Acta fabula
ISSN 2115-8037

Dossier critique
Mai 2018 (volume 19, numéro 5)
titre article
Anthony K. Webster

On the value of « quiet language » & poetry in linguistic anthropology

Donald Bahr, Lloyd Paul & Vincent Joseph, Ants & Orioles. Showing the Art of Pima Poetry, Salt Lake City : University of Utah Press, 1997, 205 p., EAN 9780874805499.


1In 1997, while a graduate student, I picked up — with a fair amount of interest and excitement — Donald Bahr, Lloyd Paul and Vincent Joseph’s Ants and Orioles. Showing the Art of Pima Poetry1. I was then, and continue to be, deeply interested in what linguistic anthropology might be able to say about verbal art. That book has remained with me — a book I often return to — now for 20 some years. When Acta Fabula asked me to pick a book to write a review about, I replied that I would like to review Ants and Orioles. Why review a twenty‑year old book ? First, as might be suspected, I have for a long time found the book a quite useful thinking through of issues concerning verbal art, poetics and translation. Second, and perhaps the more important reason, given reason number one, I have always been surprised at how little influence the book seems to have had2. So, in many ways, I want to promote a book I have always found useful. Third, and this is only a post factum reason, D. Bahr passed away in October of 2016 and so I wanted to honor his legacy. I only discovered after having agreed to do this review that he had passed away. I did not know D. Bahr well (we exchanged letters in the mid‑2000s) yet I read much of what he has written on O’odham songs and have thought much about it.

2In the first half of this essay, I’ll work through the book because I believe it is only with an understanding of how the argument progresses, that we can get a sense of the value of the book. In the second half, I’ll use some of the perspective in D. Bahr’s book (for reasons that will be clear, it’s best to think of this as D. Bahr’s book) to think through a short set of Navajo poems by Rex Lee Jim. My point here is to encourage the role of « quiet language » in a linguistic anthropology attentive to ethnopoetics.

Ants & Orioles

3The vast majority of the book is written by D. Bahr, Paul provides commentary for the first (on Ant songs) while Joseph provides commentary on the Oriole songs (he was also the singer of those songs). Andy Stepp was the singer for the Ant songs. D. Bahr never met Stepp, but was rather given a tape with the songs by a Catholic priest who was also interested in it. Included, as well, is an Appendix on Tohono O’odham Airplane songs.

4In the Introduction, D. Bahr, taking inspiration from James Liu’s The Art of Chinese Poetry, wants to ask of these Pima songs, « what is poetry in this tradition and what makes some poems good ? » (p. x3). To investigate these questions, he translates and interprets (the two are, of course, not mutually exclusive) two sets of songs (Ant songs and Oriole songs). These are social dancing songs — « dances held for pleasure and celebration » (p. x), not « songs to change things » (curing songs) (p. 21). According to Pimas, the songs are not composed by individual Pima, but rather « the poems originate in dreams and are sung to dreamers by spirits during great, fantastic journeys » (p. xi). And while D. Bahr considers the individual songs to be beautiful, his primary concern is rather with the ways that the songs are put together into a set. The art, then, is in the combinations of songs. Pima singers move songs around in a set (they always know more songs than can be sung at a given sing). It is also the case that, for example, an Ant song can be moved to an Oriole song set — thus the songs are not tied permanently to a particular spirit or dream. For D. Bahr, « the central illusion of sings is that the songs could be one dream (p. xi). The central illusion is promoted by way of the use of the first person. The « I’s » here may index — that is point — to the spirit person, the dreamer, or the dancer. They are ambiguous — intentionally so for D. Bahr4. The glory was in the singing and the organization of the songs not in the creation of individual songs.

5Chapter One describes the four stages of translation for the Ant songs (the Oriole songs will be different). The songs are sung in song language. This is then translated into spoken Pima (D. Bahr calls it « reduction »). A literal translation creates a « choppy, raw English » (p. 4). This is then translated into a « freer translation » (p. 4). For D. Bahr, the primary losses in this process are « reduction and literal translation cost the poems their sonorousness, but not their imagery ». Not all Pima claim to be able to understand the songs. Others understand parts of the songs, but certain words and passages « elude them » (p. 3). As D. Bahr adds, « the problem with those spots is not that they yield to no interpretation, but that they resist a fully satisfactory one » (p. 3). Chapter One also lays out something of the history of social dancing and of its decline. By the time D. Bahr worked on these songs, there were no Ant song singers and social dance songs were largely confined to afternoon displays at schools. Once they had been all night affairs, with drinking and socializing. Social dancing was, here, morally suspect. The songs, in their own way, spoke to that concern. Like much poetry, the songs don’t make one more moral, but they do make moral choices possible.

