“Personal ornaments are a powerful tool of communication,” says Francesco D’Errico at the Institute of the Prehistory and Geology of the Quaternary in Talence, France, one of the team that studied the beads. “They can indicate social or marital status, for example. But you need to have a complex system of language behind that. To me [these beads] are very powerful archaeological evidence that these people were able to speak like us.”
–“Ancient beads imply culture older than we thought,” New Scientist

Rain makes
a cave of the air.
It doesn’t mean to fall,
any more than
the thrush
means to sing such
an ache into the heart.
Tell me what
your tongue tastes like —
blood? Metal? Your reflection
in running water?
This is how it happens.
When the first
bone drill pierces
a nugget of shell,
something round
as the day can suddenly
admit a saving loop of hide:
time can be savored.
The world’s first
belt or necklace
the waters from the waters
like a movable wound,
like a smile
full of teeth
the others see.

40 Replies to “Beads”

  1. Permit me some antonimity…

    To my ear, the vatic tone of this poem doesn’t sit well with the sudden intimacies of lines 8-10.

    I’m not convinced that the convention of “your” is what works best here. How about “our”?

    Also, the penultimate line (“when”) isn’t giving up its sense to me quite yet.

    Otherwise, finely tuned and on song. I enjoyed sounding this one out into the still air of Longhall. The first seven lines are particularly memorable.


  2. Thanks for the critique — much appreciated. I agree that this draft is rougher than most poems I put up. You know how it is: those beads have been lying around for over 100,000 years, but I have to post about them TODAY!

    I would urge you not to concentrate on my line choices, though – it’s almost completely arbitrary, spur-of-the-moment. Most of the time it’s a toss-up whether I put in line breaks at all. That shit just don’t matter to me. The sound is the thing.

  3. Thanks for taking the critique in good spirit. You know (and I know that you know) there isn’t any opposition between your writing and my reading.

    I wasn’t too worried about the line breaks, actually. I only used them as a designation so you’d know which bits of the poem I was talking about.

    But, for what it’s worth, I do think the short line you’re using here works well for this kind of poem- helps slow it down.

  4. Well, yes and no. Really, we are very much the exception in that we are not much adorned by nature. But some species do modify what they are given – for example, the turquoise-crowned mot-mot plucking all but the tips of his tail feathers. And then of course there is grooming…

  5. I like this, the beginning more like a love poem in the ways that are recognizable, by the end, it’s turned, for me, into something starkly primitive, the bone drill, the archeology of beads, the ancient stoneage adornments which you connect to language via the quote that begins the piece.

  6. Thanks, Brenda. (But “primitive”? Ack!)

    Probably I need to add a few lines & make the connections clearer here, but this blasted humidity is making it hard for me to think.

  7. I had a feeling the word “primitive” would do that, but I was thinking of fabulous masks of wood and paint and often beaten gold or brass and beads and feathers, and so I was using that word not in an anthropological sense (where it’s definetly yuck) but an art historical sense where it refers not to a classification of any peoples but to a general style (like, Picasso influenced by ‘primitive art’ when he was exploring African art). You may not even agree with its use in that context, and then you are free to make up a new word and perhaps it will enter the lexicon to replace this overloaded Modernist word (I’m thinking Joseph Campbell, who used it frequently, and who I really do love but who was monomyth modernist)…

    But, then, I’m thinking I used it myself in an ironic way to indicate denigratory Western attitudes towards Africa in the long autobiographical poem I wrote on my childhood.

    Yeah, make up a better word for the art historical angle, then like a tadpole, or a mutuation of a gene, it can either grow up to leap-frog over old terms or effect a change in the lexicon :-o)

    (If that turns into a yellow smiley, oh! no!)

  8. I had a feeling the word “primitive� would do that

    Aha! At least you admit you enjoy getting a rise out of me!

    The word “primitive” has inescapably negative connotations, in my view. It implies something that, while it may be well done, is still the product of a mind or a society that is at a state of arrested development. Thus, I am very much in favor of retaining the concept of the primitive as a useful way to think about ourselves.

