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

Monday, August 3, 2015

Simon Ortiz: “What Indians?” (complete)

The Truth Is: "No kidding?" "No." "Come on! That can't be true!" "No kidding." 

"What Indians?" is my too-often unspoken response to people who ask "When do the Indians dance?" Like other colonized Indigenous peoples, cultures, and communities throughout the world, Native Americans have experienced and endured identities imposed on them by colonial powers, most of which originated in Europe. This imposition has resulted to a great extent -- more than we admit and realize -- in the loss of a sense of a centered human self and the weakening and loss of Indigenous cultural identity. 


April 9, 1999, 9:15 A.M.
Snow in soft wet knots
coming down
through gray trees.

                                    Strange to think of Iowa and Kansas.
                                    And Washington where I've never been in winter.
                                    And Portland, Oregon, where I've lived
                                    -- elms and pines dripping with rain
                                on Umatilla Street in weather like this –
Sellwood Bridge
over the Willamette River.

                                    Nebraska, South Dakota, elsewhere...


But this is Salt Lake City, Utah.

Yeah, it could be elsewhere. In fact,
                                          it could be Somewhere Else City,
                                          United States of America, Planet Earth,
                                          but this is Salt Lake City
                                          right smack on the western edge
                                          of the center of the world, believe it or not.

Yeah, it's not elsewhere. It's not Somewhere Else City. It is

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City

No where else but.
And, yeah, what a place, what a place.

        What a place to think of Indians.

"Where are the Indians?"
"What Indians?"
"You know, Indians."
"I don't know what you're talking about."


                                         To believe or not to believe,

this was the question.

                                         Asked and answered and believed
                                         by the greatest believers
                                        and disbelievers the world has ever known.

Where are the Indians?
Where are the real Indians?

                                         There are no Indians.
                                         There are no real Indians.
There were never any Indians.
There were never any Indians.

                                         There were never any real Indians.

You mean... you mean, there were never any Indians? No real Indians?
   No Indians?



Real or unreal.
Real and/or unreal.
They were made up.
It didn't matter.
                                                They were what people in Europe believed.
                                                They were what people in Europe wanted:
                                                to believe.
                                                They were what people in Europe wanted.
                                                To believe.

Indians were what people in Europe wanted to believe. Indians were what people in Europe wanted to believe. Indians were what people in Europe wanted to believe.

"Indians" were what people in Europe wanted to believe.

"Indians" were what Europeans wanted. To believe.

"Indians" were what Europeans believed.

"Indians were what Europeans believed."

Believe it or not.

Believe it or not.

Believe it or not.

Believe it or not!

Believe it or not!


They believed!
my, yes, they believed!
Soon, very quickly, there were Indians!

If it's one thing Europeans knew how to do, it was to believe!
They still do, you won't believe it even though it's true!

Oh, their belief in the power of belief is powerful!

Their power to believe was beyond belief!
It was overwhelming!
They believed, they believed!

                                  Soon the Americans believed
                            since they were originally Europeans
                           and they yearned for "the old country."
                                       Oh my, they believed!
                                     They absolutely believed!


Indians were made up?


They became what people in Europe believed them to be? Indians?


Yeah, Indians.

Soon there were Indians all over the place. But mainly in the New World, especially in America! Indians thrived in the New World. That's where they were seen the most. That's where they "belonged." That's where they were the most Indian!

             Soon even "the Indians" believed there were "Indians."
               Soon even the "Indians" believed they were Indians.

Nonetheless they were people.
They were hanoh. They were people who were themselves.
They were people who were their own people.

                                             See Indians.
                                          See real Indians.
                                       See real Indians play.
                                      See real Indians work.

                                 But there was nothing to see.
                                       There was nothing.
                               Because there was nothing there.
                                            Nothing real
                                              or surreal.
                                                To see.

                                          See real Indians.

                                              No where.


So where were the Indians?
What did Europeans see?
Did they see anything?
What did they see?
Did they see people?
Did they see people like themselves?
What did they see?

                                            What did they see?
                                            What did they see.
                                            What did they see.

