Ancestors and Species: New & Selected Ethnographic Poetry, Tom Lowenstein
[9.95, Shearsman Books]


For as long as human culture has existed, 'Ethnopoetics' have surely also always existed, although perhaps never by that name. The oral traditions and poetries of different cultures exist in their own right and in relation to those written and printed cultures of 'civilization'. Such 'Ethnopoetics' have only been accorded this name, however, for a couple of centuries and, through such definition, have come to form a contrast to the highly cultured verse of the 'Western Canon'.

'Ethnographic poetry', as demonstrated by Lowenstein's latest book - a rich and dense poetry that Ted Hughes praised as 'original among young British poets - quite exceptionally gifted' - is the process of a researcher both actively participating in and observing a community. Why? In order to understand it and represent it; in order to generate new imaginative frissons between alternative forms of transcendent 'literatures'; and perhaps even to preserve the orality of the culture before it dwindles and disappears with those individuals in whom it is invested.  In Lowenstein's case, his subjects are the Alaskan Inuits with whom he has lived and worked at various stages of his life since the mid 1970s. Lowenstein has written his own poems; he has also included the oral poems and stories of his observed subjects, to create a written text of his findings. In this sense, Lownstein's work - and indeed all ethnographic work - functions as a comparative approach, and is balanced somewhere between poetry and scholarship.

Whilst the early modernist movements explored the oral poetries of Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas, and Pound and others looked to the East, other Twentieth Century writers have developed the genre with works about, and including, other cultures. One thinks of Jerome Rothenberg's
Technicians of the Sacred and his late 60s editing of the magazine Alcheringa; Gleason's Leaf and Bone: African Praise Poems; and Adrie Kusserow's  Hunting Down the Monk (Boa Editions, 2002) - that explores comparative representations of West meets east and east meets West in poetry - to cite but a few. In these cases, and others, 'Ethnographic Poetry' has traditionally taken a characteristic emphasis on low-technology cultures; on orality and non-literate cultures, and (as I have hopefully shown) is situated somewhere between literature and cultural and social anthropology. It links the contemporary poem to both Romanticism and Modernism via Primitivism, and the avant garde tendency to explore new and varied alternative forms, subverting the hegemony of the literary poetic of the West. And it demonstrates the postmodern tendency to question and problematise genre. In these senses, Lownstein's work is a model of its kind.

Lowenstein's poetry also adheres to other central tenets of the Ethnographic school: it's emphasis on the shaman as the paradigmatic proto-poet; its celebration of rich sub-cultures, orality and wilderness; its fusing of both physical, biologic and psychic terrains; its multi-faceted, multiply voiced structures; and its comparisons of the individual expression of a Western visitor with the communal poetries he encounters. It is an admirable and intelligent work that contains much to be admired and praised for its scholarly and humanistic intents. It also resists paraphrasing. But if Shamen, whale hunts, men-becoming-animals, song, dance, orality, anthropology, nature, birds and bones, human intrigue, the betrayal of cultures, myth, goddesses, deep magic, Otherness, Difference and much more appeal to you, then this is a remarkable book both for its subject matter and for its poetry. You won't read anything else like it this year.

          Andy Brown 2006