    Primitive art? The yellow smiley certainly qualifies! Art designed to appeal to people’s base instincts (greed, sex, insecurity) is certainly primitive, so most advertising qualifies as primitive art. But more than that, the vast majority of the products of modern, industrial society, whether capitalist or communist, are ugly to look at, take little heed of their social and environmental contexts, and are often in some way damaging to their users: truly primitive. The ideology of the high modernists, the product of nihilism and alienation from nature, is primitive in the extreme. What Picasso and company called primitive, I call traditional — a word they were unwilling to use in a positive light. Beyond that, the variety within the traditional arts even of one, fairly cohesive region — say, the forest region of Africa — is so great as to make a mockery of most attempts to generalize. I don’t care what art historians may say about a general “primitive” style; I have looked at plenty of art books and visited my share of museums, and I don’t see any unity to the artworks of traditional, “indigenous” or “tribal” peoples beyond whatever fantasies the modern viewer may project. As I’m sure you know, many of the cultures traditionally thought of as primitive are immeasurably more complex than ours in every way but the material/technological: in their languages, in their religions, and in their integration of plastic, verbal, kinetic and mimetic arts.

  9. Like, grrr… you go, Dave! No, I wouldn’t seriously and deliberately set out to get a rise from you. :smirks without a yellow smiley:

    Of course I agree fully with you. Only my problem is that I like the word, “primitive,” as a word. I like it’s sound. I like to be called primitive (way preferable to ‘sophisticated’). I like the resonance, primate, primal, origins, first, when it all began. Prime numbers can’t be reduced any further, and have a beauty about them. It’s just the association with rudimentary and somewhat unsanitary that’s spoiled the word. ‘Primitive conditions’ is the cliche that’s lopsided the word towards the denigratory. No, I wouldn’t call any so-called tribal art “primitive” in the sense of implying it’s not sophisticated – tribal art is as highly evolved and based on as complex a mythology as any “sophisticated” art is. But primitive, there’s a primal drumbeat in that word for me…

  10. OK, we’ll call you primitive if you’ll refrain from calling us (Africans) primitive. I think that’ll make everyone happy.

    As for Picasso, he adapted some of the formal innovations of certain African masks he saw in Paris, but he was also very much influenced by ancient Iberian stone sculpture.

    See here.

  11. St Antonym, I’m from Zimbabwe, and lived in Kafue National Park in Zambia as a child from ages 2-6, no malls, no sidewalks, no real buildings even. My best friends all Ndembu. In the poem I referred to I was not calling Africans primitive, rather the opposite. Oh, dear.

    But did you see this fabulous find… I was going to drop it off at Sparky’s. Modigliani has nothing on the original!

    27,000 year old master.

  12. “lived in Kafue National Park in Zambia as a child from ages 2-6, no malls, no sidewalks, no real buildings even. My best friends all Ndembu.”

    That’s just like saying “some of my best friends are black.” It doesn’t give you an automatic pass. As I’ve said, you’re welcome to be “primitive” if you’d like, but there are millions who have been, and are tired of being, painted with that same brush.

    This is exactly the image of Africa that I consider it my mission to combat. We do have sidewalks, we do have malls and, Christ on a bike, we have lots of “real buildings.”

    Living in a National Park for four years in infancy doesn’t make you African, I’m sorry to say. The National Park is an Africa for white people- I never saw large carnivores, or elephants, or giraffes, until I saw them at a zoo in Chicago. We’re not “closer to nature” or whatever the current pc way is of saying that Africans are simple-minded. We tend not to live in mudhuts. Many of us go to university. Most of us, as you may be aware, are actually city dwellers.

    Don’t take this as a personal attack, Brenda, but as I said, I combat these false characterisations of Africa as part of my personal mission. It makes me sound more strident than I mean to be, but there we have it.

