Wednesday, September 30, 2009


This is another of Mr. Sangosankin's amazing batiks. The title is Initiation. The Yoruba word for "artist," ayaworan, means "a skilled performer," according to my Yoruba/English dictionary. The manipulations of wax and dye that this work required boggle the mind. It would be wonderful to see all of these batiks, displaying the Yoruba pantheon, in one room. If that can happen in connection with YACB, it will.

Consider: "Initiation, which is the discovery of a new state of consciousness and an apprenticeship in the various ways of reaching and then leaving it, is a unique experience that will not be repeated, and one that results in an irreversible modification of the person's relations with himself, with the divinity, and with society. Once this initiation has been undergone, the modification is permanent. On the other hand, the inner change that the votary undergoes when he passes from his everyday state to his possessed state, and then reverts to his former one, naturally recurs every time he goes into a trance throughout the remainder of his life. But, and all the descriptions concur on this point, the behavioral patterns characterizing trance differ according to whether it involves a novice, a recent initiate, a confirmed adept, or an officiant experienced in the trance state. The behavior of a possessed person thus varies during his career, and his trance takes different forms depending on the stage he has reached. It is therefore essential to set trance within this dynamic process when one investigates its relations with music.
Lastly, trance as an event, is linked to the successive stages of a ceremony, and does not generally occur at just any time. A possession ritual is an architecture of time also composed of various phases connected with different kinds of music. It is thus within the dynamics of the ceremony that we need to consider the relations between music and trance."

"... in my opinion opera is nothing other, in many respects, than one of the avatars of possession. For in opera possession realizes one of its essential aspects, namely the identification of the subject with the hero by the combined means of music and drama. ...Possession is fundamentally theatrical. Reciprocally, opera, as theater, is a form of possession."

Gilbert Rouget / Music and Trance

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dan by Elena:

While we were on that remote island, in the North woods, my friend Elena Dorfman made these portraits.

Performance theory:

(The Mandrakes, Sept. 09)

What are the performers doing when they perform You'll Always Come Back?

YACB is an imagination of the ancestors. To initiate the process, I examined the artifacts associated with my father's family farm, gradually zeroing in on the period of time between 1845 and 1931. My interest was to note how my imagination (and the imaginations of others like you, kind reader...) uses categories to assemble these artifacts, and their implications, into a story, especially how exaggeration and deformation, the chief powers of imagination, are called into play. There was a point when I felt that I should declare that the story that began to emerge had little to do with what we, as a group, call history, but now I'm beginning to wonder.

Performers in YACB make the unseen world of the ancestors apparent, so that it can be observed and contemplated. In this particular work, and indeed in any work dealing with history, status of an image is equivalent to its power of duration. What endures most is by that fact the main material. Pete's Spring, the actual phenomena of the spring, exceeds all the human histories in duration, and gains thereby prominence as a symbol in the performance. It earns signification in a form that is present throughout the performance, as well as becoming a theme in the lyrics.

Consider: "Yoruba conceive spectacle as a permanent, otherworldly dimension of reality which, until REVEALED by knowledgeable actors, is inaccessible to human experience."

I've mentioned before my hypothesis that our imagination of the ancestors is a form of negotiation with the dead; I'll reanimate you (in my imagination, on my terms...) in exchange for an identity. I'm like my ancestors. I'm not like my ancestors.
I'm like what came before me. I'm not like what came before me. I am the history of actions upon me. I am not the history of actions upon me. I am the history of my acts. I am not the history of my acts - I am an actor.

This reminds me of a favorite line from a favorite movie, much about family history, Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny & Alexander", when Alexander's father, playing the ghost of Hamlet's father (they are a theatrical family...) collapses and begins to actually die on stage, or to put it another way, the actor playing the part of Alexander's father, playing the part of Hamlet's father, acts as tho, as tho, etc., says this line; "Where am I?" His wife, (an actress, of course...) tells him. "You're in the theater. You're acting." The dying man asks; "I was acting? Why was I acting?."

When we think of a performer portraying (?) a particular individual, theater in our culture tends to focus on "the important facts" ~ and these are alleged to be the significant incidents in childhood, the heroic act in battle, the conversational details of the romance, the dramatic once-in-a-lifetime decision upon which the rest of the story will hang, etc. Far more important to every human organism would be drinking water, knowing a source of drinking water, and in terms of duration, involving a considerable portion of the individual's duration. Or consider sleep. Or consider death.

