To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Marthe Reed: from Ark Hive (forthcoming), printed here as a memorial & tribute

[editor’s note.  In the wake of Marthe Reed’s sudden and unexpected death earlier this month, I am opening Poems and Poetics to a commemoration of her work and spirit through the posting of an excerpt from a new book now awaiting publication.  I had known Marthe Reed first as my student at UCSD San Diego and later as a dear friend and greatly admired poet.  I would surely have published the following work (“Here and Not”), so expressive of her poetics and her project as a whole, under any circumstances, but coming so soon after her death, the sense of loss colors whatever reading I now give it.  A fragment comes to mind from one of the poems in Ark Hive called “Threnody” [lament], also in this volume:

twist into light

warm water’s
melancholy weather
like an afterimage of rain

where I find myself
bruised awake
giving way

Writes Amish Trivedi, assistant editor of this page and fellow poet, by way of introduction & tribute:

“The text presented here is from Marthe’s Reed’s Ark Hive, forthcoming posthumously from The Operating System. A poetic approach to life in south Louisiana, it’s no wonder that Reed quotes poet C.D. Wright at the start of the work as Wright’s work covering south Louisiana could no doubt be seen as a necessary prerequisite to Reed’s own project. In the opening pages, Reed approaches her predicament as if she were a researcher placed in a foreign land, situating herself among her surroundings, in the midst of a condition of place that is both physically distant and so very different from the places she had previously lived. From there, she leans into language, the language of water, of floods and earth reclaimed, only to be lost again as the seasons change in places that are far away, the words occasionally scattered across the pages like the silt that drives the Mississippi water to the Gulf of Mexico.

Ark Hive is the memoir of a person but it is also the narrative of a place, how it came to exist in the time that Reed was living there. We traverse the geography as we traverse the culture, one affected deeply by Hurricane Katrina and also the governmental response to that disaster. Here the language is erased, something that nearly happened somewhere between the storm and the individuals in charge of helping those caught in the middle. The book ends in another crisis — one for her as ‘nomadic wanderer’ and for the Louisiana coast, changed by the oil spewing from the bottom of the ocean that no one could seemingly stop.

“While south Louisiana went through change, so did Marthe, this project tying those changes together, through her own choices of form and thought and language to a kind of self-identification through place, through shared traumas. This was a place once foreign that by the end is reflective of the journey of an individual poet among many who witnessed along with her.

“Marthe Reed passed away on April 10th with Ark Hive scheduled as part of The Operating System’s 2019 “cohort,” a word choice Marthe would no doubt have loved for its sense of comradery among writers and those who publish them, something she embodied for the rest of us.”]

Here and Not

However briefly I find myself in a strange place, I am intent on locating myself; where I came from at this point is portable; I carry it with me. C.D. Wright                                                                                                                                                                                                
I was not there, yet I was there. —Ernest Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

“Hub City,” center of Acadiana and straddling the Vermillion River, Lafayette lies almost due west of New Orleans across the Atchafalaya Basin. The basin, formed by the Mississippi as it laid down successive depositional lobes—Sale-Cypremort, Teche, and Lafourche—the great river switching back and forth finding the shortest route to the Gulf, giving rise to the whole of south Louisiana along the way. If not for the Army Corps of Engineers, its locks and levees, the Mississippi would now enter the Gulf by way of the Atchafalaya Basin and River.

My own route to Lafayette took the long way around: from Western Australia by way of Indiana, by way of San Diego, by way of Providence, Rhode Island, by way of San Diego earlier on, by way of Central California farm, an almond orchard in the countryside near Escalon.  Neither here nor there, though here nonetheless: eleven years in Lafayette. When the jet landed in New Orleans, July 2002, stepping outside our eye-glasses immediately fogged up, as when in winter elsewhere we had come in from the cold. Summer humidity in Louisiana does not rest, the evenings no less unrelenting than midday. Tomato plants give up come July, the heat of mid-morning through most of the night sapping their resilience. Wake up, stand outside in the shade, sweat. Summer teaches us to slow down, have a sno-cone: plan to exercise come winter. Here in the wet, green tangles everywhere in summer. Up telephone poles and along the wires, across bridges, through gaps in the asphalt and cracks in the sidewalk (where there are sidewalks, sometimes), wherever earth gathers unbidden in human spaces. No rooting it out. Green. Green verges beside roads and highways, ferns profligate across oaks branches, moss over wood railings, over brick and rendered walls. Green rice fields, green bottomland forest, green coastal seas, green marsh grass—prairie tremblant—shifting in the wet.

