Triptych

truck Trane

The secret teachings of January smolder in the twelve directions of the clock & turn to fly ash in the alchemist’s spoon, the one with a mother-of-pearl grip like an old-fashioned .38. They are not hidden — their noise is the noise of the world — but they’re easy to miss, just as a painting that moves us once might prove, on subsequent viewings, unable to escape our recollection of being moved. You might hear them & not realize it until the next morning, when the eastern sky begins to prickle under its hairnet of bare branches, the ambiguity of figure versus ground prompting a sudden consciousness of loss. For god’s sake, put the kettle on, says the wren.

cat

And now I am sipping slow clarity with my tea. A half-grown kitten crouches down in the grass and turns to stone. The blacker the cat, the better the chance of its survival in the wild, so what’s all this nonsense about bad luck? If you know me at all, you know how fond I am of the way the world eludes our efforts at interpretation. If reality is my bible, then I confess to the most extreme form of literalism: no bird is an omen. The arrangement of tea leaves in a pot is nothing but art, pure & unrepeatable! The one-sided conversation of a sleepwalker forces us to listen as an infant must; it does no good to drill new ear holes in the mask we long ago acquired as an inducement to love. ‘The music of what happens,’ said great Fionn, ‘that is the finest music in the world.’*

bear

If you can’t decide on a quarry, you’ll never be much of a hunter. Or so I gather. You might be wondering why I started out talking about January, but it’s simply because that’s when the contrasts are sharpest, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. The sun — on rare occasions when it shines — is at the best possible angle for photography. Shadows turn blue against the snow, which can otherwise cause blindness, & a sufficient depth of snow or ice traps blueness for slow release on cloudy days. Sky versus ground: one is as good as the other in my book. Though their tracks are everywhere, seeing a coyote right now would simply be too much to hope for, I remember saying to myself in the last seconds before the shape at the edge of the woods averted its muzzle and hauled ass up the hillside: unmistakeably bear. Inexplicably awake.
__________

*Quote from the Fenian Cycle, translated by James Stephens in Irish Fairy Stories and reprinted in John Montague, ed., The Book of Irish Verse (Macmillan, 1974)

How the anthropologist learned to tell stories

The natives are getting restless at the poor quality of the anthropologist’s stories. In all his years of schooling, he never stopped to consider how difficult the informant’s job might be: anthropologist and informant were two very different things, he’d thought. But in Imbonggu society, one listens in order to learn how to embroider. And if he wants to hear their stories, he has to tell some of his own. That’s how it works.

So the anthropologist, an American, tells them about Paul Bunyan, about George Washington. Well, they can see how a big blue ox would make giant footprints, but so what? What’s the upshot? And they can certainly understand how a young man might want to test parental authority by chopping down a valuable tree — so far, so good. But the punch line completely eludes them. He told the truth? Why? Perhaps these white people simply lack the imagination to tell a good story!

Then the anthropologist happens upon a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. What the hell, he says to himself, I’ve tried everything else — why not the author of “The White Man’s Burden”? So the next time his neighbors drop in to share the warmth of his hearth, he regales them with Just So Stories. They’re delighted. “The white man can tell stories after all!” they whisper.

When he first headed off to the New Guinea highlands, his parents were distraught. They and everyone else back home were afraid he would get eaten by cannibals, just like Michael Rockefeller. Well, who doesn’t want to eat the rich? But the anthropologist was just a poor graduate student then. Not much to him. He had that lean and hungry look.

After he settled in among his hosts, he was shocked to find that they quite agreed with his parents: the countryside swarmed with cannibals and sorcerers! They infested all the surrounding clans, not to mention people farther away who spoke incomprehensible gibberish — topsy-turvy places where people laughed when someone died and wept inconsolably at the purchase of a new truck. Once, when he returned from a prolonged trip to the coast, his neighbors shrieked and hid, thinking that they must be seeing his ghost.