  13. St Antonym?! I have absolutely no disagreement with what you say, nor with your “personal mission.” In fact, you might find I’m on a similar “personal mission” if you weren’t looking for, well, someone to lambast for the things you dislike. The things one single word can evoke! It’s amazing what’s being imputed to me because I don’t dislike the word primitive. I don’t. That’s not going to change, either. And I don’t regret my jungle experience one single bit. This whole thing about having “malls” and “real buildings” is about what? I find this comment a deliberate misreading of my work, intent, beliefs. It’s most strange to find myself being cast in the exact opposite light to what I believe in. Most strange indeed!

  14. No deliberate misreading here. And I’m not accusing you of racism or any such thing.

    But your love for the word “primitive,” your fond reminiscence of an Africa of “no malls, no sidewalks, no real buildings” (these are your words, not mine)- well, it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck.

    Your statement is typical of white privilege.

    Brenda, I don’t know you. I know nothing about you. It seems like you’re a decent person, interesting, vital, alert. I quite enjoy your comments here. I can even easily imagine us becoming friends. For those reasons, especially for those reasons, it’s my duty as an African to alert you to the fact (regardless of how innocent your self-image might be) that you participate in a continuing and damaging narration of Africa by foreigners. It’s of a piece with all the depictions of Africa in American media: the jungle, the refugees, the wild animals, the barely clothed “natives.” You’re an unwitting accomplice.

    “But how can anyone say that!” you might say. “I love Africa. I was in Africa as a baby. Some of my best memories are of the African bush.”

    The African bush. The African bush. The word primitive. It walks like a duck. It quacks like a duck…

    You know, I believe I’ve said all I have to say on the matter.

  15. On the other hand, St Antonym, neither will I turn Africa into a pseudo-Western state for some hope of acceptance by the developed world. ‘We’re just like you,’ is not my cry, ‘we have malls and buildings and wear Levi jeans too!’ Although of course a strip mall is a strip mall in any part of the world. Playing up the Westernization is not the route that I believe will enable the West to actually see the rich diversity of Africa and to honour it. My experience of Africa was 50 years ago. I have been back. It’s just like everywhere else, stratified societies, though on the whole poorer than most parts of the world, and a lot of illness and death which is tragic. Most of my life I’ve hidden my jungle experiences from people for the very reasons you cite. I no longer do that. I don’t think the culture built by capitalism is the be-all and end-all of civilization. There are other values, ways of being, modes of understanding that perhaps are far more sustaining than the system based on economics which appears to rule everything.

    I live in a multi-cultural city where the diversity of many different peoples are maintained. We don’t have a history of slavery in this country, and hopefully Black people who’ve come to live here can live with more freedom than in the States. There doesn’t seem to be the same level of anger up here that there is down there. Which is one reason why I was so taken back by your responses – it’s just not the norm here.

    I could send you over to a site where I have an autobiographical prose poem mostly on Africa, but you’d probably shred it, and I’m not sure that would have any value for me, or for you (or that I could take it tonight).

    I seem to consistently run aground in comments at Dave’s site, and it’s making me wonder if I should be here.

  16. Two Dishes – Thanks, man. This helps me know what i need to keep if/when i get around to revising the piece.

    Brenda –

    It’s most strange to find myself being cast in the exact opposite light to what I believe in.

    This is at least the third time you have responded to criticism here by complaining that you have been misunderstood. It’s your prerogative to use words in a meaning different from, even opposite to, their generally understood meaning, but if you do so, you perhaps ought to explain yourself a bit more clearly – and not be surprised when someone takes you to task for it. I share St. Antonym’s puzzlement at your insistence on the use of the word “primitive” even after admitting the validity of my arguments against it. “Primal” is quite a different word (though also loaded, of course).

    In other words: yes, please be provocative, but then please don’t get upset if you succeed in provoking a heated response. It’s up to you to decide whether you should be here. My perspective — which I hope is obvious — is that challenging comments are the best kind. I strive to make Via Negativa a place where people take language and meaning seriously, and feel free to weigh in whenever they feel that I, or a commenter, may have been careless. And it seems to work: the three most recent posts have garnered valuable corrections and critiques from “striped twisty,” St. Antonym (first comment above), and Rebecca Clayton. I feel blessed in having such attentive readers, and hope that you will remain among them.