Being in, though not of this place, by what permission do I write about it, here where I live(d)?  After school, I listen to the men cutting hair at Ike’s Barber Shop, my child sitting high in the red chair listening also. Their talk flows around me, unfathomable, a French I can neither parse nor piece together, though it holds me still listening, as to the sound of water tumbling over root and rock. I overhear folk chatting in Poupart’s Bakery, cups clinking against saucers, while I order epi or baguette, the beignets and hand pies calling from the counter. Français cadien. Old world French, 17th Century and code-switching French, ‘Cadien. Mixed. Chatoui. Rat du bois.  Bequine, plaquemine, rodee. Suce-fleur. Up the bayou. Make the bahdin. Five million nutra rats eating up the coast. 

A friend invites us to dinner, her home a circle of rooms leading one into the next. No center, only the circuit: kitchen to living room to bedroom to bedroom to back room to kitchen. Did you miss me? The porch ceiling, painted “haint” blue, hints at sky warding off spirits who cannot cross water—Gullah knowledge carried across the south. Blue ceilings guard against insects also, mosquitos plying the air, owning the evening.

I walk the woods spying for raccoon tracks (chatoui, cat yes), armadillo burrows, passerine fliers stopping over. Phoebes, flycatchers, nuthatches, sparrows. I purchase guidebooks for native trees and plants, native birds. In my neighbor’s yard, bottle-brush hosts brown thrashers and ruby-throated hummingbirds; I once spotted a Baltimore Oriole, orange-and- black-bodied, among it brushes. Magnolia and live oak line the median of our street. In spring, the astonishing scent and size of magnolia blossoms, their sprawling, creamy tepals circling the green and gold “woman house” (gynoecium) and spikey yellow “man house” (andoceum). Seed-making and germination. Coming to know this place by means of books and my feet, listening: Atchafalaya pronounced uh-CHAF- uh-lie- uh not ATCH-uh- fuh-lie- uh. Puh-CAHN not PEE-can. Sound of squirrel scolds rain from the oak trees, cher become sha.

Lafayette is Catholic country, a tradition familiar and not, my mother’s Episcopalian faith never rooted in me, nor Judaism in my husband. At school, our children navigate the shoals of piety among the faithful, vegetarianism among the carnivorous. Kin-less also, we orbit the edges of extended families upon which community takes form here. Outsiders-in- the-midst. Mike digs in, devouring mounds of boiled crawfish or trays of oysters half-shelled, drenched in garlic and tabasco, washed down with a bottle of LA 31. Oysterloaf in New Orleans, rabbit plate-lunch in Lafayette, hot boudin at the roadside stop. Praising their grandmothers’ rice and gravy, dirty rice, or corn maque choux and shrimp, my students gape in disbelief when they discover I do not eat meat or seafood: “But what do you eat?” they wonder, amazed. Often Lebanese food, heritage of waves of Maronite immigrants from what would eventually be known as Lebanon.  Local eggs, mirlitons, Cajun Country Rice™, roasted chilies and grilled okra, cornbread, collards, Creole tomatoes, muscadines. Sweet corn, sweet corn, sweet corn and peaches. Pickled okra, cheese grits or Zea’s sweet corn grits with roasted red pepper coulis. Wild blackberries and pick-your- own blueberries in summer, oranges, Meyer lemons, satsumas in winter.

Writing Louisiana, outsider-inside, poles of affection and alienation push and pull against me. An astonishing and richly diverse region, both culturally and ecologically, its inhabitants have sold paradise for oil and gas money, ignored the most vulnerable, allowed schools, hospitals, and the poor to bear the burden of economic crises, crises often manufactured through tax-giveaways to the affluent and corporations, spending one-time monies as if they would last forever. Paradise is poverty-stricken, imprisoning its citizens at the highest rate in the country: 816/100,000 – far greater than even Russia’s 492. Its waters, polluted and poisoned, its coastlines washing away at perilous rates – 2000 square miles in just 80 years. By 2050, if global temperatures rise just two degrees, erosion combined with Antarctic ice melt will reduce New Orleans to an island tied to land by a bridge-cum- highway, the state’s coastline a series of slender fingers in the sea: New Iberia, Morgan City, Thibodeaux perched upon the flood.

Still, who am I to rebuke or challenge, to call into question? Is this my place, too, outsider-inside? I lived in south Louisiana eleven years, eleven years in love and in despair. Do those years cede me ground to write? No Cajun, no Creole, no Louisianan by birth or adoption? By what permission? Only love, heart broken open again and again.

