But then I found myself describing them with words they would not use, and could not tell the way the drummers held the line




I have always enjoyed Michael Jackson‘s ethnography. Paths toward a clearing: Radical empiricism and ethnographic enquiry (1989) is perhaps his best known work. This week I finally found time to borrow some of his poetry from the library. It is beautiful, and really quite brilliant.

I have chosen to share the following poem for obvious reasons. It is taken from Jackson’s 1989 collection, Duty Free: Selected poems 1965–1988, John McIndoe, New Zealand, pp. 14 – 15.  If I could share the whole volume I would – it is a really beautiful collection.




Even now they file at first light

through the elephant grass, along

the red path to their farms, leaving

me behind. I used to follow them

and ask if I could hoe or weed,

stack unburned branches beyond

the outer fence. They used to

laugh outright, though some said I

could try my hand, knowing it would

provide for more amusement later

when I tried to keep in line.

At last I gave up going. I passed

the day learning new words from

women. At dusk the men returned

and granted me an hour or two of

conversation. ‘Ask what you want

and we will tell you what we know,’

they said. And so I queried them

on this and that, and learned about

their farms that way, and what they did

among the trees along the ridge

at harvesting (a sacrifice to keep

the spirits off), and for a year

my work went well. But then I found

myself describing them with words

they would not use, and could not tell

the way the drummers held the line

that moved, hoeing and chanting,

down the further slope, or how

the pitch of women’s voices flowed

across the valley as they closed

the earth. These gestures are

like rain. The crops will grow

out of these acts. There is no

book in it, no facts, no line

that leads to some result;

but it holds good like any truth

and I have learned to write as

they might sow, scything the grain

against the downhill wind. We

do not make it grow, we point the way.

In this I go along with them.






Aye, it’s beautiful.








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Filed under Anthropology, Ethnography, Poetry turnstile

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