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Juan Felipe Herrera Reviews The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief, Renato Rosaldo’s First Collection of Antropoesía

By Harriet Staff

Renato Rosaldo

At Los Angeles Review of Books, Juan Felipe Herrera reviews noted anthropologist Renato Rosaldo’s first collection of poetry, The Day Shelly Died: Rosaldo’s reckoning with the sudden loss of his wife and research partner, Michelle (Shelly) Rosaldo, who lost her footing and fell from a cliff into a swollen river in the Philippines while the two were conducting field research.

IN RENATO ROSALDO’s The Day of Shelly’s Death, the inner and outer elements of the poem — that is, the poetics of eyes, notes, hearts, bodies, and voices, and the whispers, murmurs, shouts, grief-howls, and body-mind-word implosions — trace out, like bullets, from what he calls the “irruption,” the “event”: his wife and research partner Shelly Rosaldo’s fatal fall from a cliff in an Ilongot village of the Northern Philippines on October 11, 1981.

These “tracings,” as Rosaldo calls them, collect, rewind, re-speak, and reveal, and make us feel as if he is still walking back and forth, staring at the crumbling rim of an irrigation trough, in the barrio of Mungayang, town of Kiangan, Ifugao province, on the day Shelly fell to her death.

Shelly and Renato had been there before, doing ethnographic research on the Ilongot in Kakidugen: for three years, 1967-’69, and again in 1974. Shelly was most interested in the notions and practices of oratory in settling disputes. Her work culminated in Knowledge and Passion: Ilongot Notions of Self and Social Life (Cambridge University Press, 1980), and Renato authored Ilongot Headhunting, 1883-1974: A Study in Society and History (Stanford University Press, 1980). Here, among other things, he contested the prevalent notions in the field of anthropology and on the rest of the island of Luzon — the common view that Ilongot peoples lacked a history — by setting out on a trek to uncover and cover Ilongot accounts of the changes they had witnessed through generations.

Somehow all this — the half-century of research, the fierce anthropological debates, the oratorical prowess of the Ilongots, the entrance into headhunter territories, the foibles and successes of Renato Ethnographer, his meditations, most of all his heart-fired eyes and tear-fed years and his return as poet-speaker nourished by losses and wounds and findings and love — all of it comes to full form in this chorale of tellings, this daybook, this book of “The Day,” broken, re-figured, and lived again.

Yet The Day of Shelly’s Death is not confessional, nor romantic, the work is not text-centered nor a set of language-to-language Legos as the old arguments in good old poetry used to go. This text is revolutionary; it presents another way, a new way of making poetry matter. Here Rosaldo performs — almost three decades past George E. Marcus and Michael M.J. Fischer anticipated the same in their groundbreaking volume, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences — a site where “ethnographic field work and writing have become the most lively current arena of innovation.” Rosaldo lays out a new map — a poetics he calls antropoesía, a verse soft-rooted in the human condition. And he makes a great case for it in the next-to-last chapter, “Notes on Poetry and Ethnography.”

Learn more at Los Angeles Review of Books and thanks to Juan Felipe Herrera for bringing this one to our attention!

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, March 17th, 2014 by Harriet Staff.