2004

Ideas for the coming year:

  • Go line by line through one of my poetry manuscripts, using each line as the jumping-off point for a new poem.
  • Compile and illustrate a Book of Missing Hours with old Via Negativa posts.
  • Run for office.
  • Use the Internet to rally support for a National Do Nothing Day on some date of no special significance, to change every year and be chosen by lot.
  • Apply to a large foundation, or to the state arts council, for a grant to support Via Negativa.
  • Become a stalker of a celebrity poet, such as Tess Gallagher or Rita Dove.
  • Donate one of my kidneys to a needy Iraqi.
  • Learn to paint by numbers.
  • Run amok.
  • Change my name to Chrysler.
  • Set goals and continually strive to achieve them.
  • Write a letter to somebody using actual pen and paper.
  • Sing along with the CD.
  • Poison pigeons in the park.
  • Start a new religion using nothing but slogans and television advertising jingles from the 1970s.
  • Crawl on my belly like a snake.
  • Make hay while the sun shines.
  • Persist in my delusions.
  • Collect all my fingernails, toenails, shed hair, laundry lint and, if possible, shed skin for an eventual computer-assisted collage portrait of Jesus, or maybe Elvis.
  • Submit something to somebody.
  • Rock and roll.
  • Acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
  • Turn this blog over to its readers.
  • Go on a date.
  • Get a job.

(Ha ha! Just kidding with those last two there.)

I keep the thermostat turned way down; it’s cold. Reading the Internet isn’t like reading a book. I can always use the wait between one electronic page and the next to rub my hands together, breathe into my fists.

A fly bumbles into the glass on the front of my computer monitor, falls onto the desk. It rights itself, but still doesn’t seem quite right. I absent-mindedly drop a bottle cap over it and go back to reading the headlines: Gov’t, Rebels to Sign. Heart Scares Hit. Tsunami Toll Jumps. Artie Shaw Dies. Crude Oil Surges.

Several hours go by. I find myself staring at the bottle cap – a gold twist-off – with increasing frequency. It hasn’t moved. Finally, curiosity gets the better of me and I pick it up. There’s the fly, rubbing its forelegs together. I quickly replace the cap.

Poverty, simplicity, absence of guile: these are the traits my brother emphasized in his description of the fisherfolk of Negombo, Sri Lanka, whose Tamil dialect he recorded for his dissertation. Going through the dissertation this morning, I imagined I was able to detect these qualities in its examples of usage, which in light of recent events appeared irredeemably fragmentary, flotsam marooned in a black-bound text, translated and explicated in an alien language. I thought perhaps that if I gathered and grouped them roughly by fours, I could create the illusion of coherence, perhaps even conjure the ghost of a folk-song. The final three stanzas, however, are snippets from an actual conversation included as an appendix. “Setting: Ameer and Susila’s house. Susila, her daughter Laksika and her niece Nirosani are preparing a meal for the author a few days before his departure for the United States.”

I see a bird in that big tree.
There are many birds there.
Children always play under that tree.
The bus that goes to Colombo may be late, it seems.

Father wanted to read the newspaper, but it got lost.
Because he went to Kandy yesterday, he has no money.
I can go anywhere in this country by bus.
When I went to Colombo, I couldn’t find work.

Having gone to the store, having gotten fish, I came home.
Many mosquitoes came inside.
Maybe they’ll go to Chilaw tomorrow.
Don’t open your mouth when you chew.

Because it’s raining now, let’s stay at home.
It’s here that I work.
If I don’t have money, I don’t go to Colombo.
I have to go by foot.

I worked yesterday, so I want to take it easy today.
Let’s eat those bananas.
We got fed up with eating fish.
If you eat a lot of fruit, your body will grow.

Do you want anything now?
Let’s go to Negombo.
This is enough. This house is beautiful.
Today it might rain.

Whose dress is this? Whose?
Is it a white man’s?
A white man gives it for money.
He’s very silly.

The white man is going. He’s going on Sunday.
After we go to America, we’ll put our hands together.
We’ll bring the white man to his wife.
We’ll show photos.

Salt and coconut – bring that.
Is the fish just sitting there?
Yes, indeed, it is.
It only takes me a little while to cook it.
__________

UPDATE: Background

Steve writes, “A little more info might help put this all into context. The sentences aside from the oral text given at the end are mostly elicitations, meaning, they were sentences I gave in Sinhala which they then translated. That way, I could test for particular grammatical traits. Elicitations are an artificial but necessary tool of the field linguist. In addition, of course, the field linguist must make use of recorded informal conversations, which will of course disclose many unanticipated grammatical features.”