A particular human, an ancestor, is permanent only in the sense that their identity is evoked in the imaginations of their descendants. As to there being an otherworldly dimension of reality, surely "the past" is the most potent example. We cannot deny its existence, yet beyond the powers of our imagination, it is utterly inaccessible to us.

To focus on the elemental, that which is (relatively) permanent, or the aspects of reality that seem to have the most duration, may seem to be "anti-theatrical" ~ how can, for instance, the importance of water in daily life, or the human inclination toward patterned behavior make a historical spectacle that is truly an evocation of the ancestors?

I think that the first impulse that I had in staging You'll Always Come Back was to reanimate, somehow, the ancestors and put them through the chronological paces of their artifacts. Today I'm thinking of how Peter Brook approached the staging of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" with his theater group. There was a point when the idea of bringing in tons of sand to cover the stage seemed the best set for the play. Brook pointed out that the final solution to staging might be to work on a bare stage, without props or set, but that this solution required just as much thought and effort as bringing in a ton of sand. You can't take things for granted in art. And in the end, one might have to bring in the ton of sand, rehearse with it, then remove it before the performance, so that the presence of the sand only lingered in the body language of the actors, this invisible, yet powerful detail providing the difference between the spectacular and the truly magical.

Brook said: "Even if it’s ancient, by its very nature theatre is always an art of modernity. A phoenix that has to be constantly brought back to life. Because the image that communicates in the world in which we live, the right effect which creates a direct link between performance and audience, dies very quickly. In five years a production is out of date. So we must entirely abandon any notion of theatrical tradition…"

Monday, September 28, 2009

You'll Always Come Back ~ a dance session:

On saturday a small group of dancers, Nancy, Dave, Lenore, Shane, Isaac, & myself, gathered at the dandyland studio for work on You'll Always Come Back. Nancy had a simple agenda. She wanted to dance the first 5 pieces straight through, so that we could begin to feel the sequence as a usual one. Rain poured down for most of the day and the studio felt quite pod-like, a little further from the outside world. Inside, the work went very well.

We all put on wrap around pieces of cloth, like sarongs, to signify the fabric poems that we'll have for the performance, & I made a mental note that how these wraps are secured will be very important. This was the first time for me to do the very slow movement that the Elementals have in the beginning dance. It amazed me that such a simple dance, basically it is walking, could have so much complexity inherent in it. At first I moved a little too fast, aiming for smoothness, but Dave yelled out "You're going too fast. The tortoise wins the race!" He's right. Once I really slowed down, I noticed that for me the best way to maintain the slowest possible pace was to break down the movement of the feet into a series of observations. Now I'm rolling off the heel, like a ball turning very slowly ~ now I'm lifting the arch; back, middle, front ~ lifting the ball of the foot now, now the toes ~ but not off the floor ~ just enough to slowly brush forward to a new position - and so on, with the foot coming down just as methodically as it was lifted. It felt good, like gliding.

Isaac was a wonder. He works with us easily and contributes great ideas. At 8, he's a natural dancer.

Dave video'd the entire session. In the evening we watched all of what we'd done during the day, and all that we did in the two days of our first workshop, sped up to last about 6 minutes, the length of the first piece of music. It was great to see the patterns of social interaction revved up to a speed that compressed the past into something akin to watching a big flock of redwing blackbirds, or a hive of bees... I'm hoping to keep turning the past processes of our development of the piece into patterns that decorate and inform the present manifestation of it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

September Song:

September and the mushroom clouds appear.
Every day is grey-toned. At night the dark sluices of
The leaf swags pour down into the darkness, splashing
And hopping across the forest floor in pattering plunks
Before seeping downward to feed the fungus.

We haven’t been here that long, but the smell
Of the fall, suspended in the aerial dampness of a
storm past, is almost infinitely here
In comparison.
The contours of the remembered scent give form
To the mist. A spectre moves through it so slowly
the air barely ripples. Without the fog,
And the wave-made phosphorescence
You’d never see it. Never look.

Haven’t the rag-like leaves darkened
As the sea does, when depth is shadowed
By looming obscurity, the vortices in it
Roiling into deep dark whirli-gigs. You wish it would
Go back to the ghost story, don’t you?
Because you’re young.

And naked, and dreaming without meaning to
That you’re in the wrong part of a town
You didn’t even know existed, rescued by
A stranger with dreads who recognizes things
like you; the dopplelganger,
Close to drowning,
Pried loose through sustained effort, but as of yet
No steering. Saved by compassion.

Why do these memories assemble themselves here,
Is it because I bid them?

