La voix des morts: poésie et chamanisme

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 1:15 PM
Prepared as a talk for the Colloquium “Écriture et chamanisme: l’efficience de la parole,”
Le Festival international de littérature de Montréal, September 22-23, 2005

The title of the colloquium is Écriture et chamanisme, & here, it seems to me, we have an immediate paradox or contradiction, nothing major but something that allows me a point of departure for what I want to say. If we are talking about shamanism as such, rather than our responses to it, it seems clear that the poetry, the shaped & efficacious language of the shamans, largely exists without writing, something apart from literature in the narrow sense. The force of the shaman is in voice & gesture, & if he or she becomes a model for poets in our own time & place, it is from a concern with forms of languaging (again, of voice & gesture) that are both before writing & beyond it. It is with a sense too that the language of what we think of as poetry may be a conduit that can lead us into forms of experience that were once the shaman’s domain & in parts of the world still remain so.

My own discovery of the shaman & of shamanism goes back a half century or more. I can’t recall when I first heard the word sheyman/shahman, but it was sometime before I came on it in the literature & particularly in Mircea Eliade’s great work, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. I had been searching intensively for what I came to recognize as extraordinary forms of language art in the traditions of people whom we were still characterizing at that time as « primitive » (or « primitive & archaic » in Eliade’s termininology). At the same time I was finding – in the work of many of my contemporaries (myself included) & in that of our acknowledged predecesors as well – processes of composition & performance that seemed experimental in our own time but with long histories elsewhere.

My first assay in that direction was a series of New York readings in which I & a group of fellow poets (David Antin, Jackson Mac Low, Rochelle Owens) performed translations that I had been gathering of poems from (largely) tribal & oral sources. Our performance together – in connection with the New York & international avant-garde – was already a statement of kinship with the older work. Soon after I was given the chance to assemble this & related work in a book – an assemblage presented under the title Technicians of the Sacred. That title of course was taken from Eliade’s description of traditional shamans whose practice, he told us, centered on what he called « techniques of the sacred. » What I then did, almost impulsively, was to juxtapose those techniques & the resultant poetry with the modes & means that had come into our own poetry, largely the works & lives of several generations of experimental modernists.

In doing this I tried very hard to avoid claims of shamanship – certainly not for myself – although I recognized the strivings of a number of poets & other artists that bore more than a passing resemblance to the activities of shamans in traditional cultures. What I particularly wanted to avoid was any pretense to healing or to extraterrestrial or supernatural powers, while welcoming dreams & hallucinations as a part – though only a part – of our repertory as poets & artists. My more matter-of-fact concern was with the twists & turns of language (also of sound & gesture) as evidenced among the shamans – how theirs resembled our own workings, or went beyond them, & how they were positoned within their own times & places, their own societies & epochs – notably different in that sense from the life around us.

[But here let me pause & correct myself a little. There is of course poetry & other language work in traditional [oral/preliterate] cultures that can’t be attributed to shamans or shamanism. Even so I felt justified in constructing an idea of the shaman as protopoet & a dominant voice in just those cultures. I also was aware of the persistence of what I took to be shamanic modes in literary poetries that predated experimental modernism as such: ideas of inspiration (the muse as indwelling), song & voice as precedent to writing, dreams & visions, elegies & death-poems, reminding us (metaphorically) of the shaman’s function as psychopomp & particularly strong in romantic & postromantic poetry. Finally I was also aware of forms of magical writing & mark-making (drawing) that were a part of the repertoire of shamans & other traditional practitioners.]

When I began Technicians of the Sacred I was familiar with poets before me – Tzara & Cendrars among the better known – who had turned to what was then called the « primitive » in much the way that painters & others had done for the visual arts. What seemed to me lacking were truly viable texts – readable & performable -- in contemporary translation – this by contrast to the deceptive immediacy of the sculpture & music that had already come to light. I wanted both to address that lack & to extend the field of what we could see or read as poetry by viewing the primitive & archaic in the context of new forms of poetry that modernism & postmodernism had independently developed. I also found in the accounts of shamanism by Eliade & others – wherever I looked in fact – a figure so immersed in elaborate language practices that I could not help addressing him or her by the designation of « proto-poet. »

The « poetics of shamanism, » as I began to set it out & to some degree construct it, offered a first connection to Rimbaud’s (re)discovery of the poet as a voyant who both « saw » & came to his « seeing » through a « derangement of the senses » that resembled the shaman’s initiatory [dream] journey. The analogues (post-Rimbaud) to shamanism seemed clear & numerous, told & retold wherever I looked for them – as when Knud Rasmussen wrote of the Iglulik Eskimos : « The young aspirant, when applying to a shaman, should always use the following formula : ‘ I come to you because I desire to see, ‘ » & the Copper Eskimo word for shaman-songman : « elik : one who has eyes. »