No, the Imbonggu were unanimous: the anthropologist was only really safe among the Imbonggu. He had nothing to fear but his own untutored cravings. Because white men are themselves notorious eaters of flesh — or so he heard one mother tell her child when the child would not behave. She was making noise when she should have been listening to the grown-ups’ stories, and now it was time to frighten her into submission. Be quiet, child, said the mother, or the white man will eat you!

Her daughter looked skeptical, so the mother elaborated. Hadn’t she seen how their airplanes swallowed human beings through gaping holes in their sides? Every year, young men from the villages get on airplanes and fly away to Port Moresby, never to return. Or, if on rare occasions they did return, they wore the white man’s clothes and wristwatch and carried machines that played the white man’s music: clearly ensorcelled. Their souls had been stolen to flavor some rich white man’s stew.

The child backed away from the anthropologist, her eyes big as platters. Did he not arrive on an airplane? her mother hissed.
__________

Based on the stories anthropologist William E. Wormsley tells on himself in his marvellous book,THE WHITE MAN WILL EAT YOU! An anthropologist among the Imbonggu of New Guinea, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.

For more tales about the learning process, be sure to visit qarrtsiluni at its brand-new home.

Good Poems

[A remix of lines from the Customer Reviews of the Writer’s Almanac-derived anthology, Good Poems, at Amazon.com]

I.
I was at the airport newstand looking at the usual
Computer magazine section as usual
(The Poetry journals I enjoy
aren’t sold at smaller newstands),
and out the corner of my eye, I saw
my friend holding Good Poems.

I was immediately drawn to this plump little volume
and sat down to read the Introduction.
I was able to find several significant poems
for many different moods and occasions.
I don’t normally read poetry.

II.
Anyone, if you’ve loved poetry for years,
two months,
weeks or minutes,
this book is absolutely right for you.
This book can stand firmly on its own two pegs.
You can carry this book in your hand, and enjoy
the huge amount of good poems contained.
It flows well.
Poetry lover or no, buy this now!

Here are poems you could read between meetings
or classes or before you make dinner,
poems that can send you or smite you
or speed you to joy.
Woohoo!

III.
However,
this book is so much more than a barrel of laughs.
Think of it more as a brisk breeze,
that keeps stirring things up, keeping them
fresh, and bringing blood to your cheeks.
That’s what poetry is.

There are no commentaries or points to ponder
that accompany any of the poems
nor are there questions that test for understanding.
It takes the “fear” out of reading poetry.
I read these poems to my children
before putting them to bed.

This is a book for people
who like poetry that creates images and mini-stories.
This is a book for the sort of people
who like to be transported to crisp
autumn days, the sound of leaves
crunching beneath your feet, blah, blah;
or into relationships
you’ve never had.

This book is stuffed
with good poems, new good poems
you’ve never read,
and some old good poems as well.

And some of it is straight forward it isn’t
trying to hide behind huge words that
the average person doesn’t use. I like
that kind of poetry too but sometimes
I think it’s a little more gutsy to write
simple straight forward to the average
person. Because sometimes people end up
hating poetry because of poetry
that seems to just exist
to show off big words.

IV.
This book caused a bit of controversy,
but I’m not sure why.
What it is, is a collection of poems
that Keillor thought were good poems.
In short, he cuts out long,
boring poems written by
angry, depressed or
boring people.
“Good Poems” is a ‘Must Have’
for all lovers of well
arranged words.

Even though Mr. Keillor would not be happy
with long-winded praise, suffice it to say that,
as the Brits would, that this book
is altogether “lovely.”

This selection by Mr. Keillor is arranged
in such a way that one will be taken
on an emotional roller coaster ride.

V.
Why is it
that when you care and you love a person
they treat you like your nothing, and after all the things
you do and say to him, He still dont care.
Then he tells you that he’s sorry and that he love’s you
and then you forgive him. And there you go again
gettin hurt, but you still wanna be
with him……..

It is hard
not to respect a poem
that grows warmer with every tread.
I’ve dog-eared pages of favorites and now see
the book is becoming one big dog-ear.

