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

Sunday, September 12, 2010

“Je Est Un Autre”: Ethnopoetics & The Poet As Other

[The following was delivered as a talk at the Modern Language Association meetings December 29, 1989 in Washington D.C., and excerpts were published in American Anthropologist, volume 96, number 3, in September 1994. It was never published in its entirety in English but has appeared in Portuguese translation in Etnopoesia no Milênio, Editorial Azougue, Rio de Janeiro, 2006, and in a forthcoming selection of my prose writings from Editorial Ardus in Mexico, translated into Spanish by Heriberto Yépez. (J.R.)]

Today I want to proclaim my own otherness & proclaim it for what it is.
[Pointing to head & heart.]
There are many "others" in me.


Before there was ethnopoetics there was the world.

I mean to say that we emerged from the second world war & knew that it was bigger than that. The world, I mean.

The world as Europe was not the world the mind now knew.

And something had happened that let the mind know many worlds — each one of which was "other" to the mind.

Europe was also "other."

America was "other."

What was exotic & what was near to hand were "other."

You & I were "other" to ourselves, our minds.

The mind the mind knew was a final otherness: a habitat of minds & worlds.

(This emerged. The world emerged it.)

What you know is what you are. What the mind can hold is what the mind is.
Enough, the mind says. There is a politics in this & yet there is no politics.
There is a knowledge here that mixes real & unreal, that opens.
There is also the trembling headiness of a world in which, Rimbaud told us, "I" is an "other."

What did he mean by that?
What do I mean?
"I" is "other," is "an other," is "the other."
(There is also "you.")

If the mind shapes, configures the world it knows or holds, is there an imperial/colonizing mind at work here, or is this mind as shaper & collager still pursuing its old work: to make an image of the world from what appears to it?

And what appears to it?

The world.

In 1965 our fellow voyager, Charles Olson, read to an assembled festival at Berkeley a poem that drew directly from a translation — was itself a translation — of a Hittite tablet from a millennium or more before the common counting.
It was the kind of "other" that was already coming into his mind & thus his work.

(Olson was, as we all know, a man of many means.
As we are all endowed with many means.
I mean, we all.)

He had been reading from The Maximus Poems before that, & someone (not identified in the transcript) asked him, referring to the Hittite: "Why do you go to another culture to get your myth?"

Now, for Olson, for whom the world had opened up & for whom there was no turning back, the question triggered an answer that was quick & sharp.
(There was no ethnopoetics then for Olson, but there was a world.

And that world knew both an "I" & "other," that in The Maximus Poems became a world of many means.

"I" is an "other"; "other" is absorbed in "I"; is only known through such absorption & such re-creation.

Making new.)

What Olson said was this:

"Well, you knock me out when you say that" is what he said. "I just thought I bridged the cultures." (Here the transcript says he laughed.) He said: "I don't believe in cultures myself. I think that's a lot of hungup stuff like organized anything. I believe there is simply ourselves, and where we are has a particularity which we'd better use because that's about all we got. Otherwise we're running about looking for somebody else's stuff. But that particularity is as great as numbers are in arithmetic. The literal is the same as the numeral to me. I mean the literal is the invention of language and power the same as numbers. And so there is no other culture. There is simply the literal essence and exactitude of your own. I mean, the streets you live on, or the clothes you wear, or the color of your hair is no different from the ability of, say, Giovanni di Paolo to cut the legs off Santa Clara or something. Truth lies solely in what you do with it. And that means you. I don't think there's any such thing as a creature of culture."

[And the Hittite? I wondered.
The Hittite must have been there too.
That other "literal."
The Hittite.
The Algonquin.
The Sumerian.
The Norse.
The Mayan.
The geographic & archaeological.
The Olson multiples.
Those he had caught. Appropriated.]

And then he went on: "I think we live so totally in an acculturated time that the reason why we're all here that care and write is to put an end to that whole thing. Put an end to nation, put an end to culture, put an end to divisions of all sorts. And to do this you have to put establishment out of business. ... The radical of action lies in finding out how organized things are genuine, are initial ... [that the Imago Mundi] is initial in any of us. We have our picture of the world and that's the creation."

It is a fine irritation with categories that comes through here as Olson's version of that "intensity / disgust" the Dada poet Tristan Tzara named for us.

A perception too that the older categories — primitive & civilized, barbaric, savage, cultured & natured — are insufficient for our present uses, even false.
That "I" & "other" are also false, are traps to keep us from the poem.

Or put it a different way: that "I" becomes or is the deepest "other": that inner thing you can't touch, the life that always gets away from you.

[At this juncture too I began to explore the Jew in me, as instance of an “other" in this world but also thought to be my self. Inside me.

And the words of Kafka soon came back to me: "What have I in common with Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself."]

How exotic I am today, I mean. How pale the others are.

But with Olson, too, a miscalculation comes into the picture. For the cultures, even as he denies them, come back with their own demands, their voices & visions emerging from the disintegration of that imperium that made his own voice audible.

Ethnos is the brightness & the terror that confronts us at the turning in
the road. Right now.

But an ethnopoetics stripped of Olson's intensities, say, stripped of the culture-of-the-individual & the yearning to "put an end to nation," "to culture," "... to divisions of all sorts," would leave us only with the terror. With the brightness turned aside.

The ethnopoetics that I knew was, first & last, the work of poets. Of a certain kind of poet.

As such its mission was subversive, questioning the imperium even while growing out of it. Transforming.

It was the work of individuals who found in multiplicity the cure for that conformity of thought, of spirit, that generality that robs us of our moments. That denies them to the world at large.

A play between that otherness inside me & the identities imposed from

[It is not ethnopoetics as a course of study — however much we wanted it — but as a course of action.]

"I" is an "other," then; becomes a world of others.

It is a process of becoming. A collaging self. Is infinite & contradictory. It is "I" and "not-I."

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I is infinite. I contains multitudes."

Said Rimbaud/Whitman at the very start.

It is from where we are, the basis still of any ethnopoetics worth the struggle.
For those for whom it happens, the world is open, & the mind (forever empty) is forever full.

There is no turning back, I meant to say.

Here the millennium demands it.

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