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Book of the Week — The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell…

“… I have had a need (I emphasize: a need) to translate, and by translating, to connect with the work and thought of other poets…

— Jerome Rothenberg, Writing Through: Translations and Variations (2004)

The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell: nos X-XIII…
Jerome Rothenberg (b. 1931)
London: Tetrad Press, 1969
M1669 R6 S4

Since the 1950s, Jerome Rothenberg has made a name for himself as a writer, performer and translator of poetry. Most notably, Rothenberg is renowned for his development of ethnopoetics — a term he coined to refer to the linguistic and anthropological study of world poetries considered “tribal” or “primitive.” The methodology and mission of ethnopoetics was first defined by Rothenberg in Technicians of the Sacred (1968) — an anthology of poetry and spiritual writings collected from around the world. For Rothenberg, the practice of ethnopoetics strives to find points of intersections between explicitly different cultures, exploring and expanding how we understand and experience poetry. The foundation of ethnopoetics relies on the notion that all poetry, regardless of its form, is intrinsic to the human spirit. Rothenberg’s work in ethnopoetics is, perhaps, best explained with his translation series, titled  The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell.

While finishing his work on Technicians of the Sacred, Rothenberg was introduced to David McAllester, an ethnomusicologist at Wesleyan University. McAllester provided Rothenberg with recordings, transcriptions, and translations of a series of seventeen “Horse Songs” performed by Frank Mitchell, a Navajo singer from Chinle, Arizona. With these materials in hand, Rothenberg then embarked on a poetic journey he called “total translation,” a transformative process by which a poem, adapted to the forms and contexts of a different culture, can become a new and original work.

Song X: The 10th Horse Song of Frank Mitchell (Blue)

Ólta’í Tsoh, or Big Schoolboy — known by his English name, Frank Mitchell — was a noted ceremonial singer of the Navajo Blessingway. He was among the first Navajos to attend the government-established boarding school at Fort Defiance before the turn of the century. In his later years, Mitchell held multiple titles in public office, including serving as one of the first members of the Tribal Council on the Navajo reservation, a Chapter officer in Chinle, and a judge in the Courts of Indian Offenses. A leading figure in the community, Frank Mitchell was first introduced to David McAllester in September 1957. 

With support from the Guggenheim Foundation, McAllester had begun a long-term study of Navajo ceremonialism, particularly focused on music and poetry. The project, as it was explained to Mitchell, would record materials to be preserved at the Library of Congress, among other archives. For Mitchell, the essential spirit of the Navajos was contained in their ceremonies, and especially in the Blessingway. He predicted that when these were gone, the Navajos would also be gone. At the end of their first visit, Mitchell graciously invited McAllester to return. Their relationship and collaboration continued for the next ten years, until Frank Mitchell passed away in 1967. 

Song XI: The 11th Horse Song of Frank Mitchell (White)

As opposed to written poems, the Blessingway ceremonies are oral traditions. Therefore, in order to complete a “total translation” of the songs, Rothenberg first had to abandon the prescribed notion of writing. Total translation requires every active ingredient in the poem to be transformed, including the melody, the words, and even the non-semantic vocables — that is, sounds that carry no meaning. Total translation also suggests that the smallest unit of translation cannot simply be a word, line, or phrase, but rather the whole poem in performance. In The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell, Rothenberg went beyond the semantic level to try and find equivalents for the ways in which words and sounds were carried. 

With an emphasis on sound, Rothenberg began his translations with the tenth Horse Song, which had been the first one Mitchell and McAllester recorded. He noted that the Navajo songs were fuller, denser, and manipulated words into new “meaningless” shapes and sounds in order to fill up space. These so-called meaningless sounds provide a continuity of rhythm and assonance in the songs. But when the translated words in English were combined with the Navajo vocables, Rothenberg quickly realized the flow of the poem was compromised. The sounds, too, had to be translated. Rothenberg faced yet another challenge when attempting to translate the communal participation of the performance. Traditionally, those present in the audience of the Blessingway ceremonies would join in on the singing, often improvising sounds in response to those of the ceremonial singer. To recreate this in his method of “total translation,” Rothenberg recorded his voice on four different tracks. Translations of six of the Horse Songs were later recorded and released in 1978 by New Wilderness Audiographics.

Song XII: The 12th Horse Song of Frank Mitchell (Blue)

The Blessingway — an event that can last from one to nine days — consists of a group of songs and ceremonies that have been passed down through generations, which are considered to be fundamental to the Navajo worldview and religion. The main purpose of the Blessingway is to bring peace and happiness and to prevent illness. The Blessingway also includes seventeen Horse Songs, a narrative telling of the Navajo acquisition of horses. The main voice in the Horse Songs is that of Enemy Slayer, or Dawn Boy, who first brought horses to The People. The chorus is sung by his father, the Sun, telling him to take spirit horses and other precious animals and goods to the house of his mother, Changing Woman. The fact that the Navajo did not know of horses until the arrival of the Spanish suggests a fairly recent origin for these particular songs. However, as a whole, the ceremonies of the Blessingway are ancient.

Our preconceptions about literature and poetry might make it difficult for us to read Rothenberg’s translations of the Horse Songs. When we see phrases like baheegwing hawuNnawu N nngahn we might get stuck on the correct pronunciation, assuming that there is a correct way to pronounce these words. For Rothenberg, however, it is more important to participate in the event of reading — in the same way the audience participates in the ceremony — by improvising sounds, despite our inhibitions and unwillingness to make mistakes. Although Rothenberg’s recording might assist us, there really is no right way to read these poems.

Song XIII: The 13th Horse Song of Frank Mitchell (White)

Excerpted portions of The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell have appeared in several of Rothenberg’s collections of poetry. However this illustrated edition, published in 1969 by Ian Tyson’s Tetrad Press, carries on the tradition of performance with visual cues. Rothenberg’s first collaboration with Ian Tyson was a large pamphlet called Offering Flowers (1968). The poem was derived from an Aztec description of ceremonial and private uses of flowers from Bernardino de Sahagún’s sixteenth-century Florentine Codex —  originally translated from Spanish by Arthur J. O. Anderson and the University of Utah’s own professor of Anthropology, Charles E. Dibble.

The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell: nos X-XIII includes four poems with illustrations by Ian Tyson. The minimalist images can be interpreted to suggest portals to the sky through which Enemy Slayer obtains and brings back the horses. The four songs are divided into two pairs, each marked by similarity of melody and a contrast of color symbolism (white and blue). The colors not only allude to the sky, but also to meaningful objects within the Navajo culture, such as white shell and turquoise. By the 10th song, Enemy Slayer has reached the Sun’s house, and the Sun instructs him to bring back horses and other things to the house of Changing Woman. Song 11 asserts the holiness of these beings and objects, while in Song 12 Enemy Slayer contemplates his return journey. Finally, in Song 13, Enemy Slayer sings of the horses as if they were already in his house.

This edition is limited to 250 copies, 200 on Kent Hollingsworth paper and 50 signed by the author and artist on paper handmade by J. Barcham Green. The text was printed in letterpress by Jeffery, East Bergholt, Suffolk, and the images were screen-printed by Kelpra Studios Ltd, London.


1 Comment
  • Marnie Powers-Torrey
    Posted at 16:33h, 23 November Reply


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