                                     "Indians" who are our people
                              (The People, Human Beings, Hanoh, etc.)

      knew themselves as people. Different from each other. 
      Speaking different and distinct and separate languages. 
      They heard each others' languages. Their people had
      different names. They wore different clothes. They ate
      different foods. They danced different dances. They 
      celebrated their differences. Yes, they were different 
                                            but they were all
                                                   the same:
                              The People, Human Beings, You, Me.


                                 and meantime
                                   and always

                                 After and before
                                    and during
                                    and always

           always no matter what always and always and even
          despite the greatest believers and disbelievers in the
          world, they/we were people they/we were/are people
          we/they are people four times and without number or
          need for number we/they are people like you and just
           like me

Umatilla Street, in Sellwood, near Portland, Oregon, through which the Willamette River passes to join the Columbia River.

hanoh: Acoma word for 'people.'

Original Text: Ortiz, Simon J., Out There Somewhere. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2002.

[editor’s note.  In the process of preparing a second expanded edition of Technicians of the Sacred with a particular emphasis on survivals & revivals of indigenous cultures & poetries, my attention turns again to the work of poets like Simon Ortiz.  Ortiz in particular, I would say, in the early years of ethnopoetics as a largely poet-driven project, was a powerful voice & a close companion when Dennis Tedlock and I were bringing much of the discourse into Alcheringa & related publications.  A native of Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, he has continued over the years as a major figure in the still active American Indian literary renaissance and in the “new American poetry” over all.  It is hard for me to imagine a genuine ethnopoetics without his authoritative voice & presence. (J.R.)]

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

American Sign Language as a Medium for Poetry

 Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner of the Flying Words project performing ASL poetry (Jessica Munyon)
for Joseph Castronovo & Edward S. Klima, in memoriam

[The great breakthrough resulting from a new signing poetry in Deaf Culture has been to call into question a poetics in which orality & sounding are assumed to be the foundational bases of all poetic expression. That revelation goes back three decades & more, recently & notably presented in Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature, ed. by Dirksen L. Bauman, Jennifer L. Nelson, & Heidi M. Rose (University of California Press, 2006). Still closer to the present is an ASL-oriented web site, Deaf Jam, dedicated to a documentary film of that name, from which the first of the comments, below, is taken. The other two notes presented here represent my own early attempts to bring the poetry of sign into the ethnopoetics that I was promoting in the 1970s & 1980s. They also coincide in a startling way with the exploration of an outsider poetry that has been one of the themes of Poems & Poetics – a poetry distanced enough from the mainstream as to effect substantially our ideas about the nature of poetry itself. (J.R.)]

“Pain” for Joe Castronovo

two fingers,
nearly touch

matching the pulse inside
the skull
a figure “8” explodes

over the temples,
gentle movements of the mind
of words in air

in silence:
do I learn to speak you?
can you hear

the way the lines weave,
moving from the touch

to vanish
as sounds do
writing frees itself

from object-
at last

(1) ASL POETRY is a performance art form utilizing body language, rhythm and movement to create a three dimensional pictorial equivalent to oral poetry. The similarity of hand-shapes can act as alliteration, and using the same hand-shape repetitively works as rhyme. Visual Vernacular (a term and technique originated by Bernard Bragg) involves cinematic concepts. The technique involves references to close-ups, wide shots, images dissolving into other images as well as "cutting" back and forth between characters to show different points of view on a scene.

HISTORY: From 1880 to 1960, American Sign Language Was Suppressed In The Schools And Went Underground, Until Statistics Showed That The Suppression Of Sign Language Was Detrimental To Learning For The Deaf.

Signed poetry grew out of a tradition of playing with the language in Deaf clubs throughout the country, where deaf individuals and their families and friends would congregate for entertainment and to socialize.

ASL poetry has been described "as a kind of writing in space... a language in motion, and, like oral poetry, truly inseparable from its realization in performance." (Edward S. Klima and Ursula Bellugi, "Poetry Without Sound,” 1983)


Translation for ASL poetry into a written or oral form involves crossing modalities. In ASL poetry the body is the text. It exists in performance or through a video recording, not on paper. Rhyming schemes are based on visual elements such as facial expression, movement, locations of the signs, and hand shapes. Therefore an oral or written translation of an ASL poem can only be an approximation of what is being expressed.