It’s what
a poetry anthology should be: a sampler,
a taster’s counter at the many-flavored
ice cream shop of verse. You can find
old friends and new ones, and learn who
you want to explore in depth later on.
And this anthology lays out
a richer feast of new friends
than any other I’ve encountered.
Highly recommended for any reason.
__________

Tags: , Good Poems, Writer’s Almanac, Amazon Customer Reviews,

Running the dogs

You don’t want to write. You want to have written, I admonished the overgrown puppy straining against the leash.

Every other day, we took the two mutts on chew-proof chains to the dead end of the street, then cut across the yard of an unoccupied house, went through a hole in a grown-up hedge and came out onto the concrete lot of an abandoned warehouse, where we let them loose. It was November in Mississippi. The right-angled insurgency was yellowing in the cracks. Seeds sprang from pods at the slightest provocation.

The lot was bordered by a watery ditch (they called it a bayou, rhymes with “hey you”) across which someone had thrown a narrow board bridge. The trick to keeping the dogs out of the mud was to lead by example, dashing eagerly over the bridge and up onto the old railroad bed beyond. It usually worked.

The railroad bed was a wide no-man’s-land dividing what used to be the exclusively white side of town from the black side of town; the yards and houses on the far side of the former tracks remained noticeably poorer and more brightly colored. The right-of-way — if you could still call it that — bore signs of an on-going struggle over its fate: here, some ambitious speculator had planted survey stakes. There, someone from the far side had planted and half-harvested a small plot of okra. Two private visions of paradise. But what about the public?

The dogs raced back and forth, got into everything. The white one was dumb as a bucket of rocks. Sometimes her front legs couldn’t go fast enough to keep up with her strong hind legs, and she went rolling, ass over teacup. But the brown one — an adopted stray — was plenty smart, and had learned a basic version of hide-and-seek. Eva would duck down in the tall grass and have me yell, “Where’s Eva?” in a panicked voice, and the brown dog would come barreling like a runaway locomotive back from wherever her nose had taken her. Sleuthing consisted of running in circles until the quarry made some exasperated noise.

Work on your listening. School yourself in surprise. That’s all there is to it! The white dog squatted and assumed a thoughtful look.

Mahfouz’s pen finally stilled

Naguib Mahfouz is one of the few contemporary novelists I’ve actually read, so when I saw the New York Times headline — Naguib Mahfouz, First Writer in Arabic to Win Nobel Prize, Dies at 94 — I clicked on the link.

Mahfouz’s politics and brand of Islam (heavily influenced by Sufism) made him many enemies, and in 1994, he narrowly survived an assassination attempt.

Though he continued to write in his later years, Mr. Mahfouz was in failing health. He was diabetic and nearly blind, and lived quietly in an apartment overlooking the Nile. After the 1994 attack he largely abandoned his old habit of walking daily to a coffeehouse to meet friends, and to the offices of Al Ahram, the newspaper for which he had written occasional columns. And the injuries he suffered in 1994 made it difficult for him to hold a pen or pencil.

Still, he said, every day a writer must write something, anything. In a 2002 interview, he said he could still manage to write vignettes of his dreams. “They are very, very short stories, like this,” he said, indicating the tip of his index finger.

Though 94 certainly fits most people’s definition of a ripe old age, with a writer like that, it’s hard not to feel that he must’ve left a lot unfinished at his death, just as he left a lot unsaid in what he did write. Here’s how Mahfouz ended his book-length parable The Journey of Ibn Fattouma:

With these words ends the manuscript of the voyage of Qindil Muhammed al-Innabi, known as Ibn Fattouma.

No history book makes any further mention of this traveler.

Did he complete his journey or did he perish on the way?

Did he enter the land of Gebel? How did he fare there?

Did he stay there till the end of his life, or did he return to his homeland as he intended?

Will one day a futher manuscript be found describing his last journey?

Knowledge of all this lies with the Knower of what is unseen and of what is seen.

Rest in peace.

Poetic ideal

If it were possible to write a poem that vanished
completely from the page as it was read, so
that it would last for just a single reading
by whoever found it first, her eyes
& silent lips inadvertently erasing
each word as s/he partook, gaze
like a flame moving through
the flesh of some effigy
for the ineffable, ah–
this would be that
poem, this screen
that page & you
that dear
reader.

