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.