Sky over New Orleans, that endless expanse of blue and cloud, high and wide as all the earth, or so it seems. Walker Percy had the way of it, “a sketch of cloud in the mild blue sky and the high thin piping of waxwings comes from everywhere.” The soft mutterings of the Gulf, water lapping sand or mud, Kate Chopin’s “voice of the sea whispering through the reeds that [grow] in the salt water pools,” “white clouds suspended idly over the horizon.”

The mass of vegetation composing a swamp: Lake Martin’s bald cypress, water tupelo, and live oaks draped in Spanish Moss, seeds afloat on the water. Elm, ash, pecan, buttonbush, palmetto.  Blue-eyed grass and red buckeye. Invasive bladderwort, water hyacinth, fanwort, coontail, duckweed, and hydrilla tangle the water where native lotus, yellow and blue flag iris, red iris and water hyssop thrive also. Powdery thalia. Sedges all along the lake’s margin. The extraordinary population of birds inhabiting the lake: White Ibises, Anhingas, Neotropic Cormorants, Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Green Herons, Great Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, Tricolored Herons, Cattle Egrets, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Black-crowned Night-Herons, and Great Blue Herons. Common Moorhen and American Coots, Belted Kingfishers. Along the levee trail: Pine and Yellow-throated Warblers, Northern Parula, White-eyed Vireos, and Indigo Buntings; flycatchers, woodpeckers, nuthatches, wrens. In the air and in the woods, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Barn Owls, Eastern Screech-Owls, Great Horned Owls, Barred Owls, Common Nighthawks. All these species and myriad others, the swamp a-thrum with life.

At Jefferson and East Main Streets, sunset rises over Pat’s Diner, saffron and orange tumult of clouds towering. Cajun shaved ice stands: watermelon, raspberry, orange, and pink lemonade—or wedding cake, guava, piña colada. Drive-through daiquiri stands where, with a quick bit of tape on the lid, you’re good to go. Fishing camps at the coast, hunting camps in the woods.  Back yard gardens, back yard chickens: agriculture given way to oil field support. Last Borden’s Ice Cream store in the nation. Dance the two-step at Blue Moon Saloon to Feufollet and Lost Bayou Ramblers. Krewes and courirs of Mardi Gras, beads stranded in the limbs of oak trees all year long. Kayak Lake Chicot, Lake Martin, Lake Fausse Pointe. Segregated city, de facto segregated schools: poor and black northside, affluent and white along the river. Meet in the middle? Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, Festival International. In the city, two public access points to the Vermillion, its winding swath obscured by private estates.  Eluding silence, I write amid fragments, from journals, photographs, memory, archives—time capsule of a disintegrating world. A place and an idea impossible to reconstruct, it falls apart inmy hands, its multitudes. What are these fragments, this narrative? I build a box of loose pages, maps, stray keys, and seeds. Memento mori. What to keep, what to give away? What will not come with me, or might? Here and not here, what to make of this place called home?

An archive is an act of memory and affection, of loss: adrift upon a skim of oil, a scud of cloud, fragments on the floating Gulf.

[N.B. Other poems by Marthe Reed appear here and here on Poems and Poetics.]

Friday, April 13, 2018

Jerome Rothenberg in Conversation with Irakli Qolbaia, on the Origins of Ethnopoetics, Deep Image, Gematria, & Other Matters

                                 Reading at Morden Tower, Newcastle, circa 1967, with Tony Harrison (left)

[This conversation was carried on between Tbilisi, Georgia & Encinitas, California in late 2017.  Other work by Irakli Qolbaia can be found here & here on Poems and Poetics.]

Irakli Qolbaia. At the first page of the new and expanded Technicians of the Sacred, one can read Diane Wakoski saying: “I will always like best those poets like Ginsberg and Rothenberg who write about serious, passionate, often doleful concerns” (goes on). Which is lovely but made me wonder, could one not say with equal justice: “. . . poets like Rothenberg, in whom even doleful and serious should be married to playful, even joyful – the act of creation itself”?  What would you make of this? I know how doleful it can get: you are one of the most important poets who came to the age of poetic creation after the World War II and whose reality was underscored by Holocaust (or rather Khurbn) and Hiroshima, and what’s more, you especially decided to take these as some of your prime concerns. You, along with some others, seem to have decided to (quoting Olson) “put your hand down to these dead.” Meaning, witnessing and experiencing the world, in the fullest sense of these words, as one of the responsibilities of the poem.

