On Saturday night, I picked up seven books at a well-stocked Half Price Books in the strip mall outside Pittsburgh that I wrote about yesterday. Two were books I’d already read, but the rest are new and full of tantalizing passages.
My typical approach with newly acquired books is to open them at random and read a few pages until I find something thought-provoking. If it’s poetry, I’ll often continue reading in a haphazard fashion until I’ve read about two-thirds of the book, then go to the beginning and read straight through, skipping those poems I’ve already read. With nonfiction, I do feel an obligation to read books from beginning to end, but since I realize I might not get to them for a while — if ever — I also often begin with extensive random samplings. In fact, I think one reason why I favor poetry and nonfiction over fiction is that it lends itself so well to this kind of disorganized reading. Let me show you what I mean with a quote or two from each of the books I just bought.
1. A Scattering of Jades: Stories, Poems, and Prayers of the Aztecs, ed. by T.J. Knab, tr. by Thelma D. Sullivan. Simon & Schuster, 1994.
This is in my estimation the best English-language anthology of Aztec literature, so I was very happy to get it. On reacquainting myself with it on Sunday morning, I found this wonderful factoid on page 83:
The word for storyteller is tlaquetzqui, he who holds something back.
2. Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians, by Pierre Clastres (Paul Aster, tr.). Faber and Faber, 1998.
This is the other book I’ve read before, an ethnography most notable for its penetrating and sympathetic portrayal of endo-cannibalism — that is, the eating of the members of one’s own tribe after their death. However, it has plenty of other fascinating tidbits as well, including a portrait of a berdache (Clastres calls him a homosexual), or this description of how the Guayaki language can be adapted to whistling:
As I listened to this surprising dialogue (which unfortunately I did not have a chance to record), what I heard was mainly whistling sounds such as tss, dzz, djj — explosions interrupted by abrupt glottal stops and followed by long vocalized expirations ending in a simple expulsion of air. Naturally, I could not decipher any of this. And yet this was ordinary Guayaki — a language I could understand to some extent — but reduced to that part of its consonantal structure that could be whistled and to breathed vowels. Basically it was the language as anyone could have whispered it, reduced to its simplest perceptible expression. The small range of sounds produced did not seem to affect the liveliness of the discussion that Jyvukugi and his wife were carrying on at a great rate; they even seemed to be having a very good time, and sometimes their faces would shake with repressed laughter. I also noticed that from time to time I would hear nothing and only their lips would be moving: instead of listening to the sound of the whistling, they were reading each other’s lips. … Why had the Guayaki created this strange way of communicating? I can only guess at the reason, but I do have a hypothesis. The main quality of this method of manipulating the language by deforming it was really its quasi-silence, which situated it halfway between sound and gesture. And I imagine that, out of fear for their safety, the Atchei had determined to minimize the chances of being overheard by their enemies: the ghosts of the dead, or, more plausibly, the Machitara and Beeru. But perhaps, in the end, this supposition is too pragmatic, and we should instead look for an explanation in the mythological character of Jakarendy, the master of honey, who did not speak but whistled in order to attract human beings and shoot his fern arrows at them.
In any case, I am almost sure that that day Jyvukugi and his wife were “whistling” instead of talking in a normal way so that I would not understand what they were saying to each other. And they were completely successful in doing that.
3. A’aisa’s Gifts: A Study in Magic and the Self, by Michele Stephen. University of California Press, 1995.
Clastres was remarkably lucky in uncovering so much about the people he was living with in just one year — but who knows whether further residence might have caused him to completely rethink his initial conclusions. Another book from my latest haul discusses the difficulty of interpreting societies in which “epistemology and cultural logic posits many layers of things concealed, and according to this cultural logic, one layer contains the opposite of another.” Thus, says the author in her brief introduction to this study of the Mekeo people of Papua New Guinea,
[O]nce one gains access to esoteric knowledge and to the private worlds of individuals (which itself is no easy matter), the public symbolism and public descriptions given of the cosmological order seem to be overthrown. … The discrepancies were such that I might easily have concluded I was initially mistaken on many points; during my second extended fieldwork, when I learned the language well enough to converse without interpreters and was at last given access to esoteric knowledge, I was able to get the “real” picture.
Skipping ahead to the middle of the book, one discovers an example of what the author is talking about. I wonder whether it might also be the case for many other, imperfectly studied cultures that
The myth is the vehicle for transmission of secret knowledge. Which is why, of course, only abbreviated versions are told in public. What I assumed were merely simple explanatory folktales, such as “How the Dog Became the Enemy of Other Animals” or “The Origin of the Fishing Trap” … now emerged in their esoteric form as the explanations of important rituals — major rites for hunting in the former, fish-calling rituals in the latter. … Much more than just a social charter, Mekeo myths constitute a basic framework for the system of esoteric knowledge.
4. Insight and Artistry in African Divination, ed. by John Pemberton III. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.
I couldn’t resist jumping straight to Chapter 11, “Where the Mouse is Omniscient: The Mouse Oracle among the Guro,” by Lorenz Homburger. Yes, the Guro and their close neighbors in central Ivory Coast use live field mice as oracles, keeping them in large, specially designed pots. The Guro are animists whose highest god, Bale, dwells in the earth rather than the sky.
