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

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ian Tyson's "17 Horse Songs X-XIII" with a Note on Ian Tyson

(Nnnnn N ghan) because I was the boy raised ing the dawn & nnnn but some there are mine all (ghan) & some (gwing) there 're mine there

(Nnnn N ghan) & in the howse the bluestone home & mmmrrrr but some there 're mine all (ghan) & some (gwing) there 're mine there

(Nnng N ghan) & in the howse the shininggwingNdghan & some there are mine all (ghan) & some (gwing) there 're mine there

[Total translation from Navajo by Jerome Rothenberg: The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell, opening lines]


While I’ve been able to publish the texts of my “total translations” from Navajo in a number of different venues, the images, above, that Ian Tyson created for the first edition (The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell X-XIII, Tetrad Press, 1969) have rarely been seen in the intervening years. That work came early in what would become a forty-year collaboration, but I’ve recently come to write about it in retrospect. The following, from the catalogue for a joint exhibition a couple of years ago, is an indication of what he was then into with relation to my work.

I had begun by the late 1960s a work in ethnopoetics that would bring me into the experimental translation of American Indian poetry, largely but not exclusively derived from song texts. The first collaborative piece to emerge from that was a large pamphlet/broadsheet derived from an Aztec description (a lexical definition, in fact) of the ceremonial & private uses of flowers. The verbal piece, which I in turn had mined from Bernardino de Sahagún’s sixteenth-century Florentine Codex, was a cataloguing of repetitive & parallel declarative sentences that rose at times to crescendo. In the resultant piece,
Offering Flowers, the words on the left are pulled toward the image on the right by cross-bars of a large “F” taken from the title, & the image itself (in orange, black & white), while it’s still composed on the grid, is allowed dramatic bursts, like clusters of squared-off flowers, pathways, stairs, in a manner reminiscent of pre-Columbian design or, as he writes of it, “rather like an embroidery pattern.”

From the “more explicitly illustrated,” almost fluid flower image, he went in
The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell to a group of much more austere, more minimal pieces. The poems here were “total translations” of four of the seventeen Navajo songs, which I took as sound-poems & to which his images related in a more general way than before – an accompaniment rather than a mapping of the infrastructures. The principal response to the structure (this time of the songs over-all) was in the choice of color (white & blue) suggested by the alternation of blue & white objects (turquoise, whiteshell [abalone], etc.) in the systematically paired horse songs themselves. Tyson’s designs kept an American Indian feeling, akin to Navajo sand painting & even closer – as with the Aztec flowers – to native weavings. And along with this there was also a sense in which the form of his images might be thought to represent, in line with the underlying mythological narrative, “a ‘going through’ portals to the sky, to obtain and bring back the horses.”

[From “Ian & Me – A Collaboration,” in J.R., Poetics & Polemics, University of Alabama Press, Modern & Contemporary Poetics Series, scheduled for publication later this year.]