6In Chapter Two D. Bahr presents the Ant songs in smooth English translation. The songs are brief — a few lines, a few words. They seem to relish in their brevity. As such, they are also ambiguous : this will be a recurring theme throughout the book. D. Bahr then discusses the tapes — there were two, he only analyzes one tape of Ant songs — and his initial confusion about which side was the beginning of the sing. The tapes were not marked and so he eventually changes his mind on which side begins the sing. This is followed by the songs in their song language forms and organized visually around each song’s « key metered zone » (p. 40). According to D. Bahr, « these zones are recurrent short segments of text, with from two to four beats, that have nearly identical rhythmic and sound values ». Each song is then given in the spoken Pima and a « literal » English. A number of footnotes accompany these translations and discuss various forms of uncertainty in their (D. Bahr and Paul’s) understanding of the song language forms.

7Chapter Three describes the basic principles of the songs. First, the authors of the song — the spirits — « hazily ambiguous beings » that are somewhere between « today’s animals and humanity » (p. 665). Ant‑people, the « I’s » of the songs, are spirits. They do not describe themselves in the songs, but rather provide « postcards » of a journey (p. 77). The journey is evoked by both a « filmic » quality (« abrupt shifts of visual field from far off to close up, from character to character, and thing to thing », p. 73) and « vivid ephemerality » (p. 77) : the organization of the songs, the sing, will not last, the next sing will be different. The Ant‑people guide the dreamers, who learn the songs, to a variety of known and, sometimes, unknown places. Many place names can be found in these songs (p. 84). Finally, in an important footnote, D. Bahr (p. 79, n. 46) states :

As we read Stepp in translation and discuss him in English my concern is to be certain that we are actually discussing Stepp. Thus I will take pains to establish that his poetry is as I say it is : that the ambiguities (multiple plausible meanings) that I cite were intended, and in general that what I say about the translations is true of the originals.

8The importance of ambiguity to these songs — both to the question of the « I’s » of the song and to the images described in the songs — will be of central import moving forward for D. Bahr.

9Chapter Four is his interpretation of the sing. Much of the work is done by way of discussing issues of translating from Pima to English and attending to the kinds of ambiguities found in both the Pima and the English. As D. Bahr notes, « I try on principle to make translations that are no more and no less ambiguous than the original Pima » (p. 81). Of course, though D. Bahr doesn’t mention it here, while he may try to create translations that are neither more nor less ambiguous, they will certainly evoke different ambiguities. His discussion of « manic » is particularly interesting. Some songs evoke « manicness » — a kind of surfeit of focus — while others evoke « dizziness » — a lack of focus. Song 2 is « a paradigm of Pima dream manicness » (p. 88). While other songs include what D. Bahr takes to be wa:m and which he translates as « manic » in song 2, as a paradigm case of such manicness, « the word itself is unnecessary » (p. 88). Songs 3 and 4, for example, do include wa:m6. For D. Bahr, this sing is thematically about songs and death (manic people learn songs, dizzy people dance at songs) (p. 98). Along the way and beginning in a westward direction, a number of places or « nature pictures » (p. 99) are encountered in the songs. They evoke beautiful images of places. D. Bahr is most confident in his interpretation of this song set with regards the westward direction of the first songs and the way the last three songs of the sing speak to each other. A satisfying interpretation for D. Bahr is that Song 27, the one before the final three songs, speaks of the death of the songs. The last three songs then return, talk back, to the opening songs. There is an echo in the last lines of Song 8 and 31, and an ambiguity — what enters is left unresolved. Here is song 31, in quiet language :

Do you hear me ?
Do you hear me ?
All earth sounding,
On top, circles stomped.
On top, eagle down puffs,
Cloud enter. (p. 92)

10As D. Bahr writes, « I believe that there is no way to know which. We are not meant to resolve the ambiguity, but simply to be surprised by the quietness of this last, unsolvable image, with which the song and the sing end » (p. 95). Those looking for absolute certainty about what these songs « really » mean will be disappointed in D. Bahr’s discussion. He doesn’t solve the songs but interprets them in light of what he has come to know about Pima frameworks of meaning and moral responsibility. In my view, he honors the preference for ambiguity in these songs.

