Heriberto Yépez: Re-Reading María Sabina

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 7:19 AM

[Heriberto Yépez is a Mexican poet, translator and essayist, whose writing has been gaining recognition on both sides of the north-south divide. Working from a home base in Tijuana, B.C., he is the author of numerous books in Spanish, and some of his pieces in English have appeared in American magazines like Tripwire, Shark, XCP, and Chain. The essay that follows was written shortly after the appearance of María Sabina Selections in the Poets for the Millennium series (University of California Press, 2003) and was first published by me in Ubuweb Ethnopoetics (on line). Its republication here brings it into the orbit of Poems and Poetics, where it can be read in conjunction, say, with Henry Munn’s “The Uniqueness of María Sabina” and related writings. (J.R.)]


The UC Press just released María Sabina: Selections (2003), edited by Jerome Rothenberg. I have been a reader of the Sabina world for some time now, but after getting to know this new volume –the best single compilation on her world that I know of – I immediately wonder what other interpretations of her work could appear in Mexico or the U.S. This volume is a gathering of points of view that invites us to start a re-reading of her practice. I take books as provocations, and I think this book should be read that way.

The book includes a very insightful essay by Henry Munn, which gives some hints into some of the cultural meanings of the artifacts enlisted by Sabina in her chants. I think Munn’s piece is the decisive one, apart from the "The Life" which occupies pages 3-79 of the book.

There are also pieces by Anne Waldman (a revision of her essay included before in Fast Speaking Woman), texts by Álvaro Estrada, Pavlovna/Wasson, Rothenberg, Gregorio Regino and an account of the last days of Sabina written by Homero Aridjis (which, btw, I co-translated into English for this assemblage).

Sabina is associated with the counter-culture poetic scenes. That’s one of the reasons why the Mexican mainstream-lit (the Mexican ‘Republics of Letters’ as O. Paz called it) hasn’t paid much attention to her: they see her as an interesting ethnographic phenomenon but not as a poet or verbal artist. And the association with the sixties atmosphere is something Mexican writers don’t want anymore –something which I think they share with contemporary American writers, and so returning to Sabina is something which is risky in terms of literary (little-)politics. Sabina = icon of hippie culture. "Indigenismo".

So I wonder what do Language and post-LangPo writers make of shamanism and María Sabina in particular? Can they create a new approach to her work and shamanism in general -- in relation to the one produced by anthropology or ethnopoetics?


From my side I have a few comments on current hegemonic Mexican ideas on Sabina, which, I think, derive mainly by whom else but dear Mr. Paz.

In his piece in María Sabina: Selections, Álvaro Estrada –Sabina’s interviewer and translator– comments on the opinion Paz gave after the Sabina oral-biography project:

"On finishing the text I polished it various times before sending it to Gordon Wasson, whom I had met in Mexico City in 1975, and to whom I had promised to send it. (Our initial meeting was in the house of Henry Munn.) Wasson then asked the Mexican poet Octavio Paz for his opinion of the manuscript. Paz expressed his appreciation for the work: he said it was a document with anthropological and human value. Notwithstanding, he suggested that the author eliminate terms and words that didn’t seem in accord with the personality of María Sabina, both in the text and in the translation of the chants. He suggested greater simplicity in the words, and in a letter to Wasson, he said that one ought to give the literal meaning of the shaman’s words without it mattering whether the reader understood them or not".

Is it a coincidence Paz didn’t mention anything about the literary / poetic value of her work, and only mentions her "anthropological" and "human" value? I don’t think so.

I think Paz was denying Sabina’s poetic stature, because he saw her as a sorcerer (in an essay on Breton he describes her as an "hechicera") and just a traditional healer, and not as a verbal artist as well. I think Paz thought Sabina’s poetry lacked the signs of "modernity" or structural complexity. He didn’t look carefully.

Paz's suggestions on eliminating terms and words could be a sign of that. If he saw Sabina as simply a traditional healer, his ideas on her personality were certainly wrong, so his suggestions could be erasing key notions and simplifying them in both the Spanish translation and, subsequently, in the English version. But that’s something which only Estrada could know.

In case Estrada accepted those suggestions, in my opinion he made a mistake, whatever they were, simply because Paz had no real insight into Sabina’s world and wasn’t particularly sympathetic to her as a poet, which she clearly was, even though Paz wouldn’t acknowledge her as one.

