Triplets Duet

One day in May 2011, well known Osage scholar Carter Revard, sent a poem out to friends and fellow teachers. He said:

“I have been tinkering with the last ternary of that “Crusader Triplets” squib. You will recall Oscar Wilde’s account of a poet’s day: “I have spent all day working on a poem and am completely exhausted. In the morning, I put in a comma. In the afternoon, I took it out.” In my case, the rehab was a little more extensive: I took out “King Tut” and put in “Holy land”; and I moved line two up to line one. Here is what so far looks final.”

Margaret Noodin, a linguist and poet from Anishinaabe country, replied with an interpretation of his ideas. Together their poem became something new – a blend of historical lyric and indigenous imagery. What follows is the collaborative effort which was also published in Natural Bridge Literary Journal. Each author also wrote an explanation which is included here.

English by Carter Revard. Anishinaabe (with Translation) by Margaret Noodin.

Crusaders at Ease in Zion
Zhamaaganishag Enji-Manitokiing (Warriors in the Land of Spirits)

Grape juice
God’s Blood

Wheat stalk
God’s Body
Sacher torte

Holy land

Miinabo (Berryjuice)
Miiskwabo (Liquid blood)
Shkodeabo (Firewater)

Manoomiinaganzh (Rice stalks)
Gos wiiaw (Our Fathers body)
Zaaskokwe-bakwezhigan (Frybread)

Anishinaabekiing (Indian Country)
Ozaawaa-ba (The One With Gold Gone)
Ogima bid (The Leader Here)


Carter Revard’s Explication

TD-Carter-RevardDear Dru, and Meg,

I will attach to this note the text of my piece as now worded, and would be happy to see it printed alongside Meg’s. Meg, thanks very much for your quick and (though I speak as someone all too ignorant of Anishinaabe language and culture) very interesting glossing/translation of the piece.

Brief notes here, Dru, so that Meg and you can see what I was trying to bring off in the piece. It may be, Meg, that you will find the notes useful if you want to re-jigger any of your glosses/translations. The shape of the poem as I would like it printed, with a top “cross-bar” above a vertical “post,” is meant to be cruciform, just to exemplify the “Crusaders” notion.

The TITLE is intended to clarify and, once a reader has worked down through the nine lines, to illuminate the whole piece by setting its cultural context.

TRIPLETS I hope is clear enough–it implies that each of the three-line pieces is an identical sibling of the others, and that within each triplet, the first lines match up, the second lines match up, and the third lines match up, as “Same But Different.”

The word CRUSADER applies to each of the triplets, culminating in Osama and Obama, each trying to regain or to assert imperial control of what each defines as a holy land; the Christian takeover of what is now the United States is akin to the Old Testament conquest of Canaan and establishment of the Davidic kingdom, to the Islamic conquests of much of the Middle East, Africa, and Iberia, to the medieval Crusades that for a time reconquered and controlled the Holy Land, and to Osama’s notion of jihad applied as holy war against the infidels to regain the Islamic empire (that’s my limited understanding of bin Laden’s efforts).

The phrase AT EASE IN ZION has, in English, a very deep Biblical resonance, beginning in the Old Testament, and echoing on down through the New Testament and Christian preachers to this day. Offhand, I cannot recall just which prophets and Gospel/later writers used it, nor which later preachers might best be cited as using it. As I understand the phrase, however, it was used in a scornful way to describe those who, having conquered Canaan and set a sacred temple on Mount Zion, and having grown wealthy and powerful, sank down into worldliness and complacent ease, arrogantly dominating and treating with contempt the poor and marginal people under their rule, and bureaucratizing God-relations. (I hope readers who know the history of that phrase far better than I ever could might at some point weigh in and correct/amplify/refine the understanding of it: those with deep rabbinical or Christian-seminary training for instance.)