Jerome Rothenberg. It’s my memory that Wakoski was commenting here on Poland/1931 and possibly a somewhat later work like A Seneca Journal, and that she went on to specify what she meant as “a poetry which has historical and archetypal themes, which can be described as representing a culture and which tries to present, through a prescribed set of imagery and stylized vocabulary, a whole mode of perception.” And all of that could fairly be said to be an aspect of what I was pursuing then, and maybe in different ways later, including very much the big anthologies and assemblages like Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin.  Yet “doleful” alone, or even when augmented by “serious” and “passionate,” would seem to pin me down, to limit me or Ginsberg or any other poet to a portion of our writing, something Wakoski recognized as well when she expanded the range of her description.  And I can think of another aspect of my work (several aspects in fact) with which this necessarily elides – the more experimental and playful, even the more rhythmic and performative, if it comes to that.
                In saying that of course I don’t at all deny “the doleful” or the responsibility – to call it that, as you do – to let the poem witness, by every means possible, the horrors we grew up with and that continue to confront us into the present.  I feel that as an underlying presence in whatever I do as a poet, even as I search for new means and procedures, including those in which I can bring other voices and presences into the poem. Maybe an antidote too to self-indulgent self-expression, by making the poem into a conduit for the hapless dead and others rather than an instrument of self-expression: a gathering of other voices, other times.

IQ.  So, I am inquiring, I guess, this double nature of your poetry, of “serious/doleful” and “playful/humorous”. I know such has always been the part of the thing, but I think more about you more than Allen in the sense that in your work I see that sense of joyfulness and playfulness on the level of creation, very fundamentally, that is, in the procedures themselves, as if the joy and playfulness were at the core of the poetic activity. I am reminded also of the Jesus Christ words you love to quote: “if thou wouldst understand that which is me, know this: all that I have said I have uttered playfully – and I was by no means ashamed of it” (Acts of St. John)
JR. I think there are two – at least two – impulses at work here: an ironic and skeptical view of the world-at-large and an element of play that seems present to me in all poetry as a highly developed form of language art.  It’s with these in mind, it seems to me, that Plato drives the poets from his authoritarian republic, with an awareness perhaps of the sources of poetry in the transgressive narratives and comic performances of sacred clowns and tricksters, but touching on Athenian tragedy and comedy as well.  In place of those what remains of poetry, as Plato would have it, are “hymns to the gods and the praises of famous men.”  For myself, by contrast, I find the calling-into-question of gods and men a sign of social and spiritual health deeply imbedded in the human psyche – not all that poetry can give us, but lacking which, poetry becomes a largely empty vessel.  I would also point out that the quote from Jesus is apocryphal, even heretical, and reflects the relevance of outsider or outsided texts, one of the areas of greatest interest to me in the mapping or remapping of poetry and poetics over new/old areas of space and time.
Then, the other aspect of poetry’s playfulness, has to do with its ongoing attention to formal experimentation and constraint as a kind of lyrical game theory, an element of play in all poetry, as a matter of fancy as well as imagination (to use the old-fashioned Romanticist terms) – “in the procedures themselves,” as you say.  For me, once freed from traditional rhymes and meters, the concern with procedures continues in multiple ways, often enough as a strategy to preclude too much expressionism and subjectivity in the process of composition.  In that mode, for example, I turned some years ago to a traditional form of Jewish numerology – gematria – that played off the fact that all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet were also numbers, so that all words were thereby sums of numbers.  This allowed the pairing or equating of similarly numbered words and phrases, traditionally for the confirming of orthodoxies, but open for myself and those like me to surprising new turns and twists: “an entry” (as I wrote) “into the kinds of correspondences / constellations that have been central to modernist and ‘post’modernist poetry experiments over the last century and a half.”  So, the following, for example, somewhere between orthodoxy and transgression:

Without God

Without terror.

In the Shadow (1)                             In the Shadow (2)

A womb                                             I am
he devours.                                        nothing.

A Vision (1)                                       A Vision (2)

Beat it                                                God
with power.                                       is crushed.

A Curse

Your father
shall live.


or enough.

