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  • The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief by Renato Rosaldo
  • Jane Monnig Atkinson
Renato Rosaldo, The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. 160pp.

On October 11, 1981, the anthropologist Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo fell to her death near the Ifugao community of Mungayan in the Northern Philippines. For those who knew Shelly, the title of this book will trigger powerful memories of shock and disbelief as the news spread through networks of family, friends, colleagues, and students in the ensuing days. For them, revisiting that time through the lens of Renato Rosaldo’s poetry will be a personally meaningful and illuminating experience. This volume speaks in compelling ways to a much broacher audience as well by offering an evocative exploration of life and loss through poetic and ethnographic practice.

Well-known for his skill at elucidating complex ideas in clear, compelling prose, Renato Rosaldo has been cultivating his gift of poetry for nearly two decades. Eventually, Rosaldo’s poetic practice led him back to the trauma that left him a widower and his children motherless. This writing project was not undertaken quickly or lightly; by 2009, however, Rosaldo found it had become a necessity.

This book represents the convergence of Rosaldo’s ethnographic and poetic practice. In “Notes on Poetry and Ethnography”—a short essay that he terms “a manifesto for antropoesía or anthropoetry” (101)—Rosaldo makes the case for poetic writing as a way to “explore the world—nature, politics, society, psyche” (106). “Like an ethnographer, the antropoeta looks and looks, listens and listens, until she sees or hears what she did not apprehend at first” (107).

This book is a wise, beautiful, and moving testimony to the power of Rosaldo’s distinctive form of poetic inquiry. It opens salient dimensions of the emotional, social, and political worlds that the family occupied during [End Page 563] their two months in the Philippines in 1981. And it provokes deep meditation about life, death, and our connections to one another.

The order of the poems induces slow and focused reading and reflection. It opens with the accident itself, thereby dispelling any urge to read ahead to what we all know is coming. The first cluster of five poems entitled “October 11, 1981” includes a haunting one in Shelly’s voice entitled “I Was Walking” about her passage into death. Once we have been exposed to the horror and finality of the death (brought starkly home in “The Certificate of Death,” depicting Renato’s interview with a Philippine health inspector), we are prepared to allow the poems to “slow the action, the course of events, to reveal depth of feeling and to explore its character” (105).

The book then rewinds one month to early September when the Rosaldos spent a week in Kakidugen, an Ilongot community where they had conducted fieldwork in 1967–1969 and in 1974. Here, Rosaldo displays the art of converting ethnographic description into antropoesía by offering a series of portraits in poetry and photography of nine Ilongot whom he and Shelly knew well. Each poem brings into sharp relief defining qualities of an individual’s personality and relationships with others, including the ethnographers. Wagat, for example, describes herself as “a sour rattan fruit” and says of her husband Tukbaw, a renowned Ilongot leader who settles grievances, “He does for others what he doesn’t do for me” (19). The poem “Tepeg” depicts a “a nimble word dancer,” (31) who will not orate in public but has a gift for mimicry and critique of others that he put to use in helping Shelly transcribe and interpret Ilongot speech forms. These poems expose painful realities as in Renato’s exchange with Midalya, in whose house the Rosaldos lived for a year:

I say, We’re the same as you.   We eat your food     sleep on your floor.

Midalya says,   I keep your house     cook your food.       I am your maid. [End Page 564]

Midalya’s words have weight spoken as matter of fact. I cannot but accept their truth.


This poem ends with Midalya’s tearful farewell in 1981 that expresses...


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pp. 563-568
Launched on MUSE
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