Lately, words have been the best gifts. For my Birthday in January, my father gave me a collection of poems. The self-proclaimed “Unknown Poet” (a.k.a. dad) wanted to share a reference he used many years ago. The gift was Jermone Rothenberg’s book Technicians of the Sacred which is a collection of poems from Africa, America, Asia, Europe, and the Oceania.
Rothenberg is an interesting character. Born in New York City in 1931, he attended the City College of New York and received his Masters in Literature in 1953. He is a world-renowned translator, poet, and anthologist. Rothenberg has investigated and explored many cultural movements from American Indian culture to Eastern Europe Jewish communities. He’s also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and many other prestigious awards. After watching a recent YouTube video of a Rothenberg reading, it appears that he isn’t slowing down at the young age of 82 years old.
In Technicians of the Sacred, Rothenberg states: “What is true of language in general is equally true of poetry & of the ritual-systems of which so much poetry is a part. It is a question of energy & intelligence as universal constants &, in any specific case, the direction that energy & intelligence (= imagination) have been given. NO people today is newly born. No people has sat in sloth for the thousands of years of its history. Measure everything by the Titan rocket & transistor radio, & the world is full of primitive peoples. But once change the unit of value to poem or the dance-event or the dream (all clearly artifactual situations) & it becomes apparent what all those people have been doing all those years with all that time on their hands.” Being a “creative” practitioner of various mediums, I consider art to be a visual language. Along with poetry and music, it has the power to guide and unite through time.
Organizing, researching, and identifying criteria for literary works for the book was a daunting task for Rothenberg. He solicited the help of scholars in specialized fields to translate poetry accurately into English. As a result, the book gives the reader insight into the history of “ancient” cultures.
My parents divorced when I was 5 years old. Part of my custody arraignment was to spend every other Sunday with my father. He adamantly opposed my exposure to religion. As a result, we spent Sundays in the outdoor church of nature. Sitting in the Wisconsin woods appreciating its value and accepting our humble existence was our penance. Because he’s partially Native American (Choctaw), the reasoning seemed logical and reasonable. Not surprisingly, I was drawn to the poems from the Americas in Rothenberg’s collection.
Here’s an example:
We came on this trek,
To find our life.
For we are all,
We are all,
We are all the children of,
We are all the sons of,
A brilliantly colored flower,
A flaming flower.
And there is no one,
There is no one,
Who regrets what we are.
Because Technicians of the Sacred is such an amazing resource of poems, rituals, and writings- it’s impossible to speak to each one. In the future, I look forward to revisiting the writings again. However, here’s a poem from a Tlingit Indian to close this blog entry.
THE MORNING SONG OF SMALL-LAKE-UNDERNEATH
I always compare you to a drifting log with iron nails in it.
Let my brother float in, in that way.
Let him float ashore on a good sandy beach.
I always compare you, my mother, to the sun passing behind
That is what makes the world dark.