The artificial worlds thicken, imagined layer on layer,
Cut with delicate shears of black tracing paper. Every
Leaf-shaped silhouette dripping with a teardrop, hanging
From horsehair, while deeper, through the interlace of the fern
Fronds, the horses surging through the spray of surf crash
Into dawn are seen. It hangs behind the table; it’s
A painting.

My mother, singing ~
The days grow short when you reach September.

The chicken factory:

Shane took this picture. I told him that this place was hidden away on a back road off a back road, but he was amazed at just how hidden. It certainly looks tidy. But to me, this is one of the most depressing pictures imaginable. I know what's happening to the creatures inside it. It's not the kind of relationship to living things that I can approve of.

We kept a small flock of chickens until a couple of years ago, when Cebah started to feel (at 87) that taking care of them in the winter, with ice and snow to walk on, was a little too dangerous for her. She kept, and milked daily, a beloved guernsey cow, until about 15 years ago, but that's another story...

The chickens had a chicken house to live in, and an open air pen to keep them safe, but during most of the day they were set free to roam around the yard, woods and garden catching bugs and worms, scratching in the dirt, etc. It was always fun to see them rush out of their pen and head for whatever took their fancy. it looked jubilant to me.

Well the chickens inside these "farm" factories never run anywhere. I bet they'd like to. Far away from a horribly overcrowded place where they live out short lives, never seeing the sun, confined so that the only thing they can do is eat and grow big enough to be slaughtered. My dad thought these were the ruination of farming, inhumane, and morally wrong. He was right.

Of course Cebah killed her chickens, one or more a week, often for sunday dinner. But at least they lived the best of chicken lives while they could, pampered and appreciated. They saw the sun. They could run.

If you eat chicken that isn't "free range" it comes from one of these factories. The story is the same with pigs and cows, maybe worse. In France it is illegal to sell meat raised this way, and it should be illegal here. In the meantime, I try to avoid meat that is produced this way. These secret factories of horror will continue until our society refuses to buy what they produce.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Box that became a Wall:

Cebah got a new recliner, & I got the box. As soon as the delivery guys pulled up, and I saw the giant cardboard box, I made my move. "I'm really glad to get this box." I said, firmly, and gripped it firmly and carried it immediately away to the studio. It's not as easy to get big cardboard boxes these days as you might think.

I needed it for this portable Wall/Hillside. I've got to have something to signify the slope of the hill around Pete's Spring - big but light weight - this deconstructed cardboard box with red clay mud stripes, tatted onto a net of baling twine, has been in my head for months! I'm glad to finally get it out. This is the prototype for a larger piece. I think it would really nice in an apartment with the right colored wall. It is for sale, but you might have to loan it to You'll Always Come Back for the performance.

While Shane & I worked on this, we listened to ISWHAT?! + Dan at 21C (thanks Brent & Tobe!) & it sounds really good to me and it was the perfect deconstruction construction music.

Once it was done, Cebah came down to see it and pronounced it unique. That's good enough for me!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Obama the Witch Doctor:

In the middle of the night I woke up and thought, just short of anxiety but wondering about myself, concerning my future initiation to orisa Sango ~ "THEY'RE going to shave my head and cut holes in it to insert (incredibly complex) "medicine" that will change me (that's the idea...) into something I don't even know what." This morning I awoke and have to wonder if I'm that different from the people who approve of this:

Yesterday my friend Ruffino asked me what term I used to categorize him and his family. I had to do some back history, describing how at first I had told someone about "the Mexican family" that I'd made friends with, self-conscious about saying it even as it came out of my mouth. I'd made friends with his father, Ruffino senior, who runs a small local "Mexican" grocery, thrilled to have someone to ferret the secrets of "Mexican" cuisine from, without bothering to discover his personal history before declaring his ethnic one, ie that he was a chef in a Greek restaurant in Chicago before he came to my hometown. Then I learned that Milly, Ruffino junior's wife, is Colombian (great! another cuisine to learn about!) added that to the guilt of rushing to add Mexicans to my crown of diversity jewels, and I decided to switch to "Chicagoans". Which didn't stick, so, now, I confess to Ruffino that I put them in the "Latino" category, but I'm not happy about it today. "At least you get the official category right." says Ruffino. Here in Smalltown, or Anytown, USA, he and his family get plenty of experience with racial prejudice, or is it color prejudice, or just "you're different" prejudice - or are they all the same thing?