Eggs

In the last village before the highway, oblivious to the danger of rockets, a young man pushes a cart loaded to the sky with white eggs.

In the other direction come lorries, loaded with shells, for Israeli tanks to launch into Lebanon.

*

I didn’t write that. It’s the last two sentences from a report by Nick Thorpe of the BBC. But I think it stands quite well on its own.

A couple of the pieces Beth and I have published in the current, short shorts edition of qarrtsiluni were actually rescued from old emails I had happened to save. I guess I’m always on the lookout for revelations, the briefer and more mysterious, the better. It can be difficult to set out consciously to create a good short piece of writing: like cooking a small fish, or pushing a cart full of eggs through a war zone, it takes a light touch. As Ben Zen says, there is nothing so unforgiving as the genuine.

We’re still actively soliciting contributions, by the way. Currently, we have almost enough material to make it to the end of July, but would like to continue through August, as well. Artists interested in interpreting the theme or accompanying a specific piece — as qB has just done — might want to contact Beth or me for suggestions in advance.

Throwing away the mirror

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This is my final entry in the self-portrait marathon, which ends this week. I snapped it on Saturday, from almost the exact same position where the photo I have been using in each of the other portraits in this series was snapped. In this one, of course, the angle is different, though I expect you’ll recognize the yellow wall. You can also see the legs of the tripod I used for the original shot poking out from behind the coat on my coat rack. I had been drinking mugwort ale and was, shall we say, in a rather elevated mood when, on my way toward the kitchen, I noticed these shadows cast by the setting sun, sat down in my swivel chair, and took four pictures. This was the fourth. I was dimly aware that it might be an important shot, but did not realize that it contained my own likeness until days later, when I uploaded the pictures to my computer.

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Here’s a close-up with the contrast increased, in case you’re having trouble seeing the portrait. It’s a pretty good likeness, I think, though the mouth is canted a little strangely, as if I were laughing at some private joke. One thing you’ll notice about self-portraits is that the subjects are almost never smiling. If they were, I suppose we might worry a bit about the author’s mental health.

This morning I was re-reading a not terribly good translation of the tenth-century Japanese fictional diary Tosa nikki, by Ki no Tsurayuki. Since I had alluded to it in yesterday’s poem, I thought it might be interesting to see if I still liked it, two decades after my first encounter with it. I was blown away.

It occurred to me as I read it that it functions on one level as a kind of ironic self-portrait. And since women were considered more vulnerable than men, by inventing a female protagonist to narrate in his stead, its author, the reigning poet and literary critic of his day, could explore in depth what it meant to be an artist or poet, with one’s heart-mind (kokoro) continually open to everything around it.

In the diary, amid all the high drama and low comedy of the ex-governor’s (i.e., Tsurayuki’s) slow progress by boat along the coast of Shikoku and Honshu en route to Kyoto, the narrator keeps returning to her deep sorrow for a young son who died a short time before. Her precise relationship to the ex-governor is never spelled out — one of several omissions designed to pique the reader’s interest. In line with Tsurayuki’s theory — articulated in his preface to the great imperial anthology of poetry, the Kokinshu, which he helped edit — poems arise spontaneously from the narrator’s heart in response to her strong emotions on seeing various things deemed poetic, usually natural phenomena.* But of course in reality Tsurayuki must have composed them himself, seemingly undercutting his own theory. Her poems are much the best of those included in the diary, but she chooses not to share them with anyone, whispering them to herself and consigning them to a diary which, she says at the end, “I really ought to tear up and be done with.”

As was normal in the aristocratic culture of the time, the people in the diary are constantly composing and exchanging poems. Despite our narrator’s superficial resemblance to Emily Dickinson, poems in her age were generally not the products of a unique and private vision, but a kind of social currency used to establish and maintain relationships of all kinds.

With one exception, the worst poems recorded in the Tosa Diary are all by the ex-governor. But because of his high position, no one has the courage to tell him how bad they are. That’s partly why this work strikes me as an ironic self-portrait by a poet in the twilight of his career. By contrast, several precocious children manage to come up with poems that are deemed very good, and even the illiterate captain, quite by accident, at one point shouts commands to his crew in what the astonished narrator declares is a perfect tanka!