11Part Two, on Oriole songs, differs in several respects from the discussion in Part One. In this case, D. Bahr worked with Vincent Joseph, the singer of the Oriole songs. Joseph also provided the songs « in quiet ordinary language » (p. 107). He felt that one did not know a song until one could explain each syllable of it. Chapter Six then includes a transcript of Joseph speaking the songs in ordinary Pima but also explaining something about the songs. Joseph and Stepp also differed. In the two tapes of Ant songs from Stepp, D. Bahr notes that Stepp did not use every Ant song in each set. Rather each set had songs that were not in the other set. Stepp, according to D. Bahr, was more the « improviser » (p. 109). Joseph, on the other hand, « more the builder » (p. 109). That is to say that Joseph, in the three sings D. Bahr recorded, added songs each time, he did not subtract songs. He added songs from other sings as well : an Ant song found in Stepp and a Heaven song (p. 112).

12In Chapter Six, D. Bahr makes a distinction between « “loud” translations » and « “quiet” translations » (p. 114). Quiet translations are, of course, « false to the sound and the feel of the songs » (p. 114). Loud translations, on the other hand, « match the syllable count, stress, rhythm, and word units of the originals. They are not beautiful, not even handsome, but they stand as “loud” proxies for what sounds beautiful in Pima » (p. 114). D. Bahr’s attention to the sounds of the songs is to be commended. It links his work with current concerns with sound in anthropology and ethnomusicology. What follows in Chapter Six are the quiet translations into English based on Joseph’s translation of song language into Pima ordinary language (though D. Bahr does not include the Pima portions here). The songs seem to be organized into themes. First comes a « mythological prelude », then the westward movement, then songs that feature birds, calamites, sunset, medicine men, whores, and finally songs of endings, of dancing and of singing. D. Bahr places much of the songs within a Pima interpretative framework. He describes the role of mythic figures mentioned in these songs and suggests how the elliptical references in these songs evoke mythic events. He argues that « whores » (women who move from dance to dance) are the « counterparts » of « medicine men » (who actually do the sings) in this song set (p. 1397). While the songs are used in social dancing, the songs are acquired through dreams and journeys with spirits, and thus « whoever dreams songs is likely to be a medicine person » (p. 134). Whores are « dizzy » and dizziness is a morally suspect (p. 142). The song sets, both Stepp’s and Joseph’s, came at a point in time when the song tradition was on the decline. With this has come a change, as well, in the place of these songs among the Pima. They have become cultural objects. The Oriole songs were now sung during the day and for (Ant songs do not seem to have been used in this new way). D. Bahr writes, « Formerly the poetry satirized the slightly wicked moods of the dancers. Now the same songs were intended to evoke reverence for the things of the old Pimas : their mountains, birds, and flowers » (p. 110). New songs, it appears, are not being dreamt. For D. Bahr, and perhaps so too for Stepp and Joseph, this is to be lamented. Aesthetic traditions change, of course, but those involved in the traditions need not accept such changes unquestioningly.

13Chapter Seven presents the songs in loud translations, meant to highlight the « semantically superfluous sound » of the Pima songs (p. 144‑145). The English does not match the Pima  (stress and syllable counts were retained but not the sounds, the consonants and vowels). As D. Bahr notes, « the Pima songs have rhymes and alliterations — euphonies — which are unmatched in translation » (p. 145). He calls these loud translations « visual shadows of the Pima originals » (p. 146).

