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, May 11, 2011

From "Shaking the Pumpkin Revisited: A Range of Poems from the Indian Americas"

[From a longer selection scheduled for publication, with accompanying commentaries, in Poetry International, San Diego State University, for which further information will be available at
Additional excerpts from Shaking the Pumpkin have appeared earlier on Poems and Poetics.]


In the aftermath of Technicians of the Sacred (1968) the next step I took toward the construction of an experimental ethnopoetics was an assemblage of traditional works and commentaries thereon focused entirely on one of the world’s still surviving and incredibly diverse “deep cultures.” The resultant work, Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas, was published by Doubleday Anchor in 1972 and in revised versions by Alfred van der Marck Editions (1986) and the University of New Mexico Press (1991). As with Technicians I drew from a wide range of previously published materials, supplemented in this instance by direct translations of my own and by those of later and very significant translators such as Dennis Tedlock and Howard Norman. I also continued to be freed by the opening of poetry among us to expand the range of what we saw as poetry elsewhere including sound works, visual works, and event and performance pieces on the model of contemporary happenings and performance art. My own translations – “total” and otherwise – from Seneca (with songmaker and ritual performer Richard Johnny John) and from Navajo (through the good offices of ethnomusicologist David McAllester) were also first presented here, and the commentaries, much like those in Technicians, provided analogues to other primal cultures and to the work of contemporary avantgardists. In the process I made no pretense about my own connection to the Indian nations in question, though for a period of a decade and more it was far from trivial, and my next ethnopoetic assemblage, A Big Jewish Book (later republished as Exiled in the Word) was in fact an exploration of ancestral sources of my own “in a world of Jewish mystics, thieves, and madmen.”

After three decades in print the life of Shaking the Pumpkin came to a natural closure several years ago, though a revised and expanded version has remained a tempting possibility since then. The following excerpts, no longer easily accessible, will give some sense of the range of work in this and other of our ethnopoetic gatherings – part of a process of composition that I’ve spoken of elsewhere as “othering” and that the great Brazilian avantgardist Haroldo de Campos has aptly termed “transcreation.” Such approaches, as we view them, have appeared to us not as a distortion or falsification of the original work but as the most poetic – and therefore the most honest way – to bring it forward. (J.R.)

Uitoto Indian (Colombia)
Genesis I


In the beginning the word gave origin to the father.


A phantasm, nothing else existed in the beginning: the Father touched an illusion, he grasped something mysterious. Nothing existed. Through the agency of a dream our Father Nai-mu-ena kept the mirage to his body, and he pondered long and thought deeply.

Nothing existed, not even a stick to support the vision: our Father attached the illusion to the thread of a dream and kept it by the aid of his breath. He sounded to reach the bottom of the appearance, but there was nothing. Nothing existed.

Then the Father again investigated the bottom of the mystery. He tied the empty illusion to the dream thread and pressed the magical substance upon it. Then by the aid of his dream he held it like a wisp of raw cotton.

Then he seized the mirage bottom and stamped upon it repeatedly, sitting down at last on his dreamed earth.

The earth phantasm was his now, and he spat out saliva repeatedly so that the forests might grow. Then he lay down on his earth and covered it with the roof of heaven. As he was the owner of the earth he placed above it the blue and the white sky.

Thereupon Rafu-emas, the man-who-has-the-narratives, sitting at the base of the sky, pondered and he created this story so that we might listen to it here upon earth.

Translation after K.T. Preuss, Die Religion und Mythologie der Uitoto (1921)

Sweat-House Ritual No.1

listen old man listen
you rock listen
old man listen
listen didn't i teach all their children
to follow me listen
listen unmoving time-without-end listen
you old man sitting there listen
on the roads where all the winds come rushing
at the heart of the winds where you're sitting listen
old man listen
listen there's short grasses growing all over you listen
you're sitting there living inside them listen
listen i mean you're sitting there covered with birdshit listen
head’s rimmed with soft feathers of birds listen
old man listen
you standing there next in command listen
listen you water listen
you water that keeps on flowing
from time out of mind listen
listen the children have fed off you
no one’s come on our secret
the children go mad for your touch listen
listen standing like somebody's house listen
just like somewhere to live listen
you great animal listen
listen you making a covering over us listen
saying let the thoughts of those children live with me
and let them love me listen
listen you tent-frame listen
you standing with back bent you over us
stooping your shoulders you bending over us
you really standing
you saying thus shall my little ones speak of me
you brushing the hair back from your forehead listen
the hair of your head
the grass growing over you
you with your hair turning white listen
the hair growing over your head listen
o you roads the children will be walking on listen
all the ways they'll run to be safe listen
they'll escape their shoulders bending with age where they walk
walking where others have walked
their hands shading their brows
while they walk and are old listen
because they're wanting to share in your strength listen
the children want to be close by your side listen
walking listen
be very old and listen

 English working by Jerome Rothenberg, from Alice Fletcher and Francis LaFlesche
Luiseño (California)
Before They Made Things Be Alive They Spoke
by Lucario Cuevish
Earth woman lying flat her feet were to the north her head was to the South sky brother sitting on her right hand side he said Yes sister you must Tell me who you are she answered I am Tomaiyowit she asked him Who Are you? He answered I am Tukmit. Then she said:

I stretch out flat to the Horizon.
I shake I make a noise like thunder.
I am Earthquake.
I am round and roll around.
I vanish and return.