The captain is also at the center of the most dramatic and possibly the most telling incident in the diary. Throughout the voyage, they are plagued by high seas, adverse winds and the threat of attack by pirates. Near the end, a gale blows up while they’re offshore at a place called Sumiyoshi, which is celebrated in Japanese verse for the abundance of a grass called wasuregusa — “grass of forgetfulness,” or maybe “oblivion grass.” The narrator has just composed a sad poem about her desire to forget, if only for a moment, her sorrow at the death of her child. The sudden high seas threaten to capsize the boat, and the captain tries the standard offering of sacred shredded cloth to try and pacify the local spirit of the place, without effect. At last he hauls out a mirror — at the time, a rare and valuable object — and quotes a proverb: “We have two good eyes, but one thing more precious.” A footnote in my edition explains that this is usually a reference to one’s children, not to a mirror. The captain casts the mirror into the sea, and almost immediately the storm begins to ebb. The narrator concludes,

The [poetic] things associated with this place — the calm sea of Sumiyoshi, the grasses of forgetfulness of care, and the elephant princess-pines of the shore — the god resembles none of them. It was plain to see that the god’s desire was reflected in that mirror and that the mind of the captain understood that of the god. (Earl Miner, tr., in Japanese Poetic Diaries, University of California Press, 1969)

In his poetic manifesto, written years earlier, Tsurayuki had maintained that poetry possesses the non-coercive power to “move heaven and earth” and “wake the feelings of the unseen gods and spirits” (see footnote). Now, in the Tosa nikki, he seems less certain of this. Perhaps, like many aging aristocrats in 10th-century Japan, he was coming increasingly under the influence of Buddhist notions of no-self and emptiness. If the heart or mind of the artist is, as the ancient Japanese thought, a mirror held up to nature, what do we do about this foolish being, this creature of inexplicable emotions, who keeps appearing in it every time we try to see what it really holds?

__________

* Here’s the first paragraph of the preface, as translated by Burton Watson in From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Anchor/Doubleday, 1981.

Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart, and takes form in the countless leaves that are words. So much happens to us while we live in this world that we must voice the thoughts that are in our hearts, conveying them through the things we see and the things we hear. We hear the bush warbler singing in the flowers or the voice of the frogs that live in the water and know that among all living creatures there is not one that does not have its song. It is poetry that, without exerting force, can move heaven and earth, wake the feelings of the unseen gods and spirits, soften the relations between man and woman, and soothe the heart of the fierce warrior.

&

Dave,

I’d like to use your poem Grace in the upcoming issue of _____. It’s a beautiful piece, but I would much prefer to spell out the word “and” throughout rather than using the “&.” How do you feel about this? We’re going to run it in either case, and we will, of course, respect your decision.
[…]

C.

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C.,

[…]
Ampersands: I love ’em! I know that poems with ampersands are looked down on by the mainstream poetry establishment these days, and some readers may find them off-putting. But I like “&” because it is an ideograph, one of the few permitted in our otherwise alphabetic language, and so connects us more viscerally to the world of signs and tracks and omens.

In addition, “and” is one of my favorite words, because of the way it can bring disparate things together and lead the mind off in new directions, so I don’t mind calling attention to it.

That said, however, I’m very curious about your reasons for wanting to spell out all the “and”s in this poem. I’m not completely inflexible on this point.
[…]

Dave

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Dave,

[…]
As for ampersands, I guess I’m just one of those people that are put off by them in formal text. I find that they interrupt my concentration–and that I end up paying attention to the &, rather than focusing on the word it represents.

That said, your argument for using them was very nicely stated. And in the end, I’ll be fine with whatever decision you make.
[…]

C.

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What do you think? Is anyone else out there put off by ampersands in poems, or other text?