When Napoleon, Jack, Brent, Toby & I were having conversations during the You'll Always Come Back workshop, the subject kept coming back, of course, to color, race, history of race relations, slavery, slave-owning, not being prejudiced, maybe being prejudiced and not recognizing it, etc. etc. - I started feeling really embarrassed about the whole mess, and advanced that I knew that it was likely, probably certain, that I personally would expose some not-so-seemly aspects of my mental construction during the show, and quite possibly discover that I'm a cad. Brent, I think it was, commented that I was brave to try it, and THAT really made me feel embarrassed ~ simply learning how to be civil does not qualify in my book as heroism. Changing the way I think is the least I can do.

My readings in post-post-deconstructionalist anthropology lead me to wonder if our brains require "the other" to even function at all. Problem. And then there's the fairly well set in stone metaphoric qualities we ascribe to colors - Light/White is good; Dark/Black is bad. Not all cultures have the same associations for colors, but languages change slower than you might think. The light dark polarity may go to our #1 fear, believed by some to have originated millions of years ago when The Dark was a big problem for edible diurnal humans, so we may be somewhat stuck with ours... You, you there, the other-colored one, the Socialist, I need you so that I can define who I am.

Seems like I remember reading that there was a point when Obama chose to be black, versus bi-racial, perhaps hoping to get the jump on categorization. Of course there's the single drop of BLOOD, versus the who can pass as what syndromes, still active in our thinking. Or at least in mine. Another thought that popped into my semi-dreaming mind a few nights back happened when I imagined my post-mortem state in the Yoruba otherworld, realized I couldn't SEE the color/race of these "others" I'd joined, and then realized, with yet another humiliating shock, that "they" are not "others"; we're all we. How did I miss that?

Ruffino joked that I was "white with a black heart" (hee! double meaning there!) & called me the "Guru of Diversity." So what's the connection between here, where I am, and the Yoruba? ~ My friend Ajala, priest in what we call a cult, deep in the heart of darkest AFRICA, is quite a bit further up the creek than diletantes like Conrad & his heart of darkness could even imagine. THEY sacrifice things there, cut off the heads and the blood flows out, and not only that they believe that the deities require it. Blood is thought to be a Sacred Offering for heaven's sake!

I'm cooking chicken for lunch, & no I didn't raise it myself, or chop off its head & personally witness the blood flow out to enrich the earth and feed the forces of nature, before I take my portion. There was no squawking, de-gutting, etc. (as there was regularly back when Cebah was in charge of chicken conversion.) It came all neatly dismembered, stacked on white plastic with more plastic wrapped over, a present really ~ an important aspect of which was that I didn't have to get mixed up personally in the killing/bloody part. But just up the road a ways, near my friend Floyd's place, there's a big metal building, tucked away behind a hill so it can barely be seen. You can't get very close to it - that's forbidden - because inside it thousands of chickens live out their short lives where the sun don't shine, and you can't turn around, and death, tho ever-present, is no big deal & blood is just another by-product. I'm going to go photograph the "plant" today, at a safe distance of course.

Then there's the Civil War, which I can't get around in YACB's frame of history, something's got to be made of it, but what, artistically speaking, is there to make something out of? "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on - Glory Glory Hallelujah, etc." (Vintage is a metaphor for blood, if you didn't notice...) The God(s) of War want Blood! It's the greatest sacrifice. It preserves our way of life. Be a hero. Let's do it over there so we won't have to do it here. Where now? Afghanistan...

I have an (unprovable) theory that the quotient of human (and animal) blood sacrificed to maintain life remains constant to population throughout history, or in other words, we spill, quart for quart, gallon for gallon, as much a flood of blood as we ever did, and maybe we always will, whether it gets offered to the god of our fathers or just hits the dirt. Maybe it's our uncivil identity. In which case can we really categorize the Yoruba way of sacrifice as particularly primitive?

Some years back a friend, herself a devotee of the orisa, warned me that "If you want to know what ostracized means, just go ahead and mention that you're studying a traditional African religion." I thought she was being over-reactive, if not naive. But the red flags do go up now ~ artistic, or any sort of freedom to question who we are, where we came from, and where we're going comes with small print fetters of factionalization. The politics of fear. And where's the great center of fear in the world still located? In blackness, no doubt.

Maybe an even worse problem for me is desire. I think black guys, specifically, are hot. But then I can somewhat justify that with the realization that pretty much all healthy men of any ethnicity look hot to me. Whew! That was a close one. Maybe I can get by by just being labeled simply queer - is that ok? Am I accepted? May I do the initiation thing too?

