back toJacket2

February 2004  |  Jacket 25  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |

Nathaniel Tarn reviews

Selections, by María Sabina

Edited by Jerome Rothenberg with texts and commentaries by Álvaro Estrada and Others 204 pp. Poets for the Millennium series, edited by Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg
The University of California Press, 2003
Cloth: $50 (ISBN 0-520-23360-3); Paper: $16.95 (0-520-23953-9)

For those unacquainted with the Mazatec Indian shaman María Sabina despite her international renown, this very attractive, pocket-sized little book reprints a selection of her curing chants and the autobiography first published in Spanish by Álvaro Estrada in Mexico (Siglo XXI Editores, 1977) and later, in English with the help of Henry Munn (Ross-Erikson Publishers,1981) in Santa Barbara. There is more.

Maria Sabina

The book is the second in a series called ‘Poets for the Millenium’ described by the University of California Press as ‘global in scope, experimental in structure, and revolutionary in content’... providing ‘valuable introductions to poets who have been at the forefront of innovative and visionary poetry from the beginning of the XXth century to the present day.’ (The first book in the series was devoted to André Breton.) At the same time, the editor, Jerome Rothenberg, has tried ‘to avoid the impression that María Sabina is being presented here as herself a kind of experimentalist. (Henry Munn’s new essay, below, makes her traditionalism, however different from our own, abundantly clear)’ (p. xix).
      The best place to check out Rothenberg’s argument for the inclusion of this book in the series is the two page text ‘Some Oral Poetries’ in volume two of ‘Poems for the Millennium’ (University of California Press, 1998, pp.485 — 6). Here he writes of oral poetries individually made but community-related which exist outside of literature and writing as commonly understood, which are not anonymous nor timeless as ‘primitive’ arts are often said to be but exist alongside our own poetries and often influence them, especially if we belong to an educated stratum of the originating community.
      But, and here reside some of my difficulties, the reader soon understands that this Mazatec ‘curandera’ is being presented as a poet, in her aspect as a poet, for us contemporary non-indigenous and altogether foreign poets rather than as a poet in her society and for herself: the presentation is an Ethnopoetic act in the context of Rothenberg’s long standing effort to enrich our production and consumption of poetry. Beside mention of the excitement of clients hearing her during her ‘veladas’ (curing sessions), I would certainly have liked more in the book on any Mazatec conception or definition of ‘poetry’ or of the ‘poet’ — should there be such.
      Thus the continuing and ever acute problem of cultural borrowing and appropriation which has dogged Ethnopoetics from its inception cannot help being raised. The whole presentation is angled in the direction of María Sabina as poet. There is one valuable essay by Henry Munn on the linguistic ethnography of María Sabina’s chants (the Mazatec origin of the metaphors, symbols and expressions used and the limited extent to which these are strictly hers) which raises the vast problem of ‘originality’ in any poet’s lexical usages and a very short extract of a piece by R. Gordon and Valentina Pavlovna Wasson. But there are also four contemporary poets’ essays: Homero Aridjis’s tale of how he helped María Sabina in a medical emergency on one occasion; Anne Waldman’s account of how her derivative poem ‘Fast Speaking Woman’ was created; a contemporary Mazatec poet Juan Gregorio Regino’s homage to María Sabina and Rothenberg’s comments on his own poem about her: ‘The little Saint of Huautla.’
      The field-working honesty of this last piece, recording how a performance of one of the author’s translations failed to be of any interest to María Sabina and how he was charged for a session which, in Mazatec belief, should have been free leads Rothenberg to his melancholic realization that decades of visits by outsiders since Jean Johnson’s in 1938 and, as participants, the Wassons on June 29 — 30, 1955, were killing off, or indeed had killed off, the original spirit of the chant sessions (a situation already amply mentioned by María Sabina herself and the Wassons). This wrenches the book around in the direction not so much of poetics as of anthropology.
      The book does record the fact that, traditionally, the sessions were always medical, i.e. related to the practice of curing, and were not thought of as poetic performances, however much the language given by the hallucinogenic mushrooms used was conceived as divinely inspired ‘language’ and however fine it was to hear and read. It is also made clear that the sessions were not a search for vision per se as they were for outsiders coming to ‘look for God.’ If María Sabina was a poet then, and an original one in the Mazatec context (Munn’s essay, though excellent for what it does accomplish, is not complete or precise enough on this point for my taste), she was, to a large extent, ‘un poète malgré elle.’ A reader curious to go further could look at some of R.J. Weitlaner’s work — for instance his 1952 ‘Curaciones mazatecas’ in the Anales del Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia.’
      Among other questions raised for me are the extent to which María Sabina’s personality impressed these commentators as part of her originality but we do not have enough data about other ‘curanderos’ to measure this comparatively. Certainly the authority and, one might say, precision with which she speaks and holds her sessions confirms a personal sense that the mushrooms do indeed invest one with exactly those qualities. As Wasson has pointed out in his article in Peter Furst’s ‘Flesh of the Gods,’ (Praeger, 1972) beauty is very much in the ear of the hearer on these occasions: we still hardly have the terminology to describe what he has called the ‘bemushroomed’ state.
      A great deal of María Sabina’s chanting, as Munn’s piece will attest, recalls other chants and prayers to anyone familiar with Mesoamerican shamanism. The litanical style in which pairing is important and incremental accretion drives the inspiration: the shaman associating one statement after another, either culturally-conditioned or imaginatively self-derived, with her/ his frame of mind at the time as well as the session’s circumstances and those of the audience are very familiar. Likewise, the extent to which the performer’s cosmology frames the journey or trip of the performance and its important loci: a mountain, a lake but also a heaven or hell, etc. Likewise the notion, possibly pre-Columbian, of a “sacred book” given by spiritual powers and containing ‘everything in the world’: in our heroine’s case, according to Rothenberg, ‘a hypostatized Book of Language that allows her, though illiterate, to read.’ Likewise also, a great many expressions, such as ‘your hands, your feet’ or ‘beneath your eyes, beneath your mouth’ to give one example, or numerologies like ‘thirteen x and thirteen y’ (from a pre-Columbian number and/ or that of Christ plus the twelve apostles). Likewise, again, possible social status implications in seeing which of the ‘curanderos’ syncretize with a ‘higher religion’ and are thus inspired by Christian deities as well as indigenous ones. This was the case of María Sabina herself.
      Where does this leave me?
      William Carlos Williams M.D. did not, to my knowledge, chant his poems at the prone bodies of his patients yet, in espousing the view that human beings could die for the lack of whatever it is poetry brings, he had some idea of what he would have liked to see poetry do. Heroically, against the blinding evidence that, in our time and place, it does very little (and of course the word ‘does’ also needs analyzing), our poets, in order to remain poets, have to hold some belief in poetry’s power and usefulness. In the end, is the poet among ‘us’ fascinated by the poet among ‘them’ because he or she is useful in a very concrete and practical sense... and we are not?

February 2004  |  Jacket 25  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |
about Jacket | style guide | bookstores | literary links | 400+ book reviews |

Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright.
It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be
stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © Nathaniel Tarn and Jacket magazine 2004
Photo of María Sabina from the cover of the book
The Internet address of this page is