I find them curvy and sensuous – little women, almost. “&” could be a pictograph of a woman holding a child – not an inappropriate image, considering the fecundity of the word it represents, often replaced by a mere pause, a catch in the breath represented by a spermatozoal comma. To me, ampersands make a printed poem a bit more tactile, subconsciously recalling the link with calligraphy – and with my childhood, when I taught myself poetry and calligraphy together. I don’t remember when and I why I picked up the habit of using the ampersand for every “and” in my poems except at the beginnings of sentences, but it has become deeply engrained.

And being suspicious of any and all habits, I’m grateful to C. for making me question it. Does it really make sense to risk distracting the reader with this anachronism?

Some time ago, the redoubtable Languagehat gave his imprimatur to a page from Adobe that traces the history of the ampersand. I had known it came from a ligature for the Latin et (“and”). But I hadn’t realized that it still serves as a sort of touchstone for modern type designers, the one character where they can really let their imaginations roam.

There are many interesting variations of the ampersand, such as those created by the talented Ludovico degli Arrighi, the Renaissance writing master (fig. 8 ), and Robert Granjon, the gifted 16th century French type designer (fig. 9). The new Poetica typeface family, which was designed by Robert Slimbach of Adobe and based on Cancelleresca, the commercial writing hand used during the Italian Renaissance, offers a rich collection of 58 different ampersand characters (fig. 12).

Ampersand usage varies from language to language. In English and French text, the ampersand may be substituted for the words and and et, and both versions may be used in the same text. The German rule is to use the ampersand within formal or corporate titles made up of two separate names; according to present German composition rules, the ampersand may not be used in running text. In any language, the ampersand’s calligraphic qualities make it a compelling design element that can add visual appeal and personality to any page.

Some version of the ampersand appears in most languages that use a Roman script, so it gives any text that employs it a sort of window into the wider, polylingual universe. It is also an important element in many computer languages. Character entity references in HTML all begin with an ampersand, which further reinforces – in my mind at least – the connection between ampersands and the dream of a common language.

__________

Ampersand image of “Humanist minuscule, 1453 A.D.” borrowed from the above-linked Adobe page.

Listening to the thrasher

Dawn. The third-quarter moon is setting through the branches of the flowering cherry by the side of my front porch. I’m up a little later than usual, and the brown thrasher has proceeded me, improvising rhyming couplets since first light.

If you’ve never heard a thrasher in full throat, you may think I’m exaggerating, but it’s true. Researchers have documented the thrasher’s ability to improvise over two thousand unique phrases in one session – and I mean unique to a human ear, not (as with so many songbirds) only discernible through a sonograph. The thrasher is a close relative of the gray catbird and the mockingbird, so if you’ve ever heard either of those birds, you have a pretty good idea of the tone quality and range of sounds available to a thrasher. But as I said, the thrasher tends to sing in rhyming couplets – in other words, to repeat almost every phrase once before going on to the next.

This pattern not only assures identification, but produces a very pleasing effect. The lines are all approximately the same length – very short – but the variation in pitch and melody between couplets, and the bird’s habit of mixing things up with occasional three-line and one-line phrases, sustains my interest as a listener almost indefinitely. Since the thrasher is also a bit of a satirist, it’s fun to listen for echoes of other birds’ songs or calls; this morning, I was surprised by a brief snatch of whip-poor-will.

The Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez once declared that “The lemon tree in my garden is a bigger influence on my work than all the poets together.” I’m tempted to make a similar statement about songbirds such as the wood thrush and brown thrasher. While the former models lyric concision and allegiance to a single, elegiac mood, the latter makes me hunger for virtuoso displays of craft and wit.

*

Speaking of virtuoso displays of craft and wit, I’ve just finished an excellent book-length poem that I picked up at the used bookstore last week: Song of Lawino, by Okot p’Bitek. I hadn’t heard of the work or the author before, but it looked good, and I’m a bit of a collector when it comes to poetry. I didn’t have anything from Uganda yet, and this looked like a good place to start.

