges you to be inventive about how you’ll go about getting it. If you don’t know what you’re looking for it will unobtrusively lead you away from the language grid and put you in clear sight of the sails of the farrefet. Andy Jackson’s “Edith”, ‘immured in a contraption of steel’ finds that one way to break free is to ‘speak / loudly about poets and composers, as if / your heart was not left there beside that road’. For a poem such as Peter Minter’s “The Roadside Bramble” you need to negotiate the labyrinth in order to become envisioned by what you’ve left behind, ‘A mercury pool shimmering in the wind / The whole reflected world shuddering.’
Jessica L. Wilkinson’s excitable “Jivin’ With Bonny Cassidy etc.” supposes that a cut dress might make for a quick getaway – ‘i cut it off / i los t control—’ while Melinda Bufton’s “Did you mean iteration” suggests it might be more pleasurable to give in to the trance algorithm and allow the mind to take off ‘in some various syntheses’. Certain poems seem to have influenced each other, effecting the transgression of boundaries that is the calling card of latter-day metalepsis. The ‘Napoleonic washbowl’ of Nguyen Tien Hoang’s “Summer” seems to arrive at once before and after Jaya Savige’s ‘Duchamp’ (“On Not Getting my Spray Can Signed by Mr Brainwash”) and the ‘pre-revolutionary glass’ of Sarah Holland-Batt’s “Last Goodbyes in Havana”. “Women in Classical Chinese Love Poems” by Debbie Lim binds themes of imprisonment, art and death in the figures of waiting women, ‘Sitting, standing, reclining … From girlhood they have known /grief must be sung, all hope / arrives on a west wind.’
The figure of metalepsis is one that is apt to drift. I frequently forget its name and have to think for a long time to recover it. When I’m working to reclaim it I’m drawn to Anne Carson’s translation of Celan’s Matiere de Bretagne
inside it is evening, the nothing
rolls its seas toward devotion,
the bloodsail is heading for you
Admirers of Lisa Gorton’s own intricately wreathed poems will be pleased to discover that this anthology has been formed, in part, ‘with the exactness peculiar to foreboding’ (“The Storm Glass”) that was a feature of her recent Hotel Hyperion.
Outside & Subterranean Poems, a Mini-Anthology in Progress (59): Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Two Dialect Poems, with a note on Sor Juana & the Pitfalls of Translation
Translation from Spanish & related dialects or faux-dialects by Jerome Rothenberg & Cecilia Vicuña. Originally published in the blogger version of Poems and Poetics & later in The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, edited by Edited by Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon Grosman, reprinted here for Jacket2. Final publication of the anthology of outside & subterranean poetry is scheduled for 2014 from Black Widow Press.
from VILLANCICO VII – ENSALADILLA
At the high & holy feast
for their patron saint Nolasco
where the flock of the redeemer
offers high & holy praises,
a black man in the cathedral,
whose demeanor all admired,
shook his calabash & chanted
in the joy of the fiesta:
PUERTO RICO – THE REFRAIN
tumba la-lá-la tumba la-léy-ley
where ah’s boricua no more’s ah the slave way
tumba la-léy-ley tumba la-lá-la
where ah’s boricua no more is a slave ah!
Sez today that in Melcedes
all them mercenary fadders
makes fiesta for they padre
face they’s got like a fiesta.
Do she say that she redeem me
such a thing be wonder to me
so ah’s working in dat work house
& them Padre doesn’t free me.
Other night ah play me conga
with no sleeping only thinking
how they don’t want no black people
only them like her be white folk.
Once ah takes off this bandana
den God sees how them be stupid
though we’s black folk we is human
though they say we be like hosses.
What’s me saying, lawdy lawdy,
them old devil wants to fool me
why’s ah whispering so softly
to that sweet redeemer lady.
Let this saint come and forgive me
when mah mouth be talking badly
if ah suffers in this body
then mah soul does rise up freely.
THE INTRODUCTION CONTINUES
Now an Indian assuaged them,
falling down and springing up,
bobbed his head in time and nodded
to the rhythm of the dance,
beat it out on a guitarra,
echos madly out of tune,
tocotín of a mestizo,
Mexican and Spanish mixed.
The Benedictan Padres
has Redeemer sure:
amo nic neltoca
quimatí no Dios.
Only God Pilzíntli
from up high come down
and our tlat-l-acol
pardoned one and all.
But these Teopíxqui
says in sermon talk
that this Saint Nolasco
mi-echtín hath bought.
I to Saint will offer
much devotion big
and from Sempual xúchil
a xúchil I will give.
Tehuátl be the only
one that says he stay
with them dogs los Moros
impan this holy day.
Mati dios if somewhere
I was to be like you
cen sontle I kill-um
beat-um black and blue
And no one be thinking
I make crazy talk,
ca ni like a baker
got so many thought.
Huel ni machicahuac
I am not talk smart
not teco qui mati
mine am hero heart.
One of my compañeros
he defy you sure
and with one big knockout
make you talk no more.
Also from the Governor
Topil come to ask
caipampa to make me
pay him money tax.
But I go and hit him
with a cuihuat-l
ipam i sonteco
don’t know if I kill.
And I want to buy now
Saint Redeemer pure
yuhqui from the altar
with his blessing sure.