So, as I guess I kind of figured, the first six stanzas bear only the most tenuous relationship to the real sayings of real people. In effect, they are rearrangements of translations of translations. Perhaps one could make a case for this kind of exercise as a form of circumspection, given the inadequacy of any language to grapple with such total devastation, I don’t know. Something about the extreme ordinariness of these lines appealed to me – perhaps as part of a mental picture I have developed from Steve’s descriptions of his interactions with his informants. Sure, let’s talk about the way we talk – and please stay for supper!

“Regarding Sri Lanka fishermen in general,” Steve continues, “they belong to the Karava caste (in Tamil, karaiyar). The origin of the word would appear to be from Tamil karai, ‘(sea)shore.’ From Colombo south all around the coast, the Karavas are predominantly (though not exclusively) Buddhist and speak Sinhala. North of Chilaw on the west coast, and throughout the Tamil area, they are mostly Hindu and speak Tamil. Between Negombo and Chilaw, however (a stretch of about 40 miles) they are almost all Roman Catholic and bilingual. What’s more, they’ve come to identify themselves as Sinhalese who happen to speak Tamil, and have no interest whatever in the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict elsewhere. In fact, there are many signs and posters around Negombo, in both languages, indicating that conflict is not welcome.

“Within the Karava community are many subcastes, and the group I worked with were at the bottom of the hierarchy. To a great extent, this hierarchy is signalized by the type of fishing vessel used. The upper-crust Karavas use modern boats with deep-sea capabilities, and provide shark and other large fish for the local markets. The middle stratum, at least in the Negombo area (though spottily elsewhere) uses outrigger sailing vessels called oruvas in Sinhala. The poorest of the poor use only teppams, tiny balsa rafts that enable them to sail only a few hundred yards beyond the surf to catch shrimp and very small fish. From what I can ascertain, the wave hit Negombo but seems to have spared some of the coast further north, so the northwest coast may preserve some of the Karava/karaiyar villages, but it’s hard to know for sure.”

The period between solstice and New Year’s usually finds me thinking about time: what it is, how we experience it. Few cultures have gone as deeply into the nature of time as the Maya. But so much of their worldview is so strange to me that, no matter how lucid the explanation, I find myself at a loss to grasp what is really being said. Some of my incomprehension derives, I think, from our deeply ingrained modern tendency to view place and time as separable. But there’s more:

“Since he revealed himself only when he was born, it is only his reflection that now remains.” The scribes who transposed these words from New World characters into Old World letters felt the need to add an interpretation – or, to phrase the matter more the way it is phrased in Quiché, they felt the need to tell the reader what these words would say if we could hear what was hidden inside them, namely,

The sun that shows itself is not the real sun.

There are people down around the Great Hollow today, people reckoned in the Book as relatives of the Quiché, who at least allow us the sight of the sun for half of each day. They say that when he reached noon on the day of his first appearance, he placed a mirror at the center of the sky and then doubled back, unseen, to the east. During the second half of that day only his reflection was seen, and so it has been on every day since.

“Reflection,” these people say, and so says the Book. Lemo’ is the word, and it’s also the term for mirror. But the mirror reflects, during the second half of the day, what the Sun did during the first half. Or else it reflects, during our own times, what Sun did only once, and long ago. Coming here among these Mayan nations, we seem to have entered a world where reflections are not simultaneous with the things reflected. Reading the Book, we may guess that reflections ceased to be simultaneous the moment vigesimal beings [i.e., humans, people who keep score] lost their perfect vision:

“They were blinded as the face of a mirror is breathed upon.”

And what about the face in an ordinary mirror, seen close up? Leaving the land where they say lemo’ and coming back home won’t help. If any face is the true face of a vigesimal being it’s the one we all see in the mirror.

Dennis Tedlock, Breath on the Mirror: Mythic Voices & Visions of the Living Maya, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.

__________

See Deforming mirror and Therapy and the face in the mirror, which deal with Nahuatl conceptions of mirrors. Influence traveled in both directions between the classic Mayan and Nahuatl (Toltec, Aztec) civilizations. See also my brief meditation Consulting the mirror, from last January.

From October 2000 to July 2001, my brother Steve was in northwest coastal Sri Lanka gathering material for a dissertation (Negombo Fishermen’s Tamil: A Case of Contact-Induced Language Change from Sri Lanka, Cornell University, 2004). He worked extensively with the inhabitants of a small, Catholic fishing village a few miles from the city of Negombo. Last night he sent the following e-mail, with permission to publish it here.

The news just gets worse and worse. It appears that most or all of the people who were my research subjects and my friends during my stay in Sri Lanka are dead. Negombo was hit quite hard, and the people whose language and lifestyle I documented lived in frail cadjun [coconut-leaf] huts within meters of the high water mark, on the sands of the beach. They knew nothing but God, family, and fishing, and have not, to my knowledge, dropped bombs on anybody or fought any wars on drugs or mass-produced pornography and land mines; yet they are all apparently dead and we remain. Not only that: I could not have gotten my status-conferring, income-enhancing Ivy League PhD without their help, whereas they got along just fine without mine – yet they are gone and I linger on, PhD and all.