Turns out that Song of Lawino is one of the most famous works of postcolonial East African literature. What really turned me on, though, is that the whole thing – over 200 pages in the author’s English translation – is in one of my favorite poetic forms, dramatic monologue. Lawino is a very tradition-minded woman from the Acholi society, a Luo-speaking, Nilotic people of northern Uganda. Her song – which, according to the Wikipedia, was based solidly on traditional Acholi verse forms – is a satirical lament for her husband’s abandonment of traditional values and customs in favor of what she sees as a shallow aping of European practices. Though translated into free verse, apparently the original does consist of metrical, rhyming couplets. The author was educated in Britain as an ethnographer, and published scholarly works on religion and collections of proverbs as well as the several book-length poems which – if Song of Lawino is any indication – showcase his insider/outsider knowledge of his native culture very well.

The poem veers from sincere-sounding lament to scatology and denunciation, all employing the praise-proverb mode familiar to any fan of traditional African poetry. Like Don Quixote, or Jaroslav Hasek’s Schweik, Lawino herself remains something of a cipher. Is she really as clueless as she maintains, for example, when she declares, “I am ignorant of the Good Word in the Clean Book”? But as with Schweik, the pretence of ignorance provides an excellent cover for the author’s sly critques. I was particularly struck by the sense of how the Protestant and Catholic missionaries’ teachings might have sounded to a traditional Acholi.

We sang the Faith of the Messengers
Like parrots,
I did not understand it at all!
I thought about it
In my own head
But I could get nowhere,
And there was nobody
To turn to.
The Padre and the Nun are the same,
They only quarrel
They are angry with me
As if it was I
Who prevented them marrying.
To them
The good children
Are those
Who ask no questions, who accept everything
Like the tomb
Which does not reject
Even a dead leper!
Who accept everything
Like the rubbish pit,
Like the pit-latrine
Which does not reject
Even dysentery.
[ . . . ]
We recited
The Faith of the Messengers
Like the yellow birds
In the lajanawara grass
The teacher shouted
As if half-mad
And we shouted back:
I accept the Hunchback
The Padre who is very strong
Moulder of Skyland and Earth…

“Hunchback,” incidentally, is how Lawino understands the focus of the missionaries’ petitions because, as a footnote in a section on traditional versus modern medicine informs us, “The name of the Christian God in Lwo is Rubanga. This is also the name of the ghost that causes tuberculosis of the spine.”

Song of Lawino is not an epic or narrative poem; the arrangement is thematic, though almost every section does contain stories. Lawino’s complaints seem believable in the sense that it is very easy to believe in her as a character – a proud, all-but-discarded first wife of an ambitious man who is embarrassed by her. One does sense that her complaints are frequently hyperbolic, as in her description of the utter foulness of the public restrooms for a modern dance hall, which might make even Rabelais blush.

The stench from the urinal is thick!
It hits your nose
Like a blow,
Like the horn of a bull rhino!
You choke,
Your throat pains sharply
You get out quick
And shout a curse!
You meet a big woman
She staggers toward you
And leans on the wall
And before she unties her dress
She is already pissing;
She forces out the urine
As if she has syphilis.
*
The stench from the latrine
Knocks you down from afar!
It is as if you have entered
Into a lion’s mouth.
The smell of Jeyes
And the smell of dung
Rise to the roof
The entire floor
Is covered with human dung
All the tribes of human dung!
Dry dungs and dysentery
Old dungs and fresh dungs
Young ones that are still steaming,
Short thick dungs
Sitting like hills,
Snake-like dungs
Coiled up like pythons.
Little ones just squatting there,
Big ones lying on their sides
Like tree trunks.
Some dungs are red like ocher
Others are yellow
Like the ripe mango,
Like inside a ripe pawpaw.
Others are black like soil,
Like the soil we use for smearing the floor.
Some dungs are of mixed colors!
Vomit and urine flow by
And on the walls
They clean their anus.
And there are writings
On the walls
With knives.

Another one of my favorite sections contrasts Western and Acholi conceptions of time. Lawino’s husband has bought a clock, which Lawino admits “Is a great source of pride / And beautiful to see,” but the idea of adapting life’s daily rhythms to its metronome strikes her as absurd.