    St. Antonym – If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it might well be a goose. Or a guillemot. But not in downtown Lagos, of course.

    I was initially puzzled by your use of the term “white privilege.” Then I remembered: it’s one of the most popular colors of exterior oil-based paints from Sherman-Williams (“Cover the Earth”), isn’t it? Halfway between Lily White and Whiteout, as I recall. High gloss, with just a hint of oyster.

    Seriously, speaking of damaging narrations,the Christian Science Monitor — the only major newspaper I read regularly — just had a feature-length piece on villages of witches in Ghana, places where women accused of witchcraft elsewhere can take refuge. Fascinating stuff, but the article shocked me in its bald equation of sorcery beliefs with “superstition” — as if Christian Science belief is completely rational! But more than that, I was struck by the timing: just as Ghana was getting set to play — and beat — the U.S. in the World Cup.

  17. Ghana, which has a population of 21 million, was referred to repeatedly in the American media as “the small African country of Ghana.” The other team that gave the U.S. a spanking was from the Czech Republic, pop. 10 million. But never, to the best of my knowledge, referred to as “the small Eastern European nation” or some such.

    But didn’t you know? Africans are smallish. Smallish, simple, and therefore unthreatening.

    As for the goose: it’s an option I hadn’t thought of. I consider myself duly chastened.

    I earnestly hope Brenda continues to participate here. We all have much to learn from each other.

  18. This is from Singing Bowls 17. St Antonym may have a hey day with it. I use the term “primitive” in an ironic sense. Is irony so hard to see?

    Because I use the word “primitive” doesn’t mean I’m automatically classifying all Africans as “primitive,” or the continent, as St Antonym implied. When someone has an agenda, they want to see representations of it everywhere. He has a “mission” as he clearly said. I came in the line of fire. Only I was being thoroughly misread, my viewpoints and beliefs couldn’t be more opposite to the view he said I held.

    I still don’t dislike the word, “primitive.” It just shouldn’t be applied to Africa, that’s all. Africa is NOT primitive in any way. It shouldn’t be applied as a label to to any other peoples either. If I use it in an ironic way when speaking of Africa and that isn’t understood, I’m not sure it should be my issue. I know that other readers have understood my position.

    Let me say that the first stanza lists erroneous views of Africa. It attempts to state the problem, the attitudes. Only by stating them clearly can one hope to move beyond them.

    In the next few days I’ll try to upload the whole autobiographical piece somewhere where it can be read and shredded. Have fun with this section, if you wish, St Antonym:


    I am not a woman of colour, my accent, not foreign,
    my ethnicity not carried like a passport, I’m not from
    romantic Europe, or the lush Greek Islands,
    or the exotic Middle East, nor the Russian expanse,
    no cradle of Western art and thought,
    nor South America, its pre-Columbian heritage,
    or the panorama of Oriental countries, their
    early writing and ornate art, and architecture,
    nor sensual and spiritual India, rich with culture,
    and even Egypt’s wonders classified Ancient Near East
    as if to distance it from the peoples without a holy book
    of their own, the strange black shadow, the land
    of warring tribes, of wooden stone art, where
    starvation and AIDS kill millions, an orphaned land,
    the primitive continent.

    I carry Africa as a proud heritage.

  19. If you recall, Dave, I said I didn’t dislike the word, primitive, and I don’t, but that I did use it in its pejorative sense as an ironic device in an autobiographic poem I’d written. Then St Antonym decided that I thought Africans primitive, and proceeded to decimate me, my background, my position, even telling me that I oughtn’t to talk of my early experiences in Zambia in the bush because that only feeds Western views of Africa as a “primitive” continent.

    I don’t think my position confusing, and I do believe I was misread.