14In the Conclusion, D. Bahr reflects on what he calls « a mature statement » (p. 166) about Pima Ant and Oriole songs. He took what he had learned over the years working on other social dance songs and applied it here. The songs are done loudly. The translations are both loud and quiet. Quiet translation for D. Bahr is needed — « literary criticism is written in quiet language » (p. 167). Translation « is power and creating, but it is, or should be, a kindly service » (p. 169). For D. Bahr, given the historical moment the sings were sung, they suggest « a fear that their art was dying » (p. 170), though he leaves open the possibility that the lament had been a part of the sings for longer (he simply does not have the evidence of earlier sings to say one way or the other). Beyond the central illusion, this is the lasting interpretation that Stepp and Joseph used these strange contexts for sings (Stepp to a tape‑recorder, Joseph for an anthropologist) to reflect on the state of the tradition that they cared deeply about. I do not think this is an unreasonable suggestion. I have known such people that have worried about the art they love.

15This is a quiet book, the loud translations notwithstanding. D. Bahr’s work reveals the kinds of insight that can be gained from careful attention to linguistic details and coupled with ethnographic insight. So too the including of long transcripts of commentary (much of it in the O’odham original) allows for disparate points of view to emerge. Paul does not agree with all of D. Bahr’s interpretations. We know this because D. Bahr includes those disagreements. Joseph has much to say about the Oriole songs he sings, he says them in a quiet language, the language of literary criticism. The book takes seriously the literature — what D. Bahr calls « kept language » (p. 174) — of « small nations » (p. 166). D. Bahr argues that criticism is necessary :

Note how criticism differs from collecting and translating, which do not say anything new in or about art, but merely get art and display it, albeit in translation, by switching the language. The merit of criticism is that the critic must add new thoughts to the world, thoughts about poetry, not actual poem. (p. 168)

16There is, of course, an important place for documenting forms of verbal art and for translation8. However, for D. Bahr, that is only one piece of the work : to take seriously the poetries of others, one must do more than display it, one must think with it. These songs should be contemplated, their art explored. We could use more such quiet books.

Three Navajo Poems by Rex Lee Jim

17Having said all of this, I want to look — briefly — at a small set of poems in Navajo by Navajo poet Rex Lee Jim. The poems were published on the Princeton Alumni Weekly webpage9. Taking a cue from D. Bahr, I want to read them as an optional set — that is, that the three poems hang together in some way and that Jim put them in that order. They could have occurred differently10. I have discussed the second poem in detail elsewhere and Jim discusses something of the work being done in the third poem at the Princeton Alumni Weekly Page11. The interpretation that follows, based on the principle of punning, is predicated on Jim’s own description of his poetry. So the interpretation is motivated by locally relevant aesthetic practices. Call this, if you like, a humanities of speaking approach12. Like the songs discussed by D. Bahr, these poems are deeply — beautifully — ambiguous and brief. Jim’s poems also differ from the songs described by D. Bahr. First, these are poems. They are not sung. I have never heard Jim sing these songs. He recites them. They are in, roughly, ordinary Navajo. Jim takes credit for authoring some of the poems, other of the poems he does not take credit for (see below). Here are the three poems13 :

dibe naakai lei’
tsin alnaosdzid
hanii eegai nisin

sheep wandering
rows of white crosses

i thought
they were


big dipper

ni eiya
yaah ni

you you are
is yours.

18The first poem is a slightly but importantly different version of a poem found in Jim’s all‑Navajo collection saad14. The key difference is in the first line. In saad, the poem begins dibé yikah léí’, which we can roughly gloss into English as « a group of sheep are walking, I realized ». In the version here it begins dibe naakai lei’, which Jim translates as « sheep wandering ». Note that the verb here for « wandering » echoes with Jim’s paternal grandfather’s clan Naakaii dine’é « the Wandering People clan », but also known as the « Mexican People Clan » (naakaii : « the people that wander, Mexican »). Embedded in the first line of this poem is an echo of one of Jim’s clans. The poem seems to be about misrecognition. I thought I saw one thing, but realized it was another thing. Given Jim’s penchant for punning in his poetry, this seems a good piece of advice. Things are not always as they seem. But what has been misrecognized ? Sheep as white crosses. We need to be careful here though for the white crosses could be about Christianity (perhaps a graveyard), but we should also note that tsin ałnáosdzid can refer to the design itself. Cross‑shaped designs can use this form15. More than this, one Navajo I worked with suggested the exact opposite interpretation than Jim’s translation suggests, that is, what is misrecognized is not sheep for crosses, but crosses for sheep. I thought they were sheep, but they were, in fact, crosses. Another Navajo I worked with noted that « white » (eegai) doesn’t actually show up until the third line — surrounded by hanii « apparently, seemingly, guessed » and nisin « I think », thus they both appear white. Now lei’ in the first line tends to occur with nouns when the noun is not familiar so the wandering sheep seem unfamiliar, the crosses familiar (or at least more familiar16). Clearly though, sheep — important in Navajo beliefs and sometimes referred to as shimá « my mother » — and crosses are here linked. Notably, as well, Mexicans were, at least stereotypically for many Navajos, Christians (Catholics) and Jim’s paternal grandfather’s clan was from his mother (Navajo clans are matrilineal). The ambiguities here, I would suggest following both D. Bahr and discussions with Jim, are not meant to be resolved, rather they are meant to be contemplated.

