A Book of Transmissions

Buy this book from Amazon.comMaría Sabina: Selections
Edited by Jerome Rothenberg
University of California Press ($16.95)

by Hank Lazer

Jerome Rothenberg has done it again, having put together a compelling and important new book, María Sabina: Selections, which he correctly claims is "a devastatingly human book and testimony." Rothenberg's opening remarks in the editor's preface hint at the range of issues raised by this powerful, exciting book: "In Mazatec, María Sabina's calling was, literally, that of 'wise woman'—a term that we may choose to translate as 'shaman' or, by further twist, as 'poet.' But that's to bring it and her into our own generalized kind of reckoning and naming." By one person's reckoning, the Mexican poet Homero Aridjis (president of PEN International from 1997 to 2003), Sabina "is one of the greatest Mexican poets of the twentieth century and a great shaman." The extraordinary book that Rothenberg has assembled places readers at the intersection of so many issues crucial to the present moment: translation, oral poetry, exile, loss, transmission (and the complicated ethics of how to represent the work of a writer/healer/singer/improviser such as Sabina), ethnopoetics, the spiritual and the shamanic, and the inevitable "impurity" or mixed nature of all such cultural endeavors.

Rothenberg's is not a romantic or sentimental presentation of a poet and poetry somehow imagined to be "pure," "primitive," or "authentic." He acknowledges from the outset that his attention to the celebrity that Sabina achieved may "frustrate the reader's enthusiasm for things Indian and remote." Sabina was "known" by the late 1950s—recorded for Folkways (The Mushroom Ceremony of the Mazatec Indians of Mexico), featured in Life magazine's Great Adventure Series, the subject of an opera by Nobel poet Camilo José Cela, and, in the US, the inspiration for Ann Waldman's Fast Speaking Woman. But the coming of "the blond strangers," the hippies and seekers of the sixties, the celebrities, and others, also meant such a radical change in Sabina's spiritual universe that eventually the language of the divine mushrooms no longer worked. The anthropologist R. Gordon Wasson, who made the Folkways recordings, worries that through his own work he bears some responsibility "for the end of a religious practice in Mesoamerica that goes back far, for millennia." As another shaman concludes about the divine mushroom language: "Its sacred language has been profaned. The language has been spoiled and it is indecipherable for us." According to Sabina, before the coming of Wasson, "nobody took the mushrooms only to find God." She tells the consequences of cultural "contamination" very directly: "from the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the saint children lost their purity. They lost their force; they spoiled them. From now on they won't be of any use."

This volume also asks us to consider who or what are our contemporaries: "it's clear she was a contemporary of ours in many fundamental ways—supported and abused by the same powers that have impinged on all our lives and works." Though the book implicitly asks us to think through what results from the interaction of various experimental writers and writing communities with an essentially shamanic, indigenous, oral poetic tradition, Rothenberg is careful to note that he has "tried to avoid the impression that María Sabina is being presented here as herself a kind of experimentalist."

What results is, as Rothenberg notes, "a book of transmissions." Sabina's oral autobiography, her Vida, is told to (and translated into Spanish by) Álvaro Estrada (and translated from the Spanish into English by Henry Munn); the anthropological line of transmission occurs through the accounts of R. Gordon Wasson; several of Sabina's chants have been recorded and translated. And as Sabina herself tells it, the transmission of the chants, the language itself, raises questions about agency: "'Language belongs to the saint children'—the sacred mushrooms—'They speak and I have the power to translate.'" The book that Rothenberg organizes and transmits gives us an oral autobiography, several chants, essays (including Munn's superb, informative study of the traditional and idiosyncratic elements of Sabina's poetic forms), commentaries, derivations (including a few poems), a bibliography, and various source notes. He suggests that "the first work and the key to all the others is her Vida"—and I concur.