A NOTE ON SOR JUANA & THE PITFALLS OF TRANSLATION
The centrality of Sor Juana to the poetry of the Americas is by now unquestioned, the great summation coming in Octavio Paz’s epical biography: “In her lifetime, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz [1651-1695] was read and admired not only in Mexico but in Spain and all the countries where Spanish and Portuguese were spoken. Then for nearly two hundred years her works were forgotten. After  taste changed again and she began to be seen for what she really is: a universal poet. When I started writing, around 1930, her poetry was no longer a mere historical relic but had once again become a ‘living text.’”
In the translation, above, another side of her work emerges – one of less concern to Paz than to the present translators: her experiments with a constructed Afro-Hispanic dialect & with the incorporation of native (Nahuatl) elements into her poetry. Here the translation question comes up as well, not only the issue of political aptness, which may also be raised where the class & status of the poet & her subject are at odds, but something at the heart of the translation process as such. For it is with dialect that translation – always a challenge to poetic composition – becomes or seems to become most elusive. Though many dialects approach the autonomous status of languages, there is always the presence behind them of the official, dominant language, which can make them, in the hands of a poet like Sor Juana (as with a Belli or a Burns in a European context), an instrument for the subversion both of language & of mores. Their particularity is nearly impossible for the translator to emulate, even while bringing up similar particularities in the dialects or faux-dialects into which he translates them.
The wordings in the villanicos (carols) presented here are faux-dialects with a vengeance, while their intention (or hers, to be more precise) seems obviously liberatory in practice. We have chosen therefore to approximate both the measure in which the poems were written & the spirit of invention & play through which the dialects were constructed. For this our principal models for transcription & composition come from nineteenth-century American & African-American dialect poetry & practice, much of it as artifactual & inauthentic as our approximations here. Our view, like that of Sor Juana four centuries before, is from the outside, looking in.
In my last post I discussed Vito Acconci’s concept of the “activist flaneur” and I mentioned how the figure of the flaneur is said to have originated with Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd.” Poe’s narrator, while engaged in categorizing the faces that pass his cafe window (using a particularly 19th century set of assumptions about character traits), is suddenly taken aback by a face that defies classification. He quickly grabs his coat and spends the night following the man through various crowd scenes, trying to determine what kind of man this could be. I won't give away the answer for those who haven’t read the story, but I’d like to make a connection between that act of following and several others — including Acconci’s 1969 “Following Piece.”
Acconci described the procedure of the work this way: “Once a day wherever I happen to be, I pick out, at random, a person walking in the street. Each day I follow a different person; I keep following until that person disappears into a private place (home, office, etc.) where I can no longer follow…episodes of following ranged from 2 or 3 minutes — when someone got into a car and I couldn’t grab a taxi fast enough… — to 7 or 8 hours — when a person went to a restaurant, a movie…” Acconci enacted this procedure for a month, and he recorded the details of each “episode.”
Ten years later the artist Sophie Calle performed her own extended following piece in Suite Venitienne. At a party in Paris, Calle meets “Henri B.,” who announces that he is leaving for Venice the next day. Calle also goes to Venice and after some detective work, figures out the hotel at which Henri B. is staying. She disguises herself and follows him through the city, photodocumenting along the way. The published account of this particular pursuit is part diary, part photo-novel, part investigative reportage.
In Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass, an author named Quinn is mistaken for the detective Paul Auster. On a whim, Quinn takes the case and finds himself following Stillman, tracking his movements with the same details as Acconci. But Stillman’s movements are quite erratic and seem to have no logic to them. Once Quinn tracks the coordinates of Stillman’s walks on a map, he discovers that Stillman is tracing letters with his movements and spelling out a phrase.*
Each of these followings was performed with varying degrees of investment in the person being pursued. For Acconci and Auster, the subject of pursuit is random, and so we learn much more about the pursuer than the pursued in these cases. Auster’s detective, however, senses that a puzzle could be solved if he could understand the motivations of his mark. In this regard, he has more in common with Poe’s 19th century narrator, who eventually discovers that his “man of the crowd” has no existence outside of the crowd; the crowd is lifeblood. Such a plight resonates in the era of Facebook friends and Twitter followers. We are all followers now. Which leads me to one last following piece: Geolocation by photographers Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman. The project begins by collecting and tracking digital breadcrumbs. Here’s their description:
“Using publicly available embedded geotag information in Twitter updates, we track the locations of users through their GPS coordinates and make a photograph to mark the location in the real world. Each of these photographs is taken on the site of the update and paired with the originating text. We think of these photographs as historical monuments to small lived moments, selecting texts that reveal something about the personal nature of the users’ lives or the national climate of the United States. It also grounds the virtual reality of social networking data streams in their originating locations in the physical world while examining how the nature of one’s physical space may influence online presence.”
I’ve been trying to think of poetic projects that are analogous to this photographic digital following project. Although I’m not sure it’s a perfect match, the works produced by the Troll Thread Collective mine and recontextualize the language evidence of our virtual landscape in a way that allows us to follow (and see ourselves in) the crowd.
* If Quinn had been tailing Stillman today, a GPS tracker or an app like “Map My Run” could have made his transcribing a lot easier.