The mouse oracle pot, usually made from one piece of wood, sometimes of clay, is covered with the skin or fur of the red duiker. The belly of the pot is divided into two levels joined by a hole allowing the mouse to climb up and down. Two tortoise shells … are used in conjunction with the pot. The diviner places and removes them alternately, one of them … for divination in the morning and the other … for the evening. To the insides of the shells are fitted ten chicken bones — in certain cases, bat bones are used instead — one end of which is attached to the shell. A cowrie shell is sewed to the loose ends. After sprinkling some rice chaff over the cowries, the diviner places one of the tortoise shells with the bones arranged parallel to each other into the pot, which is then closed with a lid. According to Guro belief, once the client has explained the problem, the mouse climbs up and listens to what is being said. Then the mouse descends and questions the earth through a little hole in the bottom. Boti ba Tra described the messenger function of the mice: “mice can hear and understand all sounds of the earth, indeed they live in the earth, and we in turn populate it.” Finally, the mouse climbs up again to “place the cowrie shells.” After less than a minute, the client is told to lift the lid off the pot. It is rare to catch a glimpse of the mouse, as the animal lives in the dark, is scared by daylight, and therefore rushes back down to the lower half of the pot. The client carefully places the shell before the diviner. The configuration of the bones now discloses the answer to his previous questions. The position of the bones can be read and interpreted. The process is repeated until all of the problems of the person seeking advice are determined and solutions found.
5. History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, by Jean de Léry (Janet Whatley, tr.). University of California Press, 1990.
Léry was a French Protestant missionary in 1556, whose description of the Tupinamba Indians was remarkably sympathetic for his era. I like how he concluded “The Bodily Description of the Brazilians”:
Before closing this chapter … I must respond both to those who have written and to those who think that the frequenting of these naked savages, and especially of the women, arouses wanton desire and lust. Here, briefly, is what I have to say on this point. While there is ample cause to judge that, beyond the immodesty of it, seeing these women naked would serve as a predictable enticement to concupiscence; yet, to report what was commonly perceived at the time, this crude nakedness in such a woman is much less alluring than one might expect. And I maintain that the elaborate attire, paint, wigs, curled hair, great ruffs, farthingales, robes upon robes, and all the infinity of trifles with which the women and girls over here disguise themselves and of which they never have enough, are beyond comparison the cause of more ills than the ordinary nakedness of the savage women — whose natural beauty is by no means inferior to that of the others. If decorum allowed me to say more, I make bold to say that I could resolve all the objections to the contrary, and I would give reasons so evident that no one could deny them.
Léry also defends manioc beer made by spitting the chewed up root into a pot. How is this any more disgusting than crushing wine grapes with the bare feet? he asks. Yet he admits that he and the other missionaries were generally able to brew rum for their own consumption.
6. Different Hours, by Stephen Dunn. Norton, 2000.
I can’t decide whether my tastes have changed, or whether my first impression is correct — that the poems in this book aren’t as inspired as some of Dunn’s other efforts. So far I’ve read about a third of the book, and the only thing that really grabbed me was a quote used as an epigraph:
John & Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
–from a freshman’s short story
The poem that follows — “John & Mary” — falls short as a response to this text, I thought. Like another poem in the book, which takes off from a student’s typo (“The town was in the mists of chaos”), it seems to have fallen victim to the author’s need to ingratiate himself with his academic colleagues by indulging in a display of wit at the expense of a hapless student. The poem focuses on John & Mary rather than, for example, on hummingbirds, which might have produced a more interesting poem.
7. Not Such a Bad Place to Be, by William Kloefkorn. Copper Canyon Press, 1980.
Two years ago, when they announced Ted Kooser’s selection as U.S. Poet Laureate, I thought that the Librarian of Congress had picked the wrong Nebraska poet. It’s not as if William Kloefkorn doesn’t know how to adapt the poet’s art to the unique needs of our nation and its public servants. “In 1978,” the bio states, “he won the Nebraska Championship for hog-calling.”
What I’ve read from this book so far confirms my impression that Kloefkorn’s poetry is second to none, with all the unsentimental detail, grotesque violence and absurdism proper to a contemporary North American poet of place. Here’s a poem that might serve as a fitting conclusion for this otherwise completely miscellaneous post.
We must never empty ourselves
of that last surprise.
We must grow longer arms,
reach deeper and deeper into the dark hat
to bring forth the rabbit.
We must not decline its pernicious bite,
must not rule out the alley behind the eye
where our shadows run naked as jaybirds,
rending their hair,
foaming at their mouths,
snapping at the glances of birds and dogs
and mothers and small children.
We must balance our equilibrium
on the tips of noses
that we must have been willing to paint
a bulbous blue.
We must stare into the mirror
and marry the second woman to the right,
must honor her all the days of our life.
We must not be reluctant to correct her,
or to chop off a finger,
or if the going gets tough
to bury her eight paces south of the henhouse.
We must never fail to keep in mind
where we might or could or should have done
better, or perhaps worse,
slapping the children on their bare hind quarters
as they trot off to dress themselves
and to tighten their teeth.
We must not assume that those clouds
in the far southwest are not out to submerge us,
or that, if they do, we do not have something
small and hard, like a key, say,
up the slack of our sleeve with which to unlock
the torrential trunk.
We must never empty ourselves
of that last surprise.
We must have the dark hat always
in the position of ready,
our sleight of hand equal even
to the most improbable depth.