This faint old path isn’t on the brochure map, but it leads to a fine perch just the same. Moving past the car choreography and selfie poses at the popular Desert View area near the eastern border of Grand Canyon National Park, I find my way on a late afternoon.
Crumbling pavers end in a trace that weaves through rabbitbrush and juniper and over to a suitable rock, right on the abyss. No glance out there yet. I don’t want to risk vertigo until I’m settled. Then, with a beer and a bag of salt peanuts, I can drift out over two billion years of geology, a hundred centuries of human striving, and a timeless void.
Anywhere you pause along the hundreds of miles of edge brings dizzying contrast. The infinitesimal meets the cosmic, as a cliff swallow careens against far-off rock and sky. The immediate—check your foot-ing on that limestone grit, there’s a long fall pending—opens abruptly onto silent eons of cycle and revision. Another contrast: under a longer gaze the wild and timeless look of this panorama bears the lasting marks of recent human activity. They are the destinations of this book.
As we head into its second century, few would disagree that we want the park system to fulfill its mandate to preserve nature. “The core element of the national parks is that they are in the perpetuity business,” as Gary Machlis, science adviser to the director of the Park Service, told me. “The irony is that our mission is to preserve things in perpetuity, and we do it on an annual budget and a four-year presidential cycle.” The natural systems of the parks, he said, represent an island of stability—as long as we protect them and plan well for their future.
The centenary of the Park Service has just passed, along with some well-deserved national self-congratulations. Perhaps this would be a discreet time to say that the parks’ natural systems are, in the estimation of many scientists, falling apart. In that view all public lands need long-term life support, beginning as soon as we can pull it together. We’re on a precipice, both politically and biologically.
Rooting poetry beyond location and historical time, Jerome Rothenberg’s seminal compilation Technicians of the Sacred has educated and inspired poets, artists, musicians, and other readers—from Allen Ginsberg to Nick Cave—for generations, exposing them to the multiple possibilities of poetry throughout the world. A half-century since its original publication, this landmark anthology is more timely than ever, maintaining its vital place in our culture, and we are proud to be publishing the 50th anniversary edition this August. The following excerpts reveal the ongoing histories and intersections of language, land, and community through the lens of poetry.
From his 2017 preface, Rothenberg writes:
Something happened to me, now a full half century in the past, that has shaped my ambition for poetry up until the very present. Not to focus too much on myself, it was a discovery shared with others around me, of the multiple hidden sources & the multiple presences of poetry both far & near. I don’t remember clearly where—or when—it started, but once it got under my skin—our skin, I mean to say—that which we could hope to know as poetry drew in whole worlds we hadn’t previously imagined. Nothing was too low—or high—to be considered, but the imagining mind & voice, once the doors of perception were opened or cleansed, were everywhere we looked.
This also tied in to the search to create new forms of writing & thinking & to bring to light experiences & actions heretofore closed to us: a move that began with an earlier avant-garde & that we now repossessed/ reclaimed as our own. A result of that—from the beginning, I thought— was an expansion of what we could now recognize as poetry, for which our inherited definitions had proven to be inadequate. In that sense that which was traditional in other parts of the world or buried & outcast in our own came across as new & unforeseen when placed within our own still too narrow framework. For myself, the discoveries, once I opened up to them, proved as rich in possibilities as what we & our predecessors had been creating for our own place & time. That so much of this came from an imagined “outside” or from long outcast & subterranean, often brutally repressed traditions was evident even before we named them as such.
Revised and expanded with newly gathered and translated texts from reinvigorated indigenous cultures, this volume brings to the fore the range and depth of what we recognize and read as poetry. From oral tradition and song to the written word and beyond.