(2) Regarding Ameslan [American Sign Language] poetry, you might check the
anthology Symposium of the Whole (edited by myself & Diane Rothenberg) for the article "Poetry without Sound" by Edward S. Klima and Ursula Bellugi. Bellugi has done terrific work in this area & early contacted me on the relation of signing poetry to the way in which I and others had been approaching oral poetry in the course of doing (so called) "total translation." I then published this piece in my magazine, New Wilderness Letter (a successor to the earlier Alcheringa Ethnopoetics) with my very strong sense that what was involved touched on a dimension of poetry that made pure oralism inadequate, however much we had then been (or continued to be) commited to a speech model. I made an attempt (around 1976/77) to work out an experimental approach to a total translation from Ameslan, collaborating with the deaf poet Joe Castronovo, who was himself a native signer. But circumstances got in the way & we never followed through on it, although since then I've come on the work of performance poets like Peter Cook & Kenny Learner composing & performing in ASL & have been hoping to see how much further it would go. 

(3) POETRY WITHOUT SOUND. Even in its early, tentative stages, the signing poetry emerging as an aspect of the "culture of the deaf" challenges some of our cherished preconceptions about poetry and its relation to human speech. Ameslan (American Sign Language) represents, literally, a poetry without sound and, for its practitioners, a poetry without access to that experience of sound as voice that we've so often taken as the bedrock of all poetics and all language. In the real world of the deaf, then, language exists as a kind of writing in space and as a primary form of communication without reference to any more primary form of language for its validation. It is in this sense a realization of the ideogrammatic vision of a Fenollosa -- "a splendid flash of concrete poetry" -- but an ideogrammatic language truly in motion and, like oral poetry, truly inseparable from its realization in performance. (Ethnopoetic analogues -- for those who would care to check them out -- include Hindu and Tantric mudras, Plains Indian and Australian Aborigine sign languages, and Ejagham [southeastern Nigerian] "action writing": a history of human gesture languages that would enrich our sense of poetry and language, should we set our minds to it.) // The reader may also want to relate this piece to recent discourse about "written-oral dichotomies, etc., but the revelation of Ameslan, in that sense, isn't a denial of the powers of oral poetry but the creation of its possible and equally impermanent companion in performance. (J.R., from Symposium of the Whole, 1983)

[See also the entry “Uncollected Poems (3): ‘The Silent Language’ with a note on poetry & signing” in Poems & Poetics, August 30, 2008. And for those who want to pursue this further, a relevant online resource is The Deaf Studies Digital Journal, edited by Ben Bahan and Dirksen Bauman, with postings primarily in American Sign Language.]

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Robert Kelly, from I TAROCCHI NUOVI or, Major Arcana of the Sacred Ordinary

photo by Jennifer May


I presume to offer a glimpse of a new Tarot. The major arcana of the deck are ordinary things of this world, and the suits are not four but infinite, for there is no end to the counting numbers, and no end to the things they can count. This deck is prefigured in a story published half a century ago called “The Infinite Tarot,” where there was talk of the Ace of Sewing Machines and such like. There are no such racy conjectures in the present pack, of which after research and deliberation I offer to the world only the Major Arcana, the Trumps. Of course there are many ordinary things in this sacred world, but these seem to have special cogency, special power to alert the mind to the sacredness of ordinary things. I use the Italian title to honor the great primal images of Mantegna’s Tarocchi.
January 2014

preliminary advice:
to the querent
who seeks an answer from the cards

But what are you looking for
in all these pictures?
They’re all dead people by now,
the Husband, the Child,
the Nun, the Prophet lying
drunk beneath his tree,
the Tree, the Cellar Door,
the Dog. Dead or fallen
ruinous and sad. Are you sad?
Do you come to the cards
the way you’d drink some wine
or call a friend you haven’t seen
in years? Did you ever know him
anyhow? The images don’t lie
because the images don’t die.
Did you know I’d be here
when you came in, a sly voice
no louder than a silken
dress on a thigh, a whisper
of light in the dingy trees
around your yard? Why
can’t you take care of anything?
Do you want to wind up
like me, a voice yearning,
yearning for ears, doesn’t
really matter, even yours?