In the end, too, when I was commissioned later for a series of poems about the Jewish holocaust I turned again to gematria, playing off the Hebrew spellings of the World War2 extermination camps and drawing from the biblical vocabulary that this provided me. Thus:

now the serpent:

I will bring back
their taskmasters
crazy & mad

will meet them
deep in the valley
& be subdued

separated in life
uncircumcised, needy
shoes stowed away

how naked they come
my fathers
my fathers

angry & trembling
the serpents
you have destroyed

their faces remembered
small in your eyes,
shut down, soiled

see a light
take shape in the pit,
someone killed

torn in pieces
a terror, a god,
go down deeper

It was my contention here, as with other such formal procedures, “that this small degree of objective chance would not so much mask feeling or meaning as allow it to emerge.”
All of which brings me, I suppose, to the final term in your question: the sense of “joy” or “joyfulness” as it enters into or emerges from the work at hand – an antidote perhaps to the doleful and serious side that you or Wakoski were calling to attention.  It’s a quality – an experience really – that I sometimes find it hard to get at but that I think emerges in the willingness to endure and when the energy of the effort builds up and allows me to persist.  And I think I feel it most – sometimes at least – in performance, even at the end of a serious and doleful work like Khurbn: a relief and a release, to have gotten it said: something very visceral after all the mind-work.  And in other works of course the dolefulness may not even be present.

IQ: I find it, then, appropriate if we move now to the territory I could not help invoking. I mean the period and place around which you emerged as a poet. I recall Jacques Roubaud calling it ‘the explosion of poetry in America’ and that’s how many of us still feel, fascinated and overwhelmed by it, distanced as we may be, both geographically and temporally, from that initial explosion. So please, do give us your personal insight into that time, that moment of ‘big bang’.  Asking this, what I have in mind is that for many of us, the Don Allen anthology and your later assemblages and gatherings served as vital historical documents, and an invitation to enter and participate.
     “There has been a break somewhere,” informs us, joyously, Williams, of his own time. What was the break you experienced? “Poetry is the only news,” wrote, I recall, Robert Kelly. What was the news you felt you were bringing?                                                                                              
     And lastly, please tell us who were some people, present then, for you, as teachers and companions? I know of your closeness with David Antin, Robert Kelly and others, among the young poets of your age, from early sixties on, but also of your fruitful exchanges, with the older poets, like Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan. Was this an apprenticeship? And what were some of the things that you learned?

JR.  The past, for some of us, doesn’t seem so far past, though we know it is. For me and many of us, the news by the late 1950s was both new and had a trace of the past about it – a conviction that an earlier experimental and transformational modernism, assigned to the ash-heap of history by an intervening generation, was still alive and ready for us to transform it further, as our own time demanded.  Like today that time was marked by an upswing of authoritarianism from all directions – different from the second world war but coloring our lives in postwar America – to which the reaction on the literary side came first in a counterpoetics against those who would block the experimental and new.  For all of us, I think, there was the accompanying excitement about the emergence of a “new American poetry,” but for some of us there was the recognition of a similar uprising throughout the world and a recognition that our key forerunners were not only Williams and Pound, for most of us, and Stein and Cummings for others, but also that we were drawing heavily as well from the near European past.  Along with that of course we were beginning or continuing an exploration of ancient, sometimes occulted sources from throughout the world.  So my own early explorations of ethnopoetics fit into that – a continuation also from poets like Tzara and Cendrars, the Surrealists, and many others. Also I would point out that Technicians of the Sacred, as a starter, came from and connected with what Kelly and I were calling “deep image,” but much more than that, as I sometimes tried to show.  At the same time too, most of the poets I knew were moving headlong into performance – a new orality and a linkage also, too often ignored or too often exaggerated, with contemporary jazz and an emerging rock n roll.
So, it was by the late 1950s or early 1960s that the poetry world, as I knew it, began rapidly expanding, and what had started with my own cadre of poets in New York – Antin, Kelly, Schwerner, Economou, Owens, and Wakoski – brought an equally close connection with Blackburn, Eshleman, and Mac Low, among many many others.  Even more notably I began to make contact with poets outside of my zone of comfort: Duncan and Snyder on the west coast, Creeley in New Mexico and later in Buffalo, Zukofsky and Oppen among older American poets, Hollo and Tarn in England and later in the U.S., Enzensberger in Germany, Roubaud and Jean-Pierre Faye in France, Fluxus poets and artists everywhere, and on and on.  What can I say about that but that the times were right, then and in the years that followed, and led me to feel more and more a part of a far-flung company of poets.  That was the “big bang” for me, at least the poetry part of it, because it stopped me from being too narrowly focused but opening to a whole range of possibilities for poetry and what a French friend, Michel Giroud, described to me later as “an avant-garde that cannot be defeated.”
The turmoil and changes in the larger world were also increasing, as they always do, and by the end of the decade we were all caught up in the dynamics of resistance.

