Sacred Language: The Nature of Supernatural Discourse in Lakota (Powers)
William Powers’ book, though a scholarly anthropological work, engages the poet and the literary theorist as well. The author, who is fluent in Lakota, had, at the time of the book’s publication, spent thirty-six years in field work on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
His primary focus is the special language used for sacred discourse, both among the group’s spiritual leaders and between an individual “medicine man” and supernatural entities. (The term may sound out-dated, but it seems it is a direct translation from Lakota.) Other Lakota maintain that the language of such utterances is wholly unintelligible to them, though this is not literally true. Reaching the spirit realm is certainly an ambitious task for words, but even the secular poet generally strives for some level of discourse set apart, lexically, rhythmically, and formally from other uses of language. He covers as well the extreme case of verses in vocables without any ordinary words, rather like scat singing or Dada sound poetry.
Powers provides a good number of song texts to demonstrate the character of this poetry, though the words seem weak isolated from the performance situation. In addition he comments on the significance of numerological patterns to the community and on a variety of other fascinating topics, among them the complex and dynamic interplay between Christian and indigenous religious thought, the relationship of ritual to song, and the role of the cross-dressers often (misleadingly) called berdaches. His exposition of each of these topics is supported by precise and convincing evidence. He is explicit about his debts to Lévy-Bruhl, often disregarded now, on the one hand and the still-fashionable Lévi-Strauss on the other.
Cloud Gate Song (Zhang Ji, trans. Jonathan Chaves)
Impressed as are many other Westerners with the great Tang Dynasty Buddhist poets, I read with interest Chaves’ versions of this Confucian, the first book-length presentation of the poet in a European language. Much of the poetic sensibility is familiar: the pleasure in retirement, in observation of nature, and in friends. Here the lens is more worldly, less mystical, than in the Buddhist Wang Wei, for instance. Zhang was known for “Music Bureau” poems mimicking folk forms which purport to express popular sentiments. A good number of poems comment on contemporary history, in particular the wars resulting from Tibetan incursions.
Chaves’ book is valuable not merely because it allows a glimpse of a significant Chinese poet. His introductory remarks defend his choice here to preserve the rhyme schemes of the original texts in his translations. He ably discusses the issue in general, noting the overwhelming choice of free verse among European translators of Chinese in spite of the fact that, as he notes, all classic Chinese poetry is rhymed. His thoughtful work should be welcomed by all who love Chinese poetry, even those who lack Chaves’ apparent sympathy for the New Formalists among American poets.
(Zhang Ji, the Tang Dynasty poet from Jiangnan whose work Chaves translated, should not be confused with the poet of the same name from Hubei who lived a few decades earlier.)
Ca Dao Viet Nam (trans. Balaban)
John Balaban did alternative service in Vietnam and later returned to collect the folk songs of the countryside. He provides an adequate introduction to place his texts in context, but the reader is left wanting far more literary and anthropological information as well as notes on the individual songs. As it is, Balaban is a competent poet in English who provides a heterogeneous collection of material of a sort that had not at the time been published even in Vietnam. His simple, easy, direct language seems appropriate for a book whose range encompasses the proverbial saying, the wistful lament, the evocative image, the love-note, and a variety of other sorts of utterance. Readable though he is, I feel I have little sense of the style of the originals or the characteristics of the genre. Creditable as Balaban’s story is, very likely only a specialist scholar could provide such information. Still, one can only thank him for going out into the villages in the midst of war to preserve an art threatened by modern mass media even more than by armed conflict. It seems almost a golden age when every laborer had a favorite poem.