Rob + Dan, photo by William Cox

So what about Hope, the theme of Obama's campaign? Is there any left? When the formula "witch" + "doctor" (= African) is evoked, what's the appropriate response?

I've decided to start with myself, by testing the theory of categories and how my mind uses them to create meaning; I hereby declare that I will no longer use verbal category tags such as white, black, latino, biracial, gay, etc etc. to qualify the status of my friends. I will try to see beyond Democrat and Republican. I may not be able to restrict my food choices to the plants and animals that I personally kill, but I'm going to try to remember that they died so that I can live. Every time I eat. And I may not have the nerve to defy the god of war, but I'm not going to forget that (real) human blood is being shed so that I can go shopping.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Head Making:

Bud & Bobby dug a big ditch beside the road up the hill, an effort to lessen the road wrecking effects of hard rains. The ditch went down thru topsoil, thru red clay, and into a lighter colored layer that looked like it could be workable. Today I tested it and it seemed pretty good, so I dug a wheel barrow full and rolled it up to the studio porch. The hard part is that the clay's laid there for several million years and the tiny saucer shaped particles (clay is the smallest particle before a molecule) have gotten all higgly-piggly, which doesn't help its plasticity, and there are bits of gravel and the occasional rootlet in it. For the first time in my life, I wished for a pug mill.

A pug mill is a bit like a cement mixer, only for clay. By cutting up lumps and turning the clay it gradually smooths it to a near workable state. In the absence of a pug mill, one has one's hands. The process of returning the plasticity to clay is called wedging.
It's a bit like working really tough dough; pushing and smearing with the palms, then adding a twist and turning it back in on itself. A lump the size of a grapefruit is about what the hands can handle. It takes about 8 of those to make one of these heads for the head choosing scene in You'll Always Come Back. I'd like to have about 30 heads on a shelf - enough to look like a lot - the kicker is that they're to be broken as part of the performance. This clay should fire to a bright red-orange terra cotta shade & I want to contrast that with a lot of deep vivid indigo blue, a very little natural golden rope, & a tiny bit of emerald green.

The easiest method may be to make a slurry mold and cast the heads. To do that, I'd insert some metal or paper tabs in a row round the head, bisecting it through the center of the face from top to bottom, then encase the head in plaster. When the plaster hardens, the tabs make it easy to divide the plaster mold into two halves. The model head can be removed, the mold rejoined and a thick slurry of clay poured in and back out, repeating until a layer about a half-inch thick is formed. After the clay sets up a bit, the mold can be removed and reused. Enter the production line.

The cone shape at the top of the head represents the "ORI INU" - the inner, or spiritual head, equivalent to a person's destiny, chosen in the universal potter's shop before birth.

Friday, September 18, 2009

ISWHAT?! + Dan @ 21C Museum

photos by Ken Hayden

The Egungun

"Egungun masks are regarded as physical representations of ancestral spirits. ... as representations of spirits, the masks do not portray dead individuals, per se...

"Egungun performances reshape perceptions of the world and give concrete form to ontological concepts. Ritual specialists bring that which is normally inaccessible, unseen, or imagined, into the phenomenal world where it can be observed and contemplated. Through a practical mastery of performance techniques, the maskers manipulate the perceptual world, the world as it is experienced daily; they play upon, embellish, and transform reality. The "as if" becomes "is" as illusion becomes its own reality, or more appropriately, illusion reveals an otherwise undisclosed reality. The performers possess "ase", the power to bring things into existence"

from Yoruba Ritual by Margaret Thompson Drewal

This is parallel to the aim of You'll Always Come Back ~ itself an improvised ritual.

"The improvised ritual is workshop, rehearsal, and finished performance all at the same time. It is the occasion when masters continue to refine their skills and when neophytes learn in plain sight of everyone. That is part of the attraction."


"The performance process is a continuous rejecting and replacing. Long running shows - and certainly rituals are these - are not dead repetitions but continuous erasings and superimposings. The overall shape of the show stays the same, but pieces of business are always coming and going. This process of collecting and discarding, of selecting, organizing, and showing, is what rehearsals are all about. And its not such a rational, logical-linear, process as writing about it makes it seem. It's not so much a thought-out system of trial and error as it is a playing around with themes, actions, gestures, fantasies, words; whatever's being worked on. From all the doing, some things are done again, and again; they are perceived in retrospect as "working," and they are "kept." They are, as it were, thrown forward in time to be used in the "finished performance."

from Between Theater and Anthropology by Richard Schechner

Ajala sent these photographs of the Egungun mask without explanation, so I'm improvising....