    It’s hard to know who to address here, you or S A. St Antonym, here’s a really great blog focussing on a political commentary of Zimbabwe that collects news and articles on Zimbabwe that I read regularly:

    The Bearded Man.

    There are lots of people with consciences who care. As Mandevbhu says in his blog, “I am man with a conscience – hence, this blog is my civic responsibilty… So informed!”

  20. Ah Primative! Lovely.
    Primative is the bud
    About to bust
    Which can be taken
    So many ways.

    Primitive is the zone
    Where mistakes
    Take up meanings
    Of their own,
    A swivelling top hat
    Adjusted by a shiny
    Crustacean claw
    Which oppositionally
    Dandles a walking-stick
    Growing out in
    Leaf and root.

    Shouted nonsense
    In a downpour
    Nosing to shore,
    The latest catastrophe
    In bold print
    Across the creased crown
    of its lightly floating cap.

  21. Bill, that’s terrific! Thank you very much. What an interesting comment thread this has become.

    …the zone
    Where mistakes
    Take up meanings
    Of their own…

    A very adroit formula. I like it. You suggest possibilities for the rehabilitation of the word that I hadn’t considered.

  22. One of the main reasons I subscribe to your comments feed is Bill. Whoever he is, he doesn’t list a blog site, and I love his comments. Last night, still in a furor over all this, I fell asleep wondering, “Where’s Bill…”

    Now he must have heard something or other in the crackling, thundery air. That’s a beautiful poem, Bill. Hope you don’t mind if I take a copy of it…

  23. You’re right – Bill’s been awfully scarce this month. If I’m not mistaken, this is only his second comment since I got back from Montreal. But then, summer always seems like a slow time for blogs. People go on vacation and leave their laptops at home, the ingrates!

  24. I roundly dislike the word “primitive” for none of the reasons adduced or disputed here, but because it assumes that to come first is ipso facto better — or worse — or in different ways both — than to come after.

    No one chooses where they arrive in time or place. Everyone comes after something and before something else.

    No one ever really comes first. It remains to be seen if anyone ever comes last.

    In stories, there are beginnings, middles, and ends. But stories only happen because we tell them. To say “these are beginning-of-the-story kinds of people because I began my story with them” — well, it’s what we do all day, every day, but it’s good for them or for us.

  25. Thanks for the comment and fresh perspective, dale. (I guess you meant to type “…it’s not good for them or for us”?)

  26. From the online etymology dictionary:

    c.1400, “of a thing from which something is derived, not secondary” (a sense now associated with primary), from O.Fr. primitif (fem. primitive), from L. primitivus “first or earliest of its kind,” from primitus “at first,” from primus “first” (see prime (adj.)). Meaning “of or belonging to the first age” is from c.1526. In Christian sense of “adhering to the qualities of the early Church” it is recorded from 1685. Of untrained artists from 1942.

    Of untrained artists from 1942 is absolutely hilarious.

    First Nations, yes, but obviously not… Origins or Birthplace of Homo Sapiens, but obviously not

    It’s a politically incorrect term, and that’s obvious. I have no disagreement with not using it in those ways.

    But, c’mon, we all had origins Dale, and middles and ends. I don’t see that primitive privileges origins over ends or middles. It’s just a word to indicate primal, originary. One that I like, in its meanings, though not in its inferences. It’s the three i’s – like a drum beat- pri mi tive.

    I’m a primary text person… not favouring secondary sources or criticism… does that make me pri mi tive? Or just untamed.

  27. “Etymologies are not definitions; they’re explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago.”
    – Online Etymology Dictionary

    I think Dale is right that the word “primitive” in ordinary usage implies a focus on beginnings.* Whether he is correct in his other assertion — that the impositions of our storylines on other peoples is inherently unjust — is to me a more interesting point, which I think may relate to St. Antonym’s umbrage about supposed white privilege as well. This goes well beyond considerations of political correctness — i.e., whether we might be hurting someone’s feelings. At issue here I think is whether these storylines have any real validity at all, and also whether narrators may be warped in the telling and audiences in the hearing.