With sight came language & with vision, song. These connections in shamanic cultures are almost universal, as when Clark Wissler nearly a century ago (1912) wrote of the Blackfoot Indians: « All Blackfoot songs, except those learned from other tribes, are said to have been obtained through dreams or visions. » In a personal account that I cited in Technicians of the Sacred, the Gitksan Indian Isaac Tens, before he became a shaman, was stricken uncsonscious by the apparition of an owl & woke up after being treated by a pair of older shamans, to find his flesh « boiling » & his body « quivering. » « While I remained in this state, » he said, « I began to sing. A chant was coming out of me without my being able to do anything to stop it. Many things appeared to me presently : huge birds & other animals. ... These were visible only to me, not to the others in my house. Such visions happen when a man is about to become a shaman; they occur of their own accord. The songs force themselves out complete without any attempt to compose them. But I learned & memorized those songs by repeating them. »

The vision & song [dream & song] continuum in which vision gives rise to song – or, conversely, where song acts to stimulate vision – is crucial to the idea of the shaman as a proto-poet. Here the shaman appears as the master of both rhythm & language, but the mastery of language goes further. For the Huichol Indians on their peyote journey, the makiritare (shaman) dreams & constructs a new vocabulary of opposites & a new series of names for all the peyoteros – an act of invention & rebirth. This process of language construction turns up in many cultures & reminds us of language experiments (language play) in our own time – some with a mystical/spiritual underpinning & some without, but all clearly in the domain of what we know as poetry.

A still more impressive example of a shamanic relation to poetry & language comes from the Mazatec (Mexican) shamaness María Sabina. A well-known connection exists between the use of psychotropic plants & the flow of language that results for the shaman practitioner. In the case of María Sabina, who further asserts that she « cures with language, » the opening takes the form of a great Book that reveals itself to her in her initiatory vision & reappears in her visions thereafter:

On the Principal Ones' table a book appeared, an open book that went on growing until it was the size of a person. In its pages there were letters. It was a white book, so white it was resplendent. One of the Principal Ones spoke to me & said: "María Sabina, this is the Book of Wisdom. It is the Book of Language. Everything that is written in it is for you. The Book is yours, take it so that you can work," I exclaimed with emotion: "That is for me. I receive it."

And she did & was thereafter a woman of language -- what we would dare to translate, by a comparison to those most deeply into it among us, as "poet."

[Reads a passage from María Sabina’s chants.]

The extent of the vision & poetry continuum is perhaps best shown, at least in my reading of it, in a work that I imagine is familiar to many of us, the great Lakota Indian autobiography, Black Elk Speaks, as fashioned in English by the Nebraska poet John Neihardt. There the “great vision” of the adolescent Black Elk – itself a dream work or construction of a considerable magnitude – is experienced like most shamanic imitations during a period of personal crisis & a Rimbaud-like “derangement of the senses.” The result however is not only a succession of dream songs and visions but an extraordinarily elaborate reenactment of Black Elk’s extraordinarily elaborate vision – a newly created ceremony he calls “The Horse Dance.” At its height the dream performance calls up images from Buffalo Bill’s wild west circus (in which Black Elk also participated) or brings to mind, if we want the comparison, the most elaborate of our latterday happenings & performance art events. But the Horse Dance is not only more elaborate – with its massed formations of riders & dancers, & with Black Elk himself on horseback in the center – it is an enactment of a vision that will lead to future visions & a speculation as well on the world it tries to capture.

A further point to be noted here & elsewhere is a kind of shamanic denial or rejection of the concept of authorship. The songs & events come from elsewhere & gain their authenticity through a relation to their sources – no anxiety of influence here, but almost always with a welcoming of in-flow & the sense of a don or a donné, of a gift or something given. Again it is in the words of María Sabina that I find this most clearly expressed – here speaking of the psilocybin mushrooms that bring the songs to her:

Language belongs to the saint children. They speak & I have the power to translate. If I say that I am the little woman of the Book, that means that a Little-One-Who-Springs-Forth is a woman & that she is the little woman of the Book. In that way, during the vigil, I turn into a
mushroom — little woman — of the Book . . . If I am on the aquatic shore, I say:

I am a woman who is standing in the sand . . .