Time has become
My husband’s master
It is my husband’s husband.
My husband rushes from place to place
Like a small boy,
He rushes without dignity.
And when visitors have arrived
My husband’s face darkens,
He never asks you in,
And for greeting
He says
“What can I do for you?”

*

I do not know
How to keep the white man’s time.
My mother taught me
The way of the Acoli
And nobody should
Shout at me
Because I know
The customs of our people!
When the baby cries
Let him suck milk
From the breast.
There is no fixed time
For breast feeding.

Lawino was a success both in Uganda, in the Luo version, and internationally when the English version was published in 1966. According to the Wikipedia, it was even translated a second time into English, as The Defence of Lawino, by the Ugandan writer Taban Lo Liyong. I was delighted by the serendipity that brought it, and p’Bitek, to my attention.

*

Speaking of serendipity, just as I started Song of Lawino, I chanced on an article in the Christian Science Monitor that made me wonder if Ugandans might not possess a particular genius for inspired misreadings of Western cultural artifacts. As with Song of Lawino, some popular movies might have alternate translations from dueling “veejays.” These improvisational, voice-over translators/commentators are apparently creating a whole new oral art form in Uganda. Some have already become local superstars, and their fame is beginning to spread beyond the country’s borders as they experiment with taped, Swahili versions of their interpretations.

“Veejaying” is now a central form of local entertainment. But the art involves much more than translation. Part sports announcer, part street preacher, part comedian, a veejay must fill in cultural gaps and keep the audience engaged, which – for many veejays – often means taking considerable creative license.

The video jockey is an offshoot of the distinctly home-grown phenomenon of the video hall. Makeshift shacks commonly made of plywood and tin sheeting, they function as the main form of cinema for the Ugandan masses, most of whom cannot afford theater tickets or rentals of pirated DVDs.

Video halls mushroomed around the country in the mid-1980s, when a measure of relative peace and prosperity made copies of foreign movies more accessible. But since most of their patrons did not speak English well, owners brought in translators, who usually sat near the TV set, ideally with a microphone.

Well-known names include VJ Ron, who is known for his intricate translations of detective thrillers, and the Love Doctor, who specializes in romantic dramas and comedies.

Jingo, as his public knows him, is most noted for his cheeky renditions of American action films in Luganda, the local tongue. Hand grenades might become passion fruits in a Jingo translation; characters played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis evoke proverbs about crocodiles and chickens.

One of the most effective things about Song of Lawino is the dramatic situation itself: the narrator begins by describing her husband’s frequent, harsh denunciations of her – “My husband’s tongue is fierce like the arrow of the scorpion” – before launching into her fierce counter-attack. Apparently, Ugandan veejays also fight against strong cross-currents of criticism. Echoing Lawino’s cultural conservatism, “Some church groups and other conservative outfits here complain that the video halls and veejays are polluting the minds of Africans with the sex and violence of American mass culture.” And according to an accompanying article for the “Reporters on the Job” column, the main veejay interviewed for the story expects criticism from Westerners for the liberties he takes with the films.

“In Kampala, everyone knows [VeeJay] Jingo. At first, he didn’t understand why I would be interested to know about the changes to the plot, and the local references that were peppered throughout each movie,” says Rachel [Scheier]. “Eventually, he told me about working in at least half-a-dozen references to a Ugandan opposition leader, who had just lost the presidential election, into a banal thriller about an airline pilot. He was reluctant because he figured I would criticize his changes.”

Later, Rachel went to Jingo’s trading center to see him veejay live. “I took along an interpreter to translate his interpretation back to me in English. It took a while, but I finally got it. Veejaying isn’t really about translation; it’s about making something completely new, something uniquely Ugandan.”

“The ways of your ancestors / Are good,” Lawino tells her husband, presumably echoing p’Bitek’s own views. “They are not thin, not easily breakable.” I can’t help thinking p’Bitek would be pleased by this new evidence that Ugandan wordsmiths will not only resist but actively transform the tidal waves of cultural influences from abroad. I wish them great success in exporting this model. In time, even a hidebound poet in the benighted North may learn how to become a more active and creative listener.