    *Here for example is the Compact OED definition, which i think covers most major contemporary uses if not all connotations:

    • adjective 1 relating to the earliest times in history or stages in development. 2 denoting a preliterate, non-industrial society of simple organization. 3 offering an extremely basic level of comfort or convenience. 4 (of behaviour or emotion) instinctive and unreasoning.

    • noun 1 a person belonging to a primitive society. 2 a painter employing a simple, naive style that deliberately rejects subtlety or conventional techniques.

    I think noun, 2 is the sense that Bill’s poem mostly explores.

    (Yes, I know it’s really really pretentious to include a footnote in a blog comment!)

  28. Is the OED online? It’s no fair that I have to use a dinky online etymology dictionary when my OED’s in storage! I really enjoyed your quoting from it…

    What am I feeling at this point? That I used a word that’s one of those “flags” and got in a mess with a club of guys. No-one seems to have a clue (clew) about my position, nor that I do know something about ‘white privilege,’ nor that there’s a club. That’s why St Antonym’s lighting into me was defended, even though I tried to point out how unfair that was, how it was an erroneous view of my beliefs, actions and life, and how deeply I was offended by the accusations.

    I’ve been watching the play of group dynamics here, through this comment thread. It’s been interesting to observe.

    I’m not sure if I’ve been lynched. But in a way it feels like it.

    And, no, please don’t say, I’m sorry you feel you’ve been lynched. That’s too patronizing.

    It’s given me quite a bit to think about, day after day, and hasn’t been a very pleasant experience. And, no, please don’t say, I’m sorry you feel like it wasn’t a pleasant experience. That’s too patronizing.

    Yes, I have been playing with it, suspecting it at first, verifying it again and again. It’s a tight club, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, except it hasn’t been fun being, oh, if you think about it enough you’ll come up with a term…

  29. Brenda, I don’t know how much more neutrally I have to express myself in these comments in order to demonstrate that it’s not about you, it’s not about me, it’s about the ideas. Do we attack your positions because we are in league against you, because you are a woman, or because we want to exclude you from our tree fort? You can believe this if you want to. But other women leave challenging comments here, and their positions are not attacked; quite often I change my mind and agree with the challenger.

    Where I come from, conversation can become quite passionate without people feeling attacked simply because their positions are attacked. But if it isn’t fun for you, don’t leave comments.

  30. I’m not closely following this discussion, and though sensitive of it, I am thinking quite privately and largely to myself. Thanks for the dynamic opposition. Vigorous arguments will clash on and the toothsome saw will continue to dig after all hands have let go the handle.

    Should a word be shunned? By poets?

  31. Oh, Bill!

    Whoever thought beads could cause such furor! Or an inadvertent word by a woman commenter, who wouldn’t let go of it either.

    Do you know how long Dale spent emailing me holding my hand through this until I felt I could. Mediators are the grace of the earth; being a hothead, I have nothing but admiration for mediators.

    We’d kill each other over words otherwise. Dynamic opposition, toothsome saws, perpetual motion machines like dentist drills that continue to dig long after the hands have let go.

    Whoever said beading was like basket-weaving sunny California 60s classes?

    I love beads. Once I strung together large rose quartz beads (1/2″?), 108, to use as mantra beads, the feel in my fingers, beautiful, and kept them in a covered basket under my alter, a small table from northern Africa, like a pink serpent.

    But Nigeria and Zimbabwe are two entirely different countries in Africa and each has shaped a very different perception and sometimes even the beads clash.

    Peace to all, goodwill on earth…

    A word is a bead.

  32. Dale, I felt like a foolish child instead of a wise old woman, and that you very kindly guided me out of an impasse. I am grateful for the helping hand… though I admit to being somewhat embarrassed that I needed some insight into the whatever-went-on at all. I thought your skills of mediation an art in itself. I hope you don’t mind that I mentioned it. Internet connections are so ephemeral I’m sure I should have disappeared… ever an option, and sometimes one has to.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.