I had an interesting interaction on Twitter with poet and spoken word performer Anis Mojgani today.
He tweeted, “Just realized my new favorite poems were translated by Howard Norman, whose book I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place I been DYING to read.” On asking him which of those poems were his favourite, he replied with a link to the some of the poems of Jacob Nibenegenesabe.
Now, these poems are from the book The Wishing Bone Cycle: Narrative Poems from the Swampy Cree Indians, which I absolutely must get my hands on. They are simply stunning examples of narrative poetry, full of whimsy and beauty and no small measure of mischievous joy. These stories are part of the “trickster cycle” narrative tradition, emphasising improbably magical pranks or situations, not unlike the kind you’re likely to find in modern magical realism.
The poem that hit me hardest (from the above link) is simply stunning:
There was an old woman I wished up.
She was the wife
of an old pond.
You could watch her swim in her husband
if you were
in the hiding bushes.
She spoke to him by the way she swam
One time in their lives there was no rain
and the sun began making the pond smaller.
Soon the sun took the whole pond!
For many nights the old woman slept
near the hole where her husband once lived.
Then, one night, a storm came
but in the morning there still was no water
in her husband’s old house.
So she set out on a journey to find her husband
and followed the puddles on the ground
which were the storm’s footprints.
She followed them for many miles.
Finally she came upon her husband
sitting in a hole. But he was in the wrong hole!
So the old woman brought her husband home
little by little in her hands.
You could have seen him come home
if you were
in the hiding bushes.
I was particularly struck by the wishing premise, I think, because only the second spoken word poem I ever wrote had a similar premise. I wished we needed hand-cranks to breathe, so we wouldn’t move through life on cruise-control. And if you ever lost your breath, someone else could you give an extra push, and you’d be okay. I wished we swam in the clouds and wore shirts of lightning and skirts of storm. I wished there were no walls, only doors, so the ceiling would forever be made of stars. I wished we didn’t hoard all our secrets, didn’t let them line our skin with ink and bury our eyes. I wished, most of all, that the dead could still speak just so I could hear my grandma sing one more time and in turn, I wished the dead could still hear, just so I could tell her, I’m still here.
That was the gist of it, anyway. Its power lay in its simplicity and the rhythm of repetition, each stanza containing the beats of ‘I wish’ and ‘that way’, to build momentum. It was this poem that actually made me fall in love with Spoken Word, and the power of using your voice. Of course, these Native American poems are examples of oral storytelling at its best, and the key difference is that my wishes were presented as whimsical hypotheticals, and theirs were a fabled reality. Here’s another, from Stopping Off Place:
Isn’t that fucking incredible? Good gods. My old spirit already has its shoes on. That line punched me right in the soul.
So I decided to try my own, just for fun, and because I really find these to be utterly wonderful.
What Comes to Roost
One time I thought I was clever
so I wished for wishingbones –
there had to be many I reckoned
with Old Nan turning the river
into a flock of birds
and Uncle Joe wishing
trees into women
(which didn’t work so well,
what with them being so tall
and hungry and wild) and damn near
everybody telling stories
and making change. So I said
I want all the wishingbones
in all the world
and next thing I saw was an ocean
of skeleton reefs, sharp-edged like
and not all white, and not all small
and I went down in there and soon
had cuts all along my arms and feet
and face, and the Sun was red
and I didn’t know up from down
or side from side
And all the bones from round the world
stuck their fingers in me and peeled
my skin back and my meat too
until at last, I had all the wishingbones
there beneath Father Sky’s watchful eye
and you know what I wished for then?
To not have any of it, to put it all back
and be home with my feet planted
solidly in sweet, muddy ground, not stuck
like some pig on the ends of everyone’s
wishes. Well, you know it turned out
all right, I’m here telling it to you
but I shoulda known better than
to wish so hard.
Now my feet are buried here,
and I’m growed up big and tall
and out the house. It’s not so bad
you know, thanks to Uncle Joe!
There’s some women to sing to,
whose songs I can hear on the wind
and my hands are always open
for wings to take their rest.