IQ. Deep Image, Ethnopoetics, Total Translation, Omnipoetics... These are only a few of the concepts / practices that you have contributed in modern poetry or poesis. All your books - whether the books of your own poems or your gatherings and anthologies - have contributed to these, and of course these have contributed to one another. I wish you'd talk just a bit about what some of these practices meant (as, for now, they may be vaguer for a Georgian reader). But especially I have been interested by the turn these workings and insights have recently taken: the poetry of Outside and Subterranean.
Such has involved all poetries that, without having necessarily been qualified as such, have, throughout the ages involved and invoked something in extremis, something "barbaric, vast and wild"; and, has involved the writings of the so-called "Primitive" people, of shamans, of the Jewish “mystics, thieves and madmen,” of the voices long suppressed, of those victimized by oppression, of the heretical, blasphemous, of the "mentally ill", but this, it is worth noting, along with the people considered generally as poets, those who have uncontestably belonged to the "Paradise of Poets".
          So can you tell us about this? Your personal "symposium of the whole", now for so long in the making? And, further, what is still to be contributed in this area? How can future poets (or not) further extend this terrain?

JR. Now that I’ve reached an age when I can look back so far, I’m amazed at what a fifty or sixty-year span looks like.  For me, to pick up on the terms you mention, the involvement in the early 1960s with “deep image” now appears as an attempt to extend some of the concerns of our Surrealist predecessors and by doing that to revitalize simultaneously the imagism and objectivism of an earlier American avant-garde.  A few years into that and prodded by conversations with Kelly and Duncan among others, I saw the depth in deep image as connected also to a deeper past, and that in turn would lead me, by research and translation, to what I came to call ethnopoetics.  I had been fascinated from early on by translation and by writing in part or in whole through the work of others – the anthologies as one way to do that and translation as another.  My contribution here was the idea of “total translation” (translating sound and event as well as meaning) but also still other forms of what Haroldo de Campos called “transcreation” and I called “othering.”  I also felt impelled to open the field further – as far as I could take it – to include previously excluded, even despised voices, “outside & subterranean,” where I felt the language of poetry speaking through them.  There was in that something like what Duncan had called “a symposium of the whole” and that I’ve recently been speaking of as an omnipoetics.
So, much of what I’m saying here is directed today against the renewed forms of racism and ethnicism that we see rising around us – a call now, as it was fifty years ago – to welcome the diversity of poetries and lives that our own writing and gathering can help to advance.  This is a continuing process, as I see it, and not restricted at all to the smaller field of poetry.  That field however is where I chose to test my powers and to help construct (who knows?) a kind of model for the world at large.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Toward a Poetry of the Americas (9): Raul Bopp, from “Cobra Norato: Nheengatu on the Left Bank of the Amazon”

Translation from Portuguese by Jennifer Sarah Cooper

[A foundational work, along with Oswald de Andrade’s Anthropophagite Manifesto, of the Antroporfagia movement in 1920s Brazil, Bopp’s epic survives as an early example of “investigative poetry” (E. Sanders) & ethnographic surrealism (ethnopoetics).  It is, as the Brazilian literary critic Othon Moacyr Garcia has it, “the one true epic poem of Brazilian literature (because of its essence rooted in the popular and for the magic of its verbal form) and one of the greatest legacies of the Modernist Movement.” The poem’s idiomatic range, carried over into Cooper’s English, is also to be noted. Or Oswald de Andrade, again, of one of the languages/cultures touched on by Bopp: “Tupi or not tupi!” which is always the question. (J.R.) To be included in “the poetry & poetics of the Americas,” an anthology co-edited with Heriberto Yépez, now in progress.]


One day
I’ll end up in the land Beyond

I light out, walking on and on
blending in the womb of the backwoods, chewing on roots

After a while
I work up a swamp-lily spell
& conjure up the Cobra Norato

“Let me tell you a story
Shall we stroll those curvy islands?
Now, imagine moonlight…”

Night comes on sweetly
Stars chat in low tones
So I wrangle a rope around the neck
& strangle the Snake.

Now that’s better
I squeeze into its elastic silk skin
& set out to travel the world

I’ll find Queen Luzia
I want to marry her daughter

Well, then, you must first close your eyes

Sleep slips over my heavy eyelids
The muddy ground robs the strength of my steps

And now the encrypted forest begins

Shade hides trees
            Thick-lipped frogs spy in the dark

            Here a wit of woods is being punished
            Saplings squat in the mire
            A slow slip of stream licks loam

"All I want is to see Queen Luzia's daughter!"

Now the rivers drown
gulping the path
Water rolls by the marshes
sinking sinking
Up ahead
sand cradles the footprints of Queen Luzia's daughter

now I'll see her"

But first you must pass through seven doors
to see seven white women with empty wombs
guarded by an alligator

"All I want is to see Queen Luzia's daughter!"