In the first triplet, “Grape juice” sounds innocent and natural, but of course for Christians the very notions of vineyards, grapes, the juice of grapes used to make wine–all these inevitably carry over into sacralized meanings. In English medieval and later history, “Bunch of Grapes” might be the name of a room in a tavern, but the phrase has religious meanings that everyone used to know not only from preachers but from church imagery (wall paintings, windows, misericords, manuscript illuminations…). So, the second line in that first triplet, “God’s blood,” is the sacralized version of “grape juice”–Communion wine, that is. The third line, however, “Champagne,” is a kind of grape wine that so far as I know has never been used for Communion (but in theory it could be, I suppose?). Champagne is the wine for those truly “at ease in Zion.” It is wine used for secular celebrations, though often, even now, for what used to be sacramental occasions such as marriage. A magnum of champagne, a cup of Communion anybody?

In the second triplet, “Wheat stalk” is parallel to “Grape juice”: the innocent and natural, though of course the “cultured” rather than “just natural” (the words CULTURE and CULTIVATED go back, I remind myself, to the Latin word for “plow, plowing”). And line two, “God’s body,” is the Communion bread of the Last Supper, and so on. But line three, parallel to “champagne,” is the delicious over-the-top rich cake called “Sacher torte.” To eat that, I think, you need to be really at ease in Zion, especially if you eat it “mit Schlag” (whipped cream), which for some reason I associate with occasions in Germany or Austria where I recall (accurately or not?) having a slice of Sacher Torte in a cafe.

So by the time we get to the third triplet, the pattern is: line one = more or less innocent and natural though cultivated; line two = a sacralized version of line one; and line three is the relatively bourgeois/decadent version of lines one and two. In this way, we get:

Holy land.



I only need to emphasize one point about the first line: after some very helpful colloquy with my friend and former student Francis Ingledew, I thought it would be best to UNcapitalize “Land”–my intention being to unsettle expectations attached to the set phrase “Holy Land,” which would have pointed to just ONE location (Israel/Palestine), and to (instead) allow the phrase to refer to ALL land as “holy.” Arcane, I realize, but a careful reader does understand that capital letters matter a very great deal. And here, Meg, I don’t know what kind of “equivalent” you might be able to come up with for an Anishinaabe equivalent: the term you provide and render in English as “Indian country” may well have the strength needed for the job. I assume that spoken Anishinaabe has vocal and bodily signals that convey these paralinguistic implications, but written Anishinaabe may not yet have developed comparable conventions involving capitalization, italicizing or boldfacing or whatever, which have only developed in written English since about 1800. (Please let me note that I do understand writers of English were USING capital letters in very special and meaningful ways from much earlier than 1800, but in my old History of the English Language and other courses I used to bring to the last weeks of classes photocopies of printed texts from 16th through 20th centuries to talk about a few of the special semiotic uses of these shapes and sizes and colors of alphabetic forms–and the development of punctuation marks into relatively systematized usages.)

Okay, you will see that in setting “Osama./ Obama” as the last few lines I have left matters in a pretty complicated fix. Osama, paradoxically, is in the line associated with a sacramentalized Crusading role; Obama, in the line associated with Champagne and Sacher Torte, is placed as very much at ease in Zion. But the title is meant to apply to all the members of each Triplet. I mean to imply that the United States, exactly like Al Qaida, and no matter who is leading it at a given point, is “imperially crusading,” and that we are living in a Champagne and Sacher Torte version of such a crusading era. This is probably not a popular view, and I will qualify it by saying that I very much prefer Obama to such (rightwing?) Christians and Jews and Muslims and other wouldbe sacred emperors who are his leadership rivals in the world just now. But any leader of the United States in 2011, it seems to me, is leading an imperial and crusading nation, and I am very unhappy about (among other things) all the attention being given (in the celebrations for the death of bin Laden) to the perhaps 10,000 deaths of American citizens so far, and the deliberate ignoring of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings in Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. At ease in Zion, surely. But it is worth reading the new biography of Obama’s mother, just to see the account of the massacres of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians by their countrymen, in the name of anti-Communisim, that had taken place just before Obama’s mother went to live in Indonesia–and the way Indonesians had to keep silent about those massacres.