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Night Dance:

This painting of a katchina night dance is by a young Hopi artist from Polacca, Emmett Navakuku. After a lot of focus on Yoruba culture, it is wonderful to contemplate the similarities and differences between the Yoruba orisas and the Hopi katchinas. The katchina dances of the Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblos of New Mexico are among the great treasures of human culture. Economically speaking these villages, now contained within "reservations", are poor, yet their art, as revealed in these dance performances, are aesthetically astounding events of incredible richness that fuse dance, music, storytelling, cosmology, ritual, jewelry and costume design in deeply moving performances that have survived for centuries. If you haven't attended one, I'd recommend making a space in your life to do it. Witnessing these dances gave me courage and inspiration for my work, and renewed the vision that drives it.

The presence of a flashlight in this painting is such a beautiful, and hopeful observation. It deepens the mystery ~ Emmett says "Hey I paint it as I see it. lol."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Battle of Dutton Hill:

The North, 1,250 men, under the command
of General Gilmore, with orders to attack vigorously
The South, raiding Kentucky for supplies, now in
retreat (“over 2,600,
us over two to one”), under General Pegram, he
much disliked
& considered a fool by his own men. The advance began
as soon as the horses were fed, on the morning
of March 30th, 1862.

(The Shakers noted hard frost, & the potential
loss of the peach crop, the trees being in full bloom.)

From Buck Creek, some ten miles north
Of Somerset, the advance was soon engaged with
The rear guard of the retreat, forcing them
Back, until about noon, when the position
Of the main body was developed, strongly posted
On Dutton’s Hill.

“It soon became evident that we were greatly
outnumbered, and that if it had been the intention
of the enemy to draw us from beyond the support
of our infantry, so as to place us at a disadvantage, he had
apparently succeeded.”

“I formed line of battle
by placing Wolford (dismounted) on the right, in the woods, Garrard
and the artillery (one section of Rodman rifles and four mountain howitzers)
on open ground in the center, and Runkle (dismounted) on the left,
with open ground in his front, and the Somerset Road between him
and the center.”

Thus the entire command was placed in one line, but a fictitious
Reserve was improvised by posting horses, rear of center, partially
Concealed in the woods. “It was ascertained after the action
That the enemy regarded this as a strong cavalry reserve, and
It consequently counted passively as such during the action.”

“The fight commenced by artillery firing on both sides,
About 12:30 pm. At the same time a column of mounted troops
Was seen to leave the enemy in front of our center and disappear
In the woods in front of our right. Wolford
Was almost immediately hotly engaged with them, and
Unable to hold his own, was slowly forced back to his left and rear
Toward the road.”

“A small force of the enemy, passing entirely around Wolford’s
Right, gained the road in my rear, across which
The line was formed, and captured
Three horses from the ambulances attached to the command.”

At this juncture I ordered Runkle, on the left, and a portion
Of Garrard’s cavalry, in the center, under Major Norton,
To storm the hill.”

“This was done with great coolness
and gallantry,
and with but trifling loss to us,
as most of the enemy’s musket fire passed
over the heads of the advancing troops.”

“As the fighting still continued with great spirit in the woods
on my right, where our success in carrying the hill was not yet known,
I dispatched a portion of the cavalry
By the same route which the enemy had taken in his detour
In that direction, to attack him in the rear…

At the same time informing Colonel Wolford
Of this movement, with orders to make the best fight
He could
Until his succor arrived.”

The action was soon
Brought to a successful close in that part of the field,
For the enemy,
Finding himself attacked in the rear,
And knowing from this
That we must have carried the right
Of their line on the hill, fled
In confusion
By two roads
Toward the ford of the Cumberland River.

A rapid pursuit was ordered
As soon as the troops for that purpose could be
Got together,
And the enemy was found posted behind
Temporary defenses
In another strong position
About three miles south of Somerset.

As night had already set in,
And as my effective command had been
Reduced to about 900 men
By killed, wounded, stragglers, and
Detachments to guard prisoners, it was
Not deemed proper
To make a night attack.

The enemy withdrew during the night
And re-crossed the Cumberland River.

The only report which I made at the time
Of the action was contained in two
Telegraphic dispatches…

“I attacked the enemy yesterday
at a strong position of his own selection,
defended by six cannon,
near this town, fought him for five
hours, driving him from one position
to another, and finally stormed
his position and drove him in confusion
toward the river.
His loss
Is over 500 in killed,
Wounded, and prisoners.
Night stopped the pursuit, which will be renewed
In the morning.