Then Tukmit said:

I arch above you like a lid.
I deck you like a hat.
I go up high and higher.
I am death I gulp it in one bite.
I grab men from the east andscatter them.
My name is Death.

Then they made things be alive.

 -- English working by Jerome Rothenberg, after Constance G. DuBois

A Song from Red Ant Way

The red young men under the ground
decorated with red wheels
and decorated with red feathers
at the center of the cone-shaped house
I gave them a beautiful red stone—
when someone does the same for me
I'll walk the earth

The black young women under the ground
decorated with black wheels
and decorated with black feathers
at the center of the flat-topped house
I gave them an abalone shell—
when someone does the same for me
I'll walk the earth

From deep under the earth they're starting off
the old men under the earth are starting off
they're decorated with red wheels and starting off
at the center of the cone-shaped house they're starting off
because I gave them a beautiful red stone they're starting off
when someone does the same for me I'll walk the earth like them
     and starting off

On the red road and on the road they're starting off
The black old women under the earth are starting off
they're decorated with black wheels and starting off
decorated with black feathers and starting off
at the center of the flat-topped house they're starting off
because I gave them an abalone shell they're starting off
when someone does the same for me I'll walk the earth like them
     and starting off
from deep under the earth they're starting off

—English working by Jerome Rothenberg, after Harry Hoijer

From Flower World Variations: Song of a Dead Man

I do not want these flowers
                  but the flowers
want to move
        I do not want these flowers
but the flowers
        want to move
                I do not want these flowers
        but the flowers
                want to move
out in the flower world
        the dawn
                 over a road of flowers
I do not want these flowers
                but the flowers
want to move
        I do not want these flowers
but the flowers
        the flowers
                want to move

—English version by Jerome Rothenberg

Spyglass Conversations

(A girl looking through a spyglass says)
You cannot see mountains and valleys in the clouds,
I see the clouds as big as trees.
When I look far away I see the clouds like cliffs of high, gray rocks.
I see a cloud that looks like a coconut tree.
The clouds come up and come up in different shapes.
There are clouds that look like breakers,
You don't see the colors and shapes of the clouds,
I see them like people moving and bending, they come up just like people.
There are clouds like many people walking.
I see them every time I look out to sea with the glass.
Sometimes a cloud comes up like a ghost, and sometimes like a ship.
I look far off through the glass and see everything.
I see a cloud that looks like a sea horse, a wild sea horse that lives in the
I see a cloud like a deer with branching horns.

(The boy beside her says)
You don't see that at all.

(But the girl says)
From the time I was a child I didn't think I would see such things as
If I don't look through the glass I can't see them.
Now I find out the different things the clouds make.
Do you want to see them too?

(The boy says)
All right. I want to see them too. (He looks through the glass.)
Now I see funny things.

(The girl says)
Now you see all those funny things.

(Then the boy says to a younger girl)
You want to see them too?

(But she says)
I'm too young.

(The boy says to the older girl)
Look down into the water with the glass.

(The older girl says)
Now I see strange things under the water.
I see things moving around as though they were live animals.
I see things there that look like little bugs – many strange animals under the sea.

Translation by Frances Densmore

Navajo Animal Songs


Chipmunk can't drag it along
can't drag it along

Chipmunk holds back his ears


Chipmunk was standing
jerking his feet
with stripes
he's a very short chipmunk


Mole makes his pole redhot
Says: I'll shove it up your ass
Says: feel how it shakes your belly


Wildcat was walking
He ran down here
He got his feet in the water
He farted
Wow, wow! says Wildcat


A turkey is dancing near the rocks
shoves out his pelvis
woops-a-daisy we all go crazy


Big Rabbit goes to see his baby
pissing all around him


Pinionjay shits pebbles
now he's empty

English versions by Jerome Rothenberg, after David McAllester

1 comment:

WAS said...

This is truly rare and wonderful stuff. I especially like the Uitoto Genesis - that the illusory something is a sounding of the nothing is an altogether new concept to me. I had read some of Frances Densmore's translations at the behest of Kenneth Rexroth, but when I went to find more I found there was little to post.

So many sublime things on your site, I can't begin to comment. Not only does it get me away from the internet poetics of the likes of Sillyman and Latta, it changes my life. This will go on my blogroll for sure. Thanks!