All right: I did say this would be longwinded and pedantic, now it has become ideological, so time to knock it off.

Incidentally, to respond indirectly to Jace Weaver’s very welcome and helpful delurking, I should acknowledge a kind of debt to Sherman Alexie here. His wonderful sonnets using just the proper names of poets and the like were a great surprise and inspiration. I think those are in part behind my efforts on this short piece, though it began as just waking up at five a.m. or so with the realization that these Triplets were out there and the words for them could be found. I’m grateful to Sherman for the shadow-help, though he may wish I had not “linked” him to it! And I always think of Simon Ortiz’s poems, from which I learn things every time I go back and read them. Lately I have been reading again in John Milton and Robert Frost, and every time I look through their poems I am lost in wonder and delight. Just saying, those guys are way out of my league, but they help me run the bases.



(Margaret Noodin’s Explication)


Because deleting is easy for those not interested, I left this on the ListServ to at least share the delight that poems in indigenous languages can engage the contemporary review of history as well and any other dominant or “classic” language. I attached a pdf of the version I would consider final but I’m not sure if it will send. If not, curious birds can email me for it.

Because Carter says so much so well, I’ll only add the following comments:

Indeed translation, the transfer of ideas from one nation or perspective to another, is rarely one of algebraic equality. Carter’s poem had a sentiment I wanted to try to capture in Anishinaabe, but the play of words and ideas created not one, but two, new poems as I moved from his English to my Anishinaabe which then required my own English again to explain the leaps and gaps.

I’ve attached a pdf of the way I would lay it out echoing not as much the Franciscan Tau, but the medicine wheel which, with a title, can easily absorb a tryptych of ideas.

Because my reading of Zion includes everything from Jews to Rastafarians, I translated it as that place where the spirits dwell, the home of the ancestors and spirits and peace . . . and also a place where one might, as Carter says, become too comfortable.

In each triplet, the nouns represent translation (in one case transmogrification) from one culture to another.

In the eastern triplet the berry juice (I could have said zhoomiinabo / grape juice) rhymes with the drink of blood and firewater that follow. When I can, I stretch meaning to maximize the beauty of the sounds in the language.

In the western triplet the manoomiin (wild rice which contains the “miin” morpheme from the set above) changes to an edible anthropomorphic manito and finally to commodity based fry bread, now a staple at pow wows. It also represents the “Pan-Indianizing” of native america from a distinctly Anishinaabe (Ottawa, Potawatomi and Ojibwe) food, to the non-nutritious wafers offered by the missionaries, to the generic white flour fried dough which leads to diabetes.

In the southern triplet “Anishinaabekiing” is what any of our speakers will translate as “Indian Country” which is a reminder that in our language we considered ourselves indigenous and all others “strangers.” It is also a connection to the US Army’s continued use of native terms in military action. As any soldier will tell you, “Indian Country” is “Enemy Territory.” For whom is Anishinaabekiing still “enemy territory” . . . perhaps most of all to those who strive to reach it like an unknown holy land affirming sovreginity. We are so often our own worst enemies and our own past is perhaps the place hardest for many communites to remember in the context of colonialism, industrialism and capitalism.

Thinking long and hard about the sound play of Osama and Obama I chose to represent in words that also rhyme the loss of material wealth which is what Osama had in his country and used against the US to target the World Trade Center. The fall of “gold,” of capital; the use of riches against riches is what what I tried to invoke. And Ogima was so close in sound to Obama that it was a perfect fit. Both of these nouns have verb morphemes as reminders we are speakers who lean toward action. The “ba” indicates one who is actually dead and the “bid” indicates one who is alive and located in a nearby place.

Thanks for indulging the experiment for those still reading!

Bizaan / Pax et Bonum / Peace,

Maaganiit / Margaret / Meg