But I can tell you everything.
You whisper to the cards,
they whisper to me, I whisper
to you. A lot of susurrus
to go round, mice in the pantry,
tiny endless appetites questing
like you for anything. Like me.

Because I began out there like you
then got trapped in it. I asked
and it answered, I leaned close
to hear every detail, and before
I knew it or could flee, the voice
became my own. And I’ve
been talking ever since. Now
what was it you wanted to know?

the tailor

crosslegged on his table
in strong sunlight
finding old stitches
in an older coat.

He will unpiece it
and take each scrap
and make a new coat
for a naked man.

Meantime he squints
at the fraying thread
praying to the God
of seams and sewers,
Hera’s aunt,
the Spider Queen
of Anatolia
who taught us
to connect.
And why not?

Magic lives between
the skin and the cloth,
silk or hide
makes no matter.

Magic is all.
He unstitches
and stitches afresh
in fine red thread—
under the table
wind is blowing
scraps of linen
here and there.

You and I are
just a week from being born.

the glass of water

A man holds it
in front of his chest
but his eyes are not on it,
they look out at you,
viewer, querent,
whatever you are.

Unknown to him
or at least unnoticed
there is a woman in the class
small, perfectly formed,
eyes open, rather beautiful
she is, and she’s looking
right at you too.

This is Melusina,
the elemental
daughter of water and air,
you need her to live.

When the man has drunk his water,
all of it or only some
she will still be there,
adrift before his eyes

and yours,
out from the image
into your world
or whatever you call it,
this thing around you.
And then he gives it to you.

the husband 

He holds a hammer in his hand.
He holds a wounded sparrow in his hand.
He holds a yardstick in his hand.
He holds a letter in his hand he hasn’t finished reading.
And never will.
            He holds a key in his hand.
He holds an antique ormolu clock on his hand.
It tells old time.
He holds a book in his hand, it’s open, pages riffled by wind.
He holds a kitten curled up on his palm.
He holds a photo of a lost love in his hand.
He has forgotten her name.
He holds a mirror in his hand but does not look at it.
Who knows what he would see?
He holds an ear of corn half-eaten in his hand.
He holds a bottle perhaps of water in his hand.
He is sustained by the simplest things.
He holds a rifle in his hand.
Does he know how to use it? Not sure.
He holds a butterfly net in his hand.
He feels ridiculous but he loves things.
He holds his hand out and a dragonfly lands on it.
He holds his father’s cane in his hand.
He holds a map of China all open and dangling.
He holds a silk stocking draped across his wrist.
He holds a branch of holly in his hand.
He holds a wad of paper money in his hand.
He holds a pair of scissors in his hand.
He holds a bell in his hand.
He holds a dog-leash in his hand but no dog is in it.
He holds a wooden flute in his hand.
He holds a red ball in his hand.
He holds a kitchen strainer in his hand.
He holds a stone in his hand.
He holds nothing in his hand.

[note. The preceding excerpt is from a remarkable new series of on-line poetry works, Metambesen, edited by Charlotte Mandell & Robert Kelly & freely available on the internet.  In the words of the editors: “As citizens in the commonwealth of language, we are anxious to make new work freely and easily available, using the swift herald of the internet to bring readers chapbooks and other texts they can read and download without cost.”  Beyond that noble & notable plan, my showing it here is a further tribute to Kelly himself, who was a poet essential to my own formative years as a poet, a time of transformations now a half century in the past.  With him there was a brief time in which we struggled together with the dimensions of ‘deep image’ as a strategy of composition developed by us along with a cohort of contemporaries in New York & elsewhere.  In my own case this was the forerunner to that ethnopoetics to which I came on my own by the end of the 1960s, but looking back now I feel sure that it was Robert who was an early one & possibly the first to point me in that direction.  Rounding out his seventh decade now, he represents for me & for many others a poet of the greatest powers & with a devotion to our art & to the shared life from which it springs second to none in my memory.” (J.R.)]