Estrada examines and interrogates his own motives in recording Sabina's life story. He also reminds us that it is impossible to verify the accuracy of that life: "I have been conscious of the responsibility incurred in writing down the autobiography of a person who, because she can neither read nor write and does not even speak Spanish, could never herself know with exactitude whether what has been written about her is correct or not."

When we turn to the chants/poems themselves, which in some sense is her "poetry," we get little or no sense (reading the poems as isolated written texts) of the overall power, importance, value, and impact of Sabina's work. Here, for example, are the opening lines of a 1970 session:

I am a saint woman, says
I am a trumpet woman, says
I am a drum woman, says
I am a woman born, says
I am a woman fallen into the other world, says
That is your Book, says
That is your Book, says
Book of sap, says
Book of dew, says
Fresh Book, says
Book of clarity, says
Woman of sap, says
Lord of good will, says
Father of the dew, says
Father of the harvest, says
Rich Father, says
Green Father, says
All powerful Father, says
God the Son and Holy Spirit
There is no problem
Her children are crying, her babies are crying, says
I am a woman who looks into the insides of thing and investigates, says

The "poem," when presented in a book format, taken out of the context of the healing ritual, loses much of its significance. When accompanied by the essays and explanatory notes, we can begin to recover some of the surroundings that are crucial to an understanding or appreciation of Sabina's poetry. Wasson, for example, describes the sensation of hearing Sabina's chanting as "hitting us with a cutting crispness from unpredictable quarters, as though an air-borne choir of invisible creatures was peopling the dark void around us, perplexing us with their assorted and shifting cries." Because the transcription of Sabina's chants begin with "words," we miss an important pre-word passage of time which Wasson describes:

Suddenly the Señora began to moan, low at first, then louder. There were silent pauses, and then renewed humming. Then the humming stopped and she began to articulate isolated syllables, each syllable consisting of a consonant followed by a vowel, sharply pronounced. The syllables came snapping out in rapid succession, cutting the darkness like a knife, spoken, not shouted. After a time the syllables coalesced into what we took for words, and the Señora began to chant.

And Henry Munn reminds us that Sabina's expression was a total physical expressivity: "Her activity of expression is total: musical and gestural as well as verbal. The whole body speaks."

Rothenberg suggests that here, "if we let it, is also a book of healing, ...language as a medicine, its ancient function." And therein lies the problem, or the challenge, of this book: what can be transmitted from Sabina to us? What of her life in language may we take up and continue? What aspects of our responses to and imitations of Sabina would not be merely superficial romanticized cultural tourism? Can we learn "techniques" from Sabina without accepting her radical version of transmission, inspiration, and agency, without in fact believing in the powers of the sacred children? (Sabina, from the Vida: "The mushrooms have power because they are the flesh of God. And those that believe are healed. Those that do not believe are not healed.") How is it possible for Sabina's life in language not to be something exotic that we witness and admire and perhaps inadvertently sentimentalize from a considerable distance?

We may feel comfortable—or at least on somewhat familiar ground—when Sabina says that "my only force is my Language"; perhaps even when she adds, "And all my Language is in the Book that was given to me. I am she who reads, the interpreter. That is my privilege." These remarks have overtones which resonate with similar remarks by writers such as Mallarmé and Heidegger. But what about when Sabina says,

I take Little-One-Who-Spring-Forth and I see God. I see him sprout from the earth. He grows and grows, big as a tree, as a mountain. His face is placid, beautiful, serene as in the temples. At other times, God is not like a man: he is the Book. A Book that is born from the earth, a sacred Book whose birth makes the world shake. It is the Book of God that speaks to me in order for me to speak. It counsels me, it teaches me, it tells me what I have to say to men, to the sick, to life. The Book appears and I learn new words.

Rothenberg's book presents us with a rich set of challenges, questions, and provocations, while recovering and transmitting some elements of María Sabina's unusual, great life as poet, healer, and shaman. As extraordinary a record as María Sabina: Selections is, it also forces us to consider what the container of the book is able to hold and what is, inevitably, withheld from and beyond the confines of the book.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004