Cecilia Vicuña’s “A Tongue Within Tongues” (10/21/09)
Last Wednesday evening, Chilean-born polymath Cecilia Vicuña gave a fascinating ritualistic performance on the Douglass campus of Rutgers University. Slowly entering the Mabel Smith Douglass Room behind the audience, modulating a high-pitched tonal chant, she—along with a few assistants—unfurled long strands of brightly colored wool with which they methodically distributed among the audience. Such a gesture both literally and symbolically bound the audience together indicating an alternative community—not unlike what the anthropologist Victor Turner calls communitas, which he describes as a liminal “seedbed…of cultural creativity.”
“Every seed is a space ship, a nomad planet waiting to sprout.”
—Cecilia Vicuña, from “On Behalf of Seeds” (1971)
It is not surprising then that Vicuña’s performance thematized issues of birth and creation, virtuality and fecundity in which everything at play—each word, each phrase, each sound—seemed to be on the threshold of actualization, of transforming into something else. The poetry shuttled back in forth between languages in an act of creative translation and exegesis, and the unspun wool that was threaded throughout the audience seemed to signifiy potentiality as such. In the recently released Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry (2009), Vicuña explains in “An Introduction to Mestizo Poetics” the cultural function of such a performance by linking the use of sound in Latin American Poetry to Mayan ritualistic practice: “Through carefully modulated tones in speech and song, ritual participants enter a resonant state of consciousness where mutual creation and renewal occurs…Awaiting this aural nutrition, the earth listens and responds.” This seemed to be a primary ambition of “A Tongue Within Tongues”: to provide “aural nutrition” for the earth’s “seedbeds” of creativity.
Vicuña plaintively began her performance, which was part rogue scientific lecture, part polyglot poetry reading, part song and chant, with the statement: “The poems are crying because they do not want to come out.” What followed was a series of poems that ingeniously linked creation myths to contemporary science, bridging the gap between seemingly distinct epistemological systems. For example, Vicuña recounted a creation story of two intertwining snakes of light that inseminated each other and the world and compared this braided structure to the double helix of DNA. She also poetically elaborated concepts like virtual particles and quanta—which she called “bolsitas de luz“—arguing that Western science constitutes one out of many powerful mythological frameworks.
Equally eye-opening was the Q & A session that followed in which Vicuña continued to exert her shifty and clever intelligence. After a member in the audience asked her about her use of etymologies, she noted that she both made recourse to them as well as creatively invented them, and during another answer, she noted that the word “history” comes from the Greek root “istos,” which means “weaving”—this isn’t at all surprising given that “weaving,” with its connotations of pre-Columbian textile practices, might be the master term (if there is one at all) that animates Vicuña’s poetics.
“In the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiché Maya, one of the names of God is ‘Force Entwined’.”
—Cecilia Vicuña, from “The Weaving of Words” (1990-96)
Not until I got home did I realize that “history,” in fact, comes from the word “istoria,” which means “inquiry,” and it was then did I appreciate this wonderfully transformed sense of “history” which includes a willful and wily conflation of both weaving and inquiry.
This “folk etymology” reminded me of Aldon Nielsen’s striking move in the introduction of Integral Music: Languages of African American Innovation (2004):
Interdiction has much to recommend it as a critical term. While the word intends a prohibition, it seems to seek an opening, an in-between space in which folk etymology might read a felt history of differing dictions brought into frictive contact. To interdict racism would appear to require a polyglot tongue-lashing, an interruption and eruption, a critical insertion of oneself into a dangerous space between people speaking in tongues.
This, too, bears much resemblance to the liminal, “in-between” space of Vicuña’s polyglot performances in which she attempts to “interdict,” with a “mestizo” tongue within tongues, the erasure of indigenous contributions to Latin American literary history.