Juxtaposing “primitive” and archaic works of art from many cultures with each other and with experimental poetry, Rothenberg contends that literature extends beyond specific temporal and geographic boundaries, and must be understood globally, cutting across space and time. The first poem from the book reads:
Water went they say. Land was not they say. Water only then, mountains were not, they say. Stones were not they say. Trees were not they say. Grass was not they say. Fish were not they say. Deer were not then they say. Elk were not they say. Grizzlies were not they say. Panthers were not they say. Wolves were not they say. Bears were not they say. People were washed away they say. Grizzlies were washed away they say. Panthers were washed away they say. Deer were washed away they say. Coyotes were not then they say. Ravens were not they say. Owls were not they say. Buzzards were not they say. Chicken-hawks were not they say. Robins were not they say. Grouse were not they say. Quails were not they say. Bluejays were not they say. Ducks were not they say. Yellow-hammers were not they say. Condors were not they say. Herons were not they say. Screech-owls were not they say. Woodcocks were not they say. Woodpeckers were not they say. Then meadowlarks were not they say. Then Sparrow-hawks were not they say. Then woodpeckers were not they say. Then seagulls were not they say. Then pelicans were not they say. Orioles were not they say. Then mockingbirds were not they say. Wrens were not they say. Russet-back thrushes, blackbirds were not they say. Then crows were not they say. Then hummingbirds were not they say. Then curlews were not they say. Then mockingbirds were not they say. Swallows were not they say. Sandpipers were not they say. Then foxes were not they say. Then wildcats were not they say. Then otters were not they say. Then minks were not they say. Then elks were not they say. Then jack-rabbits, grey squirrels were not they say. Then ground squirrels were not they say. Then red squirrels were not they say. Then chipmunks were not they say. Then woodrats were not they say. Then kangaroo-rats were not they say. Then long-eared mice were not they say. Then sapsuckers were not they say. Then pigeons were not they say. Then warblers were not they say. Then geese were not they say. Then cranes were not they say. Then weasels were not they say. Then wind was not they say. Then snow was not they say. Then frost was not they say. Then rain was not they say. Then it didn’t thunder. Then trees were not when it didn’t thunder they say. It didn’t lighten they say. Then clouds were not they say. Fog was not they say. It didn’t appear they say. Stars were not they say. It was very dark.
Cahto [Kato] (Northern California)
Happy National Poetry Month and Happy Reading!
Jerome Rothenberg is a poet and an internationally acclaimed anthologist. His more than fifty books include the anthology Poems for the Millennium, coedited with Pierre Joris. He is Professor Emeritus of Visual Arts and Literature at the University of California, San Diego.
May is Get Caught Reading Month, and what better book to be caught red-handed with than our newly repackaged edition of a classic?
A bit of backstory on this influential book is in order. In 1968 University of California Press published an unusual manuscript by an anthropology student named Carlos Castaneda. The Teachings of Don Juan enthralled a generation of seekers dissatisfied with the limitations of the Western worldview. Castaneda’s quintessential book remains controversial for the alternative way of seeing that it presents and the revolution in cognition it demands. Whether read as ethnographic fact or creative fiction, it is the story of a remarkable journey that has left an indelible impression on the life of more than a million readers around the world.
Dip into this extraordinary world with the passage below.
When I awakened, I was lying on my back at the bottom of a shallow irrigation ditch, immersed in water up to my chin. Someone was holding my head up. It was don Juan. The first thought I had was that the water in the channel had an unusual quality; it was cold and heavy. It slapped lightly against me, and my thoughts cleared with every movement it made. At first the water had a bright green halo, or fluorescence, which soon dissolved, leaving only a stream of ordinary water.
I asked don Juan about the time of day. He said it was early morning. After awhile I was completely awake and got out of the water.
“You must tell me all you saw,” don Juan said when we got back to his house. He also said he had been trying to “bring me back” for three days, and had had a very difficult time doing it. I made numerous attempts to describe what I had seen, but could not seem to concentrate. Later on, during the early evening, I felt I was ready to talk with don Juan, and I began to tell him what I remembered from the time I had fallen on my side, but he did not want to hear about it. He said the only interesting part was what I saw and did after he “tossed me into the air and I flew away.”
All I could remember was a series of dreamlike images or scenes. They had no sequential order. I had the impression that each one of them was like an isolated bubble, floating into focus and then moving away. They were not, however, merely scenes to look at. I was inside them. I took part in them. When I tried to recollect them at first, I had the sensation that they were vague, diffused flashes, but as I thought about them I realized that each one of them was extremely clear although totally unrelated to ordinary seeing—hence, the sensation of vagueness. The images were few and simple.