     You must deliver your soul to Papa Legba
     chant on the new moon
     & drink three drops of blood

"Only if it’s the blood of Queen Luzia's daughter" 

Immense wilds with insomnia

Sleepy trees yawn
At last, the night has dried out River water crashed
I’ve got to go

I get going willy-nilly, deep in the backwoods
where ancient pregnant trees are napping

They chide me from all sides
Where're you off to, Norato?
Here’s three sweet saplings just waiting…

"Can't stay
Today I’ll lay with Queen Luzia's daughter"

I tear off, burning sand
Pokeweed scratches me

Fat shafts play sink in the mud
Twigs pssst as I pass

Leave me alone, I got a long way to go

Nuts-sedges block the way

Oh Curupira!
Whose evil-eye has cursed me                        
& reversed my tracks on the ground?

I slither withered
searching for Queen Luzia's daughter

I coil up for the night

Earth sinks away
Bog’s soft belly roll swallows me whole

Which way should I take?
My blood aches
spellbound by Queen Luzia's daughter


This is the forest of fetid breath
birthing snakes

Skinny rivers forced to work
The current bristles
peeling phlegmy banks

Toothless roots gum loam

In a flooded stretch
marsh swallows stream

The wind has moved on

A hiss frightens the trees
Silence injured itself

Up ahead a dry trunk falls:

A scream crosses the forest
Other voices arrive

River choked on a sandbank

I spy a frog frog
I smell the smell of a gentleman
"Who are you?"

"I am Cobra Norato
On my way to cozy up with Queen Luzia's daughter"


They're studying geometry
here at the trees’ school

“You’re blind from birth. You have to obey the river”

“It can’t be! We're slaves to the river”

“You're condemned to work forever and ever
Obliged to make leaves to blanket the forest”
“It can’t be! We're slaves to the river”

“You must drown men in shadows
The forest is man's enemy”
“It can’t be! We’re slaves to the river”

I cross thick walls
I hear the ayeee-help-me finches’ screeches
They're schooling the birds

“If you don't learn the lesson you have to be trees”
“Ayee  aeeeyee  aeeeyee  aeyeeeee…”

“What are you doin’ up there?”

“I have to announce the moon
as it rises behind the woods”

“And you?”
“I have to wake the stars
on St. John’s night”

“And you?”
“I have to count the hours deep in the wilds”


Translator’s Notes
Jennifer Sarah Cooper
Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte
Natal, Brazil

Stories of the encantado, Cobra Norato, are well-known throughout Brazil. In the South largely due to this poem, but in the North and Northeast they belong to an enormous repertoire from a thriving Amazonian oral tradition in practice – which is to say, the storytelling or the relating of currently occurring phenomenon. There are many versions, of course, about the origin of this encantado. In one version, registered by folklorist, Câmara Cascudo in Lendas Brasileiras (1945), the snake’s mother was bathing in the river between the Trombetas and the Amazon when she gave birth to twin anacondas, who she named Honorato and Maria. They came to be known as the Cobra Norato and Maria Caninana. Since she could not raise them in the village with her people, the pajé (shamanic healer) told her to throw them into the river, and so she did, and she raised them freely, there in nature. According to this version, the Cobra Norato was strong and good; he would wait for nightfall to turn into a man to be able to go visit his mother. Maria was the bigger and badder one who swallowed ships whole and is often conflated with the Cobra Grande. Slater (1994),  specialist in Amazonian oral traditions, corroborates this fearsome version of Maria, citing how, in the stories people tell, the Cobra Grande appears “as an immense and eerie blue flame that plays upon the waters or a big, brightly lit riverboat that suggests an updated version of the native Amazonian Spirit Canoe. Sometimes, the boat is empty; on other occasions, it is packed with people in white clothing who gaze out toward shore. ” (SLATER, 1994, p. 160).

In constrast to Câmara Cascudo, however, Slater registers, in her field work (1994), the general sense of the Cobra Norato in line with another encantado of the region, the Boto Vermelho (Red River Dolphin), who sheds its animal form to turn into a fine looking, well dressed, man or woman for the purpose of going to parties (SLATER, 1994, p.159).  In the case of the Cobra Norato, the polymorphism is always into a man. This is the version that Bopp plays upon, in a reverse polymorphism from man into anaconda, and so the telluric character predominates as the plants, animals and encantados, and the river itself are central characters, and the Cobra Norato turns back into a fine gent to kick up some dust and down some rum just once in the rousing section XXV. This, just after the appearance of the Red River Dolphin in section XXIV.