19The next two poems have a different provenance. The first one seems to have been revised from Jim’s saad. It seems likely Jim would take credit for writing the poem. The next two poems I heard first in October, 200017. Jim described them as « masterpieces » because according to him, they were messages from níłch’i 'áłts'íísí or « Little Wind » : it is a messenger/message from the Holy People to Navajos, usually from one of the sacred mountains, that guides them towards proper moral ways of behaving and thinking. The messages are « absolutely faultless » (ts’idá ba’ádinii) and so cannot be improved. That, I might add, is why Jim says that some of his poems are « masterpieces ». They came to him, he thinks, from Little Wind as fully formed poems that resisted any attempts at reworkings. He told me he was unsure if he should take credit for such poems. Among Navajos, I have not encountered the kinds of dreamt songs that D. Bahr describes for the O’odham — songs from spirits that recount fantastic journeys — but Jim does describe poems that come from Little Wind, and like dreamt songs, Jim does not claim authorship for it. Here is a portion of the transcript from our conversation in October, 2000 (lines have been organized based on breath pauses) :

And some of them like
yaah ni
they come in the middle of the night
and you get up
and write them down
and the next day you try to improve on it
so you write several pages that doesn’t work
you try to add or delete something
and it doesn’t work

they just come
and they are considered masterpieces
you can’t do anything to it
I’ve tried and it doesn’t work
and in many ways I feel that it’s not my work
they just appear
out of nowhere
and sometimes I think about what Navajos say about the Little Wind telling you something
after so much experience
and so much trials and errors
that somehow your human mind is ready to receive something
from somewhere else
or maybe has already been there
but you were just too
egotistical or full of it
that you never allowed it to sink in [laughter]
I don’t know how it works
all I know is it feels like somebody is telling you to
write it
and so some of them come like that

and so some of the poems like that
I don’t know whether I can claim them or not

20Let me just say a couple of things about the second poem. Náhookǫs can be translated any number of ways. First, as to the morphology : náhi- seriative, « one after another » + -kǫs (this is the verb stem « slender stiff or thin rigid object, falling or flying through air » or a « slender solid object revolves »). It is conventionally translated into English as « north », « turn », « big dipper » or the geometric shape of what we call the swastika. Nidi can be translated as the contradictory « even » or « but » though I have a sense (and some circumstantial evidence) that it can also be heard as ni’di « on earth ». Everything in the poem is ambiguous in that respect.

21North, like many things in Navajo philosophy, is polyvalent. On the one hand, the north is routinely associated with death. On the other hand, there is also a view that north is associated with old age and with reflection. With the ability to recognize what you have done in life. North, in this way of thinking, is associated with moral judgment, the ability to recognize good and evil. And then, of course, the whole thing repeats. You take what you’ve learned and begin again. The last poem Jim discusses and so I’ll let him have his say on that :

Here is the yaah part of the poem. Ni sounds similar to ni’ meaning ground, earth. Ei of eiya (though physically not) is a breathing in of fresh air. Ya of eiya sounds similar to ya meaning sky. So the expression of ni eiya is going from the earth to the sky, breathing in air. We simply reverse that with yaah ni. Ya means sky, ah is breathing out, and ni means earth. The full expression then is a breathing in and out as you go from earth to sky and then back from sky to earth. This breathing in and out normally takes place at dawn, when Navajos meet the dawn, praying and asking the gods for a wonderful day and life. In one breath, you bring the earth and the sky together. In this new dawn, you become the very link that brings the earth and the sky together ; you become the very essence of dawn, new beginnings, new creations, new inventions, new explorations, new discoveries. You become the center of the universe. It is your own breathing that creates life, that holds the universe. With one breath, you behold the universe18.

