Poetry in translation / July 2011 (Issue 14)

Dead Drum (Go zzi si)

by Aku Wuwu, translated from Nuosu Yi by Mark Bender, with Aku Wuwu

Before it died,
that shaman’s drum,
had tears like a wall of stone,
and laughter that roared like a flood;
though lacking hands or feet
it soared over mountains,
and across rivers,
and climbed up the steepest cliffs.
There wasn’t a spot between heaven and earth it hadn’t gone:
no sound of its steps in the forests,
no sound of its steps in the seas.

The spirits of the black-skinned ones,
the winged ones,
the wearers of palm copra clothing,
those fleeced with scissors, and so on,
served as its emissaries to the ghosts;
just like at the time of creation
the spirit Sysse Dihni sent
many emissaries to the human world. [i]
The drum could call forth both the dead and the living
to meet upon a bloody animal skin.
Yet, each could see only half of the other.
The unseen is unseen
because of the red blotches on the hide,
like clouds in the sky.

Before dying
the drum would speak with the ghosts,
then return to speak with the living,
like a fine steed galloping around its race track.
But the drum did not know
if it was a horse,
or if it was the race track.
It was like a
carved wooden memory stick,
half black and half white.

If in those homes with drums
a woman soiled the drum,
the belly of the family sow would suddenly explode;
if a man broke the taboo of eating dog,
the family ox would trip, dropping dead in the furrows.

The mother of the drum
was the highest spring on the highest mountain.
Yet, the spring was encircled by rocks,
so water could not flow--
water bubbling as if boiling in a dream.

The shaman’s drum was like
the musk glands of a water deer--
its value realized only after death.

Before the shaman’s drum died,
it had become like
the only stud boar
in a mountain village
-- constantly lent out. [ii]
The drum’s stories are held all within the drumstick,
just as oars hold a boat’s life while on the sea.

When the shaman of that village was beaten to death
by the sse ghost;
it is said that after he was killed
two buckwheat cakes were given him [iii]
for the trip on the road of the dead:
one was eaten by the “corpse rooting pig,”
the other was hung on a tall fir tree,
becoming a bell
that rings high in the mountains.

[i] Among the Nuosu people of southwest China, the names of animals used in sacrifices cannot be spoken, thus they are referred to with euphemisms such as the “black-skinned ones” for pigs, chickens, and goats. Palm copra clothing is a coded reference to Han Chinese (Hxiegma), while wool-bearing sheep (fleeced with scissors) refers to the Nuosu people. Sysse Dihni is a heavenly god mentioned in the early parts of the Book of Origins (Hnewo teyy), an epic narrative that relates the origins of life on earth.

[ii] Farm families do not like raising boars, as it is more economical to raise sows and piglets. Both boars and sows can be loaned out for free to close relatives, or with the expectation that a certain number of baby pigs will be given back to the owner of the sow. A boar would normally only be engaged for a short time, and after a while a small pig or two would be returned as payment. A village, or cluster of villages, may have only one shaman (sunyi) with his (or occasionally her) drum, the specialist helping individual families as needed (often to cure illness, or aid in difficult births) – so the drum is connected to life, just as the boar is to sacrifices.

[iii] Usually only one buckwheat cake (shaka) is provided for the dead for his or her trip to the land of the ancestors. But here the shaman was given two – suggesting one buckwheat cake was actually the shaman’s drum, which could not (in accord to custom) be left in the home after his death. During a funeral a pig (mo nbu vo, corpse-rooting-pig) is kept near the corpse, and it’s soul helps to initially direct the person’s way to the land of the dead. During the cremation, the pig is killed and eaten by the relatives. The image of bells on trees is mentioned in some Yi classical works. It is unclear if the references are to the custom of hanging a shaman’s drum in the mountains after his or her death.

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