To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
.......................................again
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, December 3, 2008

Shaking the Pumpkin (3): Poems for the Game of Silence (Ojibwa & Mandan)


Ojibwa

it is hanging
in the edge of sunshine
it is a pig I see
with its double hoofs
it is a very fat pig
the people who live in a hollow tree
are fighting
they are fighting bloodily
he is rich
he will carry a pack toward the great water


Mandan

that
that
whose
track is it like?
grandfather
two-teeth
(he means the beaver!)
if it’s like his track
if it is
follow it on
the man came to a wigwam
with worn-out feet
with a wriggled bag
up high
lay a big fat
young buffalo calf
with a soft belly-button
walking
crumbling sticks
crab shells
have a dance
he
knocked his eye out

[translations by Frances Densmore]

COMMENTARY

The “game of silence” consisted of keeping still as long as possible in the face of songs whose non-sequential & far-out expressions were meant to cause laughter. Here directed at children, the mind’s activity reflects the same energy present in more serious tribal poems: for the pleasure of the game, say, or as a simple exercise for developing & keeping those faculties alive.

A sacred version of the above follows.

A MASKED EVENT FOR COMEDIAN & AUDIENCE
Lummi (Salish)

1. A comedian’s mask is painted red on one side, black on the other; the mouth is twisted, the hair in disarray. For a costume he wears a blanket or a strip of fur which leaves his right hand free. He dances along with the other performers, often dances out-of-time to attract attention, & repeatedly annoys the dancers by quizzically scrutinizing their masks, poking at their eyes, looking at their noses, picking their teeth, etc. Sometimes the dancers whip the comedian vigorously with cedar boughs to drive him away, keeping time with the drums as they do so. When not annoying the dancers, the comedian goes around the room pretending to take lice from the singers’ hair. He sometimes goes to a very old woman or a very pretty girl to do this, using it as a pretext to caress her.

2. The audience refrains from laughing.

[Originally printed in Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas. The book, first published by Doubleday in 1972 & last by University of New Mexico Press in 1986 & 1992, has now been out of print for several years. The title Poems for the Game of Silence was also appropriated for my first book of selected poems, first published in 1972 and still in print. – J.R.]