These excerpts are the translations of the first five sections of the 33 part poem by Bopp, Cobra Norato: Nheengatu on the left bank of the Amazon, which tells the journey of the speaker, who has entered the body of the Cobra Norato, as he travels down the Tapajos and Amazon  rivers in search of Queen Luzia’s daughter.

It begins in the “land Beyond” -- terra do Sem-fim  literally the land of without end, Sem-fim  is a trickster figure similar to the Saçi Pereré of the south, who is depicted in popular stories as a one legged, pipe smoking, sometimes red, sometimes black or brown mischief making character. It is also an allusion to the Terra-sem-mal literally ‘land without evil,’ to which the Tupi tribes from the south were destined when they encountered the Portuguese landing on the coast (HILL, 1995).

The object of Cobra Norato’s desire and purpose of his journey is to find the “daughter of Queen Luzia” -- filha da rainha Luzia (I, line 2). Although there is no such encantado per se, Queen Luzia suggests the importance of light and Santa Lucia, the protector saint of the eyes, to the Amazonian population. According to Câmara Cascudo, the Enchanted Princess is a popular motif of northern folklore in which the Enchanted Princess is transformed into a serpent. These serpent princesses are vestiges of Moorish cycles from the Iberian Peninsula. In these cycles of stories, “the enchanted princesses return to their human form just before midnight on St. John’s night or Christmas; becoming beautiful women, they sing combing their hair with combs of gold.” (CÂMARA CASCUDO, 1979, pg. 365, 517)

In order to enter this universe, the speaker must pass through some of its eurocentric historical representations with the reference in II, lines 16,17,18, to the “seven white women”. These are the women warriors, Amazons, who Gaspar de Carvajal, a friar of the Order of Saint Dominic of Guzmán, writes of in his account of the 16th Century Pizarro/Orellana expedition down the Amazon River, then called the Orellana river because Orellana was said to have “discovered” it. Carvajal was supposed to have seen these women on his expedition down the big river (CARVAJAL, 1934).

In section V, line 20, the birds have the important task of waking the stars on “St. John’s night”. Along with its relevance to the serpent-princess motif, the festivals during the month of June, of which St. John São João is one, are important events in Brazil, especially in the North and Northeast, marked by a month of large outdoor parties, full of dancing - quadrilhas, drinking, particular foods made from corn, bonfires and during which mock weddings are performed. These parties are bigger than Carnaval in the North and Northeast and similar to Carnaval, quadrilha dance troupes rehearse all year round to perform and compete against other troupes. The quadrilhas – literally square dancing – are lively musical street theatre productions of the story of a shotgun wedding, filled with the stock characters of the bride, the groom, their parents, the sheriff, the priest, the friends, the drunk, and other village types. Although the ritual shares some similar characteristics to the North American version of square-dancing – there is a caller who indicates stock choreographies, pair work is predominate – the North and Northeastern Brazilian version is less square and more dancing. Movements are broader, faster, and there are stock characters involved to orient improvised gestures – for example, the stumbling of the town drunk, the broad gestures of the mother of the bride. Also, there is a lively call and response element that exceeds the North American version. The calls, while they often rely on the francophone inheritance, are also regionally adapted. For example, the caller may shout out, “Here comes the rain!” and the dancers, moaning “ohhhh” crouch down, feigning the holding of an umbrella. Or the caller may shout, “Watch out for the snake!” prompting the dancers to jump and scream “Eeeeeeee” boisterously in unison. 

Ultimately, along with the encantados themselves, the poem relies on sound in the shamanic healing tradition to which, according to Slater, these encantados are integrally linked (SLATER, 1994, p.160). Rothenberg's Ethnopoetics ([1968] 2017) and Total Translation (1981) -- the shamanic enactment of meaning in sound -- resonate with and served as a pole star for the translation of this poem. 

Câmara Cascudo, Luis. Dicionário de Folclore Brasileiro. 4th ed.  São Paulo:
Melhoramentos, 1979.
Carvajal, Gaspar de.  'Discovery of the Orellana River', in The Discovery of the
Amazon According to the Account of Friar Gaspar de Carvajal and Other Documents, edJ. T. Medina, trans. B. T. Lee . New York, 1934, p.167–235. 
Hill, Jonathan. Land Without Evil: Tupi-Guarani Prophetism. Chicago: University
of Illinois Press, 1995.
Rothenberg, Jerome. Pre-Faces & Other Writings, New Directions, 1981.
Rothenberg, Jerome. Technicians of the Sacred:  A Range of Poetries from Africa,
America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania, 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017.
Slater, Candace. Dance of the Dolphin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.