As soon as don Juan mentioned that he had “tossed me into the air” I had a faint recollection of an absolutely clear scene in which I was looking straight at him from some distance away. I was looking at his face only. It was monumental in size. It was flat and had an intense glow. His hair was yellowish, and it moved. Each part of his face moved by itself, projecting a sort of amber light.
The next image was one in which don Juan had actually tossed me up, or hurled me, in a straight onward direction. I remember I “extended my wings and flew.” I felt alone, cutting through the air, painfully moving straight ahead. It was more like walking than like flying. It tired my body. There was no feeling of flowing free, no exuberance.
Then I remembered an instant in when which I was motionless, looking at a mass of sharp, dark edges set in an area that had a dull, painful light; next I saw a field with an infinite variety of lights. The lights moved and flickered and changed their luminosity. They were almost like colors. Their intensity dazzled me.
At anther moment, an object was almost against my eye. It was a thick, pointed object; it had a definite pinkish glow. I felt a sudden tremor somewhere in my body and saw a multitude of similar pink forms coming toward me. They all moved on me. I jumped away.
The last scene I remembered was three silvery birds. They radiated a shiny, metallic light, almost like stainless steel, but intense and moving and alive. I liked them. We flew together.
Don Juan did not make any comments on my recounting.
Throughout this book I emphasize that representatives exercise constitutive power simply by virtue of being visible in public debate. This cartographic power, as I refer to it, sets the boundaries of what a debate, or debates, involve. When it comes to religion in public debate, representatives of the Religious Right are the only religion representatives who explicitly pursue credibility in the public sphere. The manner of this pursuit violates deliberative expectations that ordinary Americans have of the public sphere. In theory, this normative conflict should have consequences for how ordinary Americans understand religion in public life.
But does it really? In practice, does this normative conflict emerge in evaluations of religion in the public sphere? And if so, how does it matter? To answer these questions, I analyzed how interview respondents evaluated what “religion” and “religious” mean in the religion-and-science debates in this study. I did not simply ask, “What do you think of religion in these debates?” Instead, I examined how respondents invoked religion, discussed religion, identified who and what was religious, connected religion to other ideas and concepts, and resolved apparent conflicts involving religion in their responses. What counts as religion for respondents, and what religion in public life means to them, became apparent from their responses to a variety of questions and evaluations.
For the ordinary Americans I interviewed, religion in the public sphere, no matter what the source, was commonly seen as a marker of bad debate across a variety of evaluative dimensions. Respondents understood religion in public life to violate deliberative preferences in two ways. First, prominent individual representatives from the Religious Right, whether religious figures or politicians, were recognized and evaluated negatively as public crusaders whose efforts work against good deliberative debate. Similarly, respondents were more likely to use religious identification for politicians of whom they disapproved either wholly or partly, even though most American politicians identify as religious. In contrast, ordinary persons suggested as ideal representatives persons seen as open-minded and willing to engage in considered, deliberative debate, such as respected local ministers, friends, or neighbors.
Second, and more broadly, the Religious Right’s association with distinctively religious language prompted negative evaluation of any religion talk as contrary to good debate. Because of the Religious Right’s success in “owning the space” of public religion, respondents expected that religion talk, whatever the source, indicated opposition to deliberative debate. When respondents evaluated typical statements and résumés stripped of identifying information, they identified religious language of any kind, even when uttered by moderate or liberal religious figures, as inhibiting rather than contributing to good debate. This normative conflict held across respondents despite substantive agreement or disagreement with the particular claims that representatives made in these debates.
In two separate ways, the normative conflict between the Religious Right’s pursuit of religious credibility and the preferences of ordinary persons for good debate ends up defining religion in public life as contrary to good debate. On one path, individual representatives are evaluated as “public crusaders” more interested in advancing a moral agenda than participating in deliberative debate. On the other path, ordinary persons evaluate public religious language and reasons as contrary to norms of deliberative debate. The result is that in public religion-and-science debates, no matter which path is followed to the conclusion, “religion” means “bad debate.”