Estrada himself is suggesting the firsts drafts of his translation show a more complex Sabina. So I hope one day we can see the first versions of the bio and the chants, or have a second translation of them directly from the Mazatec transcripts.
Who knew Sabina more, Estrada or Paz? I don’t think Paz knew her at all. But Paz's cultural importance could be the reason why Estrada followed his suggestions. But if Paz didn’t consider Sabina a poet and didn’t really know her how could he know what was and what wasn’t in accordance with her ‘personality’?


Sabina's poetic praxis consisted in a re-reading –not "improvising" (whatever that means)– of a "book": the tradition of Mazatec language. Sabina is quoting. Her chants are a reorganization and a series of personal add-ups, a rewriting of prior quotes and linguistic-patterns. Sabina’s chants are not a practice of spontaneous creation but of reappropriation.

In his key piece ("The Uniqueness of María Sabina") Henry Munn explains how Sabina inherited from her culture a repertory of themes and motifs on which she, as other shamans, based her own individual variations. We cannot forget this if we really want to understand her verbal production.

What this means is that Sabina was a wise-one not because she ate mushrooms and got into trips, but because she dominated a dynamical dictionary of meanings.
She re-produced those meanings in the ceremonies; she rewrote that dynamical dictionary throughout her life. She was trying to revolutionize the praxis. That’s why she even allowed foreigners to participate. She was trying to go beyond. She wanted to open the book. Maybe trying to open the book too much was the reason why her own book fell apart.

Understanding her praxis consisted in quoting means to reestablish the context. Understanding the recontextualization practice she made. Understanding that time was her page. Her chants are the remaking of a cultural history. She was a woman working very consciously in the field of socio-metaphysics.

When she calls herself, let’s say, "opossum-woman" she is not referring to the animal but to a string of myths. Munn (using as sources the books of Carlos Incháustegui) synthesizes how the opossum represents for Mazatecs the power to play dead and gain invulnerability, the task of stealing fire -- which is key because stealing fire creates "culture." So if at first "opossum-woman" can bring images of Sabina identifying with "nature," reading her more carefully brings us to the fact that Sabina's chants are an interweaving of artificial meanings and not an animistic exercise or "flow-of-words" or a simple litany of plants, objects and characters. From the Moon to the Water, Sabina quotes cultural artifacts. Signs-with-histories. She re-constructs the order of words, meanings, contexts, subjects, cultures and things.

When reading

I am opossum-woman

we should read

I am the interplay of nature and culture-woman.
I am the performance-of-death-woman.
I am the recasting-of-myths-woman.
I am the keeper-and-changer-of-the-meanings-of-‘opossum’-woman

Our traditional understanding of Sabina (Paz included) falls very short of what she was really doing. Words for her are a therapeutic instrument and a way to depict visions, but also a self-conscious flesh that remakes and investigates prior texts.

There’s nothing spontaneous, naïve, automatic or unconscious in María Sabina’s poetic praxis. Sabina is not a poet of the unconscious but of self-consciousness itself, a poet of cultural rereading and rewriting.

Sabina represents a critique on those who believe (like Paz and most mainstream poets) that poetry is a voice that comes from nowhere, "inspiration" or the unmediated unconscious, an ahistoric otherness, those who consider poetry is an individualistic practice by essence or solitary compromise. She challenges those who find the idea of having just a single identity possible, of those who try to produce a voice without a context, an impossible purity.

But Sabina's is also a critique on those who believe there can be radical experimentation without healing or see the poet as a sophisticated specialist whose social role is just writing, those who act in the mere sphere of literature and who don’t break up the boundaries that separate the different domains of their own culture. "Poets’" without radical wisdom, wisdom that comes from the roots; "poets" who don’t go to the roots of society, to cure ignorance, sickness, injustice, and poverty.

Sabina was without a doubt a poet. She was not only a poet, but more importantly poetry’s wholeness. Her activity’s goal was totality. She reached for the impossible. Searching for a book-beyond-the-book. Having a new poetic body. Breaking the differences between writing, reading, chanting, talking, dancing, and silence. Removing pain from others. Fighting for the survival of a great culture. Investigating sounds, meanings and languages. Increasing wisdom. Teaching. Being radically self-critical, recognizing when one fails, when one is dying.

Being a writer is easier.

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