Nor can I take any consolation in their being “human beings just like us,” because they aren’t like us, not at all. They have the same DNA, they have many of the same passions, to be sure. But they also have no comprehension of our wisecracking, self-absorbed cynicism; they are (though it sounds cliche to say it) blessed with a certain childlike absence of guile. They place community above all other things and choose not to trouble themselves with the world’s problems. They do not live their lives in “I can give you 15 minutes of my valuable time” mode, ever. They always treated me like a dignitary and usually insisted on preparing excellent seafood dinners, which they couldn’t afford. There was never any suggestion that they were ashamed of their humble living quarters. Their huts were always clean, and their clothing always neat. I paid to help them build a cistern of their own (an untold luxury) in the sand behind their hut. It consisted merely of a 15-foot deep hole lined with metal, but it gave them fresh water for washing and drinking for the first time, ever. I fancied that, in buying them a well – not to mention a pile of clothing and household goods I got for them right before my departure – I was repaying them in part for helping me achieve my ambition.

Now the well and the household goods, as well as the houses and inhabitants, are probably gone, along with those of tens of thousands of others like them, all alike in their poverty and simplicity, all utterly unlike us. Maybe the old, abominable racial theories are correct, in a perverse and unanticipated way, for there really do seem to be two completely different moieties of the human race: the one, perpetually lapped in comfort, snugly insulated from the brunt of mother nature (most of the time), and able and willing to unleash hellfire and bombnation on the other half at the slightest provocation, real or imagined; the other, perpetually under the yoke of the first, always fodder for the cannons, chaff for the economic downdrafts, grist for the millstones of mother nature.

Anyway, enough hyperbole. Suffice it to say, I’m really bummed about this. Call it survivor’s guilt or whatever, but there can’t be too many people out there who’ve seen their PhD subject matter obliterated.

Steve Bonta
27 December 2004

Late yesterday afternoon I typed out several dense paragraphs on – Jesus, I can’t even remember what. And then I must have inadvertently deleted them, because I can’t find a trace of any such document now. All I can think is that when I went to post about the tsunami last night, I must’ve composed directly in Blogger, but copied and saved the post in MS Word as if it were simply a second draft, putting it in the already-open document and erasing its preexisting contents without looking. Either that, or I’m losing my mind. Here I have been contentedly reading poetry and thinking about other things since I got up this morning, telling myself I already had today’s post pretty much written. Instead I find this blank space in my files, in my memory. I do recall thinking, “Hadn’t I better jot these thoughts down in my notebook?” but answering myself that no, it would be easier to put flesh on the bones now, while the ideas were still fresh. Too easy!

Ah, whither the abstract maunderings of yesterday? For that matter, whither atrophy? But I do remember the vague half-thoughts I had in the morning, walking about in the ice-cold wind with great delight at the clearness of the air. Sharp contrasts, so beloved of simplistic orators and fear-mongering politicians, also characterize the favored terrain of artists – especially photographers. Winter with its perpetually low sun and desert-like conditions appears to simplify things, but really, that’s a bit of an illusion. The reduction of complexity often makes fundamental mysteries that much harder to ignore. Picture the bent back of a light-skinned nude against a black background, head, neck, and limbs hidden: a fine ceramic vessel, you’d think. And the chilled hands long for contact – the fingertips to ghost along that flange that used to be a spine – even as the eyes strive to resolve desire’s banished shadow with this radiant perfection.

I have no trouble remembering how I sat out on my front stoop with a mug of hot tea around 2:30, the brim of my cap pulled low against the sun, watching the translucent wings of chickadees and juncos among the cattails and then the midnight black of a feral cat slinking through the weeds. The sky was as blue as it ever gets. I worried about the cat, so painfully skinny now at the start of winter. As I watched, it pounced once, twice but came up empty: no squirming furry body between its teeth, not even the shadow of a smile that might linger on when, Cheshire-like, the rest of it fades away. The tea in my mug stayed warm for a surprisingly long time.

Comprehensive, up-to-date information on the impact of the tsunami and how to help are available through a new blog. (Thanks to Watermark for the link.) The Wikipedia already has a great deal of information up as well, including an animation.

As with the big earthquake that devastated Bam, Iran exactly one year ago (to the hour, according to the USGS), I find myself reaching for Artur Lundkvist’s Agadir:

Words also crumbled, broke into pieces, scattered in shreds,
in vain I tried to find some still unharmed and usable
but found only splinters of metaphors, cracked, like a split mirror;
visions floated about, islands adrift in air as white as milk but thicker,
almost like molten, viscous marble,
trees floated about, torn up by the roots and turning slowly upside down upon themselves,
people floated like driftwood, many whole and outwardly unmarred, others cut in half or worse,
floating about in the white with eyes wide-open, hair streaming upward…