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University of Toronto Quarterly 76.3 (2007) 890-912

Remembering Offence:
Robert Bringhurst and the Ethical Challenge of Cultural Appropriation
Nicholas Bradley
Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Victoria

Two epigraphs introduce The Calling (1995), Robert Bringhurst's Selected Poems. One comes from The Odyssey. The other, as Bringhurst explains in his foreword to the collection, 'comes from an oral poet in another great but less widely taught tradition' (13); that epigraph is taken from 'the only surviving fragment of a poem spoken in Haida in the winter of 1900 by Job Moody of the Sttawaas Xhaaydaghaay [and] transcribed by a linguist named John Swanton.' While the untranslated, untransliterated line from Homer may well be understood by those readers who have some training in classical Greek, the fragment of Moody's 'poem,' in the original Haida, will be unpronounceable and unintelligible to virtually all of Bringhurst's readers: 'Gam hay hla guudangangghi suuganggangga. / Sghaana qidas tsiiyahlingaay gaawun diigi suuwus. / Ghaagaanhau hl suuwugangga' (13). In 1991, the linguist M. Dale Kinkade classified Haida as among the Native languages in Canada 'likely to be lost unless strong efforts are made very quickly to perpetuate them' (163); more recent studies of the Haida-speaking population do not contradict this unfortunate assessment.1 Once Bringhurst provides a translation of the Haida text in The Calling, however, the relevance of the quotation to his own poetic ambitions becomes clear: 'I am not speaking from my own mind. / The gods tell me they need places to live. / That is the reason I am speaking.' He suggests that these lines can be understood to express one of the functions of poetry, to connect the present age to the wisdom of the past and to the beauty of the natural world. Poetry, he explains, can establish a link to the 'homeless gods ... who dream of alpine meadows, rivers, rocks and trees and coral reefs and coves,' yet who are 'forced to make do for a time with a diet that might consist of little more than sterile earth and poisoned air and water' (14). Bringhurst proposes, in other words, that poetry offers a connection to a realm that is more authentic and ancient than the industrialized, despoiled world in which the poet and his readers live.

As literary devices, the epigraphs and Bringhurst's explication of them are highly effective: they powerfully and evocatively introduce his poetry's concern with mythology, wisdom, and ecology. They suggest to the reader [End Page 890] a way of understanding the poems in The Calling; the epigraphs, in this case, represent far more than 'un geste muet dont l'interprétation reste à la charge du lecteur,' as Gérard Genette describes the epigraph in his analysis of paratexts (145).2 They indicate Bringhurst's enthusiasm for placing texts from different cultures and languages in comparison. The quotation and explication also demonstrate his admiration of Haida mythology and oral literature; elsewhere he writes that 'one of the great pleasures in life, so far as I'm concerned, is setting classical Greek and classical Haida poets side by side. They frequently illuminate each other' ('Finding Home,' 184). And the quotations imply, too, that Bringhurst has the right, as well as the competence, to translate these texts – Greek and Haida alike – into English, that juxtaposing them is the privilege of the poet, who may find models and guides, influence and wisdom, wherever he or she may travel among the world's oral and written literary traditions.

Bringhurst translates the line from The Odyssey as 'Phemios, forced to sing for the suitors' (13), a reference to the poet made to sing by Penelope's suitors in Odysseus's absence. While Bringhurst's quotation of Homer is unlikely to give offence or even to strike the reader as an unusual gesture, his quotation, translation, and brief interpretation of Moody encapsulate an extraordinarily complex set of concerns that attends his most notorious, and perhaps greatest, achievement to date: a three-volume collection of translations of the transcribed...


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