22Here’s one way to read this set of poems. The first one, linking as it does with sheep and with Jim’s ancestry, places him in the world. But we are prone to misrecognize things in the world. The next poem asks us to reflect on our lives, to evaluate what we have done. The third poem is about beginning again, uniting earth and sky, certainly, but about exploring, discovering the world. Ni’ « earth » and ni « you » linger in each of the poems. Ni crops up as well in the last line of poem 1, hanii and nisin. Elsewhere, I’ve described the ways that a key sound can evoke certain words that are not explicitly mentioned in the poem (hochxǫ « ugliness, disorder » through the repetition of -chx in a poem, k’é « reciprocity, kindness, moral responsibility » through the repetition of the sound -k’ee- in another poem)19. The key sound across these three poems — the thread that links them — is ni, which isambiguously both « you » and « earth » The earth, like sheep, I should add, is often referred to as shimá « my mother » or nihimá « our mother ».

23That seems enough. There are, of course, other connections to be made, other readings. Here’s what Jim said on the meaning of some of his poems the night he first told me the last two poems (which he did not explain to me) :

There’s always
the poem presents and identifies a problem
I shouldn’t say always
many of the poems
identifies a problem and at the same time offers a solution of something

and I will not tell you all about that [laughter]
you have to come to that yourself [laughter].

24It is that coming to it yourself that matters here. In discussing the three Airplane songs in the Appendix, D. Bahr notes of the Tohono O’odham singer John Lewis, that songs and the story they tell are left « to the imagination of the hearer, or reader » (p. 176). He also suggests that this kind of ambiguity, of not saying too much, was the norm for the region. Jim’s poems work that way too. Indeed, this seems a general Navajo aesthetic as well. Our tradition — D. Bahr’s and mine — is different here. We often say too much (at least by Navajo standards, probably O’odham standards). Yet the value of that tradition is the thinking with the art, the poetry. That, I should add, often means knowing something of the language(s), in its broadest and most encompassing sense, that the poetry is in. It also means listening to the « quiet language » of those you work with, taking their interpretive frameworks seriously. The poetry isn’t just to be mined for ethnographic tidbits and curious linguistic examples, it is to be thought with and through. To be, that is, taken seriously as poetry. Poetry, to echo the words of Navajo poets — Navajo writer Blackhorse Mitchell once told me that his work was meant as a reminder to a dominant society that he was a « human being » — and W. H. Auden (among others), is a reminder of our shared humanity and the responsibilities that come with that shared humanity. Or it can be, if we are willing to treat it as poetry, to treat it kindly.


25To read D. Bahr, Lloyd Paul and Vincent Joseph’s Ants and Orioles. Showing the Art of Pima Poetry today is to glimpse a moment in American linguistic anthropology that did not come to pass. Perhaps it could not come to pass ; we live, after all, in a society that largely ignores or dismisses poetry, considers it, at best, a useless fancy (at worse an offense against a utilitarian view of languages and life). There was a moment (1997) that took verbal art as a central animating concern in linguistic anthropology, that recognized the power of that offense called poetry20. One name for this tradition in linguistic anthropology, a name Donald Bahr aligned himself with, was ethnopoetics21. Ethnopoetics, as broadly conceived as the « the study of other peoples’ literature » seems now to be a marginal pursuit in linguistic anthropology. Perhaps it always was22. Other issues always seem more pressing, more exciting, more relevant, and more urgent, than poetries. I do not say this to slight contemporary linguistic anthropology (linguistic anthropology should never be one thing), but rather to acknowledge the trajectories that weren’t taken — or were taken but only in a limited fashion. Reading Ants and Orioles. Showing the Art of Pima Poetry is a reminder of the rewards that come from placing verbal art — poetry — at the center of concerns in linguistic anthropology. And, one hopes, a prompt as well.