We have re-taken between 300 and 400 cattle.”

So Gilmore recounted,
Louisville, KY., April 1, 1863

Monday, September 14, 2009

Wearing the Beads:

4:30 am, driving east, the dark
of the distant horizon
split by a sudden lance of lightning ~

Later, even deeper in,
Each bead is a pod of sleep
Three beings are there, for me they’re men,
the subtle currents
Of their meaning are seed-like
Concentrations, still distant potential
But aligned on the strand of time,
And tied round my wrist and neck.

The earth, and all living things
are laced with unseen brightnesses.
The lodestones arc their prayers
To the nodes of friction in the clouds,
Every cell has an elf with a switch,
Clicking the code of on and off,
Red white, cool hot ~ the charges ripple
Down the sperm's whiptail
And course contained
In the ovum’s membrane.

Praise – imagine the ripples
In a pond reversed, rushing
toward the hollow center
of the moment before
the bolt leaps to the sky,
threading this to that,
then to now, the strand
tied for your sake,
as a reminder.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Sango Festival in Osogbo

This may be the most ambitious blog I've ever tried.

I'd mentioned earlier that Ajala Sangosankin, a Yoruba living in Osogbo, Osun State, Nigeria, offered to teach me about the orisa, or deities, personified forces of nature sacred to the Yoruba people who are devotees of the religion indigenous to that country. I am thrilled to have a teacher with first-hand experience, after studying the phenomena in books over 20 years, mostly as described by ethnologists, not practitioners. One of the amazing effects of our digital age is that tribal people around the world are beginning to show the world how they view their own traditions, unmoderated by anthropologists trained in an alien system of beliefs, and often having a condescending assessment at best.

I remember in my teens reading in the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology that Africa HAD nothing, really, that qualified as a genuine mythology, only a hodge-podge of barely formed stories and some crude "fetishes". But then, no one really wanted to believe that anything good could come out of "The Dark Continent" in academia in those days. I was skeptical of the Encyclopedia's dismissal, and my hunch turned out to be right. Of all the mythologies I've studied, and that would be several, none are more exquisitely complex and subtle than the Yoruba.

With that said, I'll wade into describing what I think is going on in the photographs that Ajala sent to me of the recent Sango festival in Osogbo. He sent these to me so that I could look, learn, and ask questions, and he has assured me that I may share them if I wish. I'll admit to some hesitation, since some of the images are of Ebo, or sacrifice, and for some strange reason our culture doesn't mind bloodshed much as long as it isn't seen, and isn't considered sacred. So if you blanch at such, you may want to back out of this blog now.

As we began to talk on the phone, and email back and forth, I described for Ajala a series of lucid dreams that I've had over the years that conform to the complex of images associated with the orisa Sango. Before the rationalists attack, I would like to make it clear that in the world of the orisa it doesn't matter a whit which came first, the metaphysical chicken or the breakfast egg ~ so whether my dreams were influenced by what I read about Sango is beside the point. The point is that I found the imagery attractive enough to engage with it in my dreams. Ajala spoke with his father, also a Sango initiate, (and coincidentally a fine artist) about my dreams, and about the stone axehead I have, found on the Dutton farm, both indications that a person may be a "child of Sango", a potential initiate.

Sango is the orisa of lightning, dance, drumming, justice and male sexuality; all things that strike with force. As a metaphor, the idea is that Sango Ase is the effect of great force wielded with great precision. Red hot balanced by White cool. Yorubaland has more lightning than any place on earth, around 40 earth strikes per square mile a year, so there's plenty of opportunity to witness what great force striking with great precision can do. Sango's symbol is his double-headed axe, thrown in the thunderbolt, and sometimes found where they hit the earth, in the form of neolithic stone axe heads. Such a stone is a poetic and literal connection to the orisa, and are treated as such by the children of Sango.

Sango priests, and on a more intimate scale, all initiates, keep an altar for Sango. There's a simple poetic concept at work, and that is that things, power included, can be contained, and that metaphysical things are contained where you put them. Basically an altar to the orisa is an arranged accumulation of containers that effectively contain what you consider to be sacred.
These objects are tended to, and the tending, involving both thought and action, constitute an important aspect of your relationship with the sacred. How you do it is how it is. The first and most important orisa that you should pay attention to is your own head, since all of your understanding, and thus all your relationship with the universe and everything in it, depends on the nature of your thoughts. So you should strive to have good character. The consequential good thought will result in good deeds. Anyone who knows the procedure could go through the motions of ritually tending the orisa, but what is worth doing, as my Aunt Marguerite used to say, is worth doing well.