Because wisdom comes from the place where the sand is born

That the poet is a conduit for other voices & personalities is – for me at least – a concept that lies at the heart of my poetics. “Je est un autre” wrote Rimbaud, & John Keats wrote wonderfully of the “chameleon poet … [who] has no identity … [but] is continually in for, & filling, some other body. … He is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures.” At its most bardic & assertive, I find the idea in Whitman, where he sets out to write a “song of myself” that will simultaneously contain as many selves & voices as his words can conjure – voices at all levels of being for whom his own can serve as a conduit. The resultant declaration, which I’ve often cited, is for me both personal & shamanic:

Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners & slaves,
Voices of the diseas’d & despairing & of thieves & dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation & accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars, & of wombs & of the
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.

I recognize in the voice of old Whitman & in the others I’ve cited some vestiges of our lost shamanism. In the way he lays it out there is a strong sense, for me at least, that he is speaking for the living & the dead together – all life that has ever been or ever will be. It is no small matter that the presence of the dead informs both the work of the shaman as a psychopomp & the poet in one of his still persistent functions and by every means possible. In the course of preparing our conference someone attached to the title of my talk the phrase: la voix des morts. I don’t remember choosing this myself or, if I did, it may have been someone or something else, something uncanny, that was guiding me.

I am a poet to be sure but otherwise have no claim & want no claim to shamanism. Yet a working principal of my poetry has also been to open up to voices other than my own, to bring the present & the past, the living & the dead, together in a congeries of dialects & voices. To do this I use a variety of techniques – appropriation, collage, translation, systematic chance – to write through [or by means of] other voices or to let them write or speak through mine. There are times, however, when something happens that goes beyond technique – dreaming, for example, which brings me images for poetry (like Yeats’s metaphors) over which I don’t have or don’t seem to have control. This is the experience of all of us – not just the prerogative of the shaman or the poet -- if only we choose to remember or to write it down. It is also the place where we come up against the dead whose presence in a dream sometimes fills us with fear, sometimes with longing, more often with regret.

(Or do I speak only for myself here?)

Shamanism is possession. And there are times in the search for poetry that we feel ourselves possessed or overcome by spirits other than our own. In my own life as a poet one event like this stands out beyond all others. I have no desire, really, to speak of this in mystical or shamanic terms but to give you a straightforward account of what I experienced & of the poems that followed. The occasion was a first trip to Poland in 1987 & to the small town, Ostrow-Mazowiecka, sixty miles northeast of Warsaw, from which my parents had come to America in 1920. I had already written, by all means (techniques) at my disposal, a book of poems or anti-poems called Poland/1931, but I had never been to Poland. In the aftermath of that visit & in the book that resulted both from the event & from a great deal of research to flesh it out, I wrote the following.

[From the Pre-Face to the poem called Khurbn]: The town [Ostrow-Mazowiecka] was still there & the street, Miodowa (meaning "honey"), where my father's parents had a bakery. I hadn't realized that the town was only fifteen miles from Treblinka, but when we went there (as we had to), there was only an empty field & the thousands of large stones that make up the memorial. We were the only ones there except for a group of three people--another family perhaps--who seemed to be picnicking at the side. This was in sharp contrast to the crowds of tourists at Auschwitz (Oswiecim / Oshvietsim ) & to the fullness of the other Poland I had once imagined. The absence of the living seemed to create a vacuum in which the dead--the dibbiks who had died before their time--were free to speak. It wasn't the first time that I thought of poetry as the language of the dead, but never so powerfully as now. Those in my own family had died without a trace--with one exception: an uncle who had gone to the woods with a group of Jewish partisans & who, when he heard that his wife & children were murdered at Treblinka, drank himself blind in a deserted cellar & blew his brains out. That, anyway, was how the story had come back to us, a long time before I had ever heard a word like holocaust. It was a word with which I never felt comfortable: too Christian & too beautiful, too much smacking of a "sacrifice" I didn't & still don't understand. The word with which we spoke of it was the Yiddish-Hebrew word, khurbn [khurban], & it was this word that was with me all the time we stayed in Poland. When I was writing Poland/1931
, at a great distance from the place, I decided deliberately that that was not to be a poem about the "holocaust." There was a reason for that, I think, as there is now for allowing my uncle's khurbn to speak through me. The poems that I first began to hear at Treblinka are the clearest message I have ever gotten about why I write poetry. They are an answer also to the proposition--raised by Adorno & others -- that poetry cannot or should not be written after Auschwitz. Our search since then has been for the origins of poetry, not only as a willful desire to wipe the slate clean but as a recognition of those other voices & the scraps of poems they left behind them in the mud.

I will end my presentation by reading a poem from the sequence called Khurbn.

[Reads “Dibbukim” (Dibbiks).]

More of Khurbn will be found in my last book from New Directions: Triptych: Poland/1931, Khurbn, The Burning Babe, published in 2007. The earlier discourse on shamanism goes back to Technicians of the Sacred (1968), still in print.

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