Ajala's father advised him that the oracle, Ifa, should be consulted to discover what might be done about someone on another continent having both Sango dreams and a Sango stone. If I had been born Yoruba, there would have been little doubt as to where these signs were headed, but the Ifa diviner would have been consulted in any event, to find out the Odu, or destiny path involved from the orisa point of view (Ifa ~ the divination ~ is the interface between the orisa and human affairs) and what the prescribed sacrifice should be. The procedure of divination is carried out on an Opun-Ifa, a divining board, typically a wooden plate with a carved rim. The rim usually has a face of Esu, the boundary crossing messenger orisa. The board is spread with a little wood dust from a tree sacred to the orisa, for the diviner to make marks in. The diviner taps the board with a carved tapper, to attract both human and orisa attention, goes through a series of picking up handsfuls of the ikin, a kind of nut, to arrive at a sequence of 8 double or single marks arranged in two columns. These two columns together indicate an Odu ~ all 256 of them have names (the mathematical permutations will give 256 possible combinations), and all of them have associated proverbs and prescribed sacrifices. It is the diviner's job to memorize an entire set (there isn't a SINGLE set of 256, since these are passed on orally, but many, and a diviner may know more than one proverb for any particular odu.) Traditional cultures are known for amazing feats of memory, but the Ifa diviners may well take the cake in that regard. Imagine memorizing and being able to recite, from any verse point, the bible and you get the picture.

Sango initiates tend their own altars when the time is right, some more often than others. The objects need to be refreshed at times by interacting with them. This could be weekly (the traditional Yoruba week is 4 days) or monthly, but once a year each community with Sango initiates will likely have a Sango festival with dancing, storytelling, ritual cleaning and renewing of altars, sacrifice, and feasting. This happened last week in Osogbo, and that was the occasion for Ajala to not only make the Ebo (sacrifice) recommended by the odu which indicated that I should be initiated to Ifa and Sango, but also to document the event with digital photographs. Someone else may have done this, but if they have, I've never seen it.

Here are the photos, in something like chronological order. In some cases I know pretty much what is being shown, because Ajala has explained it, or it conforms to what ethnologists have described in the books I've read. But no single individual "knows" all about Ifa, or Sango ~ like all belief systems, it is a community affair. I'm keeping in mind that the sole reason I'm being admitted into this experience is because the oracle has confirmed my status in relation to the orisa. I feel honored that Ajala and his family have welcomed me so warmly.

Picking the orisa medicine leaves

Picking Sango's bitter kola nuts

The collection of orisa medicine leaves

Washing the Sango thunderstone in orisa medicine

Ajala and the Ifa diviner

Ajala's family altar

The Ebo


The Elders of Osogbo assembled for the Sango festival

Ajala's sister dancing at the Sango festival

Ajala's father dancing at the Sango festival

I want to go to Osogbo!

After seeing the images that Ajala sent to me this morning I said "That does it. I'm going to Osogbo." I know that Osogbo, in Osun State, Nigeria, is an artist colony, a center for Yoruba orisa worship, and an UNESCO world heritage site, but I had no idea that the art was so wonderful, and omnipresent, until Ajala began to enlighten me! Nothing that I had read, or seen in books, prepared me for the fantastical & whimsical approach that the artists in Osogbo have developed. And they have seamlessly maintained continuity with the traditional arts of the past as well. These photos astound me!

Iron Melting ~

Ajala just sent this image of another of his father's batiks. I think it is a masterpiece! The batik (wax resist, indigo and plant dyes on cotton) is titled "Iron Melting". It depicts the collection and melting of scrap iron, part of the festival for Ogun, the orisa of iron, and so Ajala tells me, one of the biggest events of the year for the Yoruba people.

Here's what Ajala wrote to me:


The history of the forge in Yorubaland is very ancient, going back into prehistory, & of course the forging of metal tools and weapons marks a turning point in how humans get things done. The people of Nigeria developed very refined skills of metal working ~ witness the so-called "Ife Bronzes" - heads cast in bronze, circa 1100, using the "lost wax" method, found in and around Ile Ife, the old capital.

(Here's an interesting interactive image of one such: )

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fabric Poem for YACB skirt ~

This is the first text for You'll Always Come Back, written in bleach on navy cotton fabric. The poems will be skirts for the elemental dancers. The text is written top to bottom, left to right, like Japanese. The square spacer between each word is a potato print.