Written for radio and performed at Miracle Marathon, Serpentine Gallery,
October 8 and 9, 2016
A couple of years ago on a Port-au-Prince balcony I was speaking to a friend, Daphne Menard, a tall, thin Haitian singer with a beautiful melodious voice. He is a Christian but he knows all the traditional folk songs, including the ones associated with vodou, very well. I was visiting for only a couple of weeks with my friend Andy Robert who spent the first 8 years of his life in Haiti but has no memories of that time at all. The night we spent sitting in the balcony, Daphne jogged Andy’s memory and sang some of these songs and told us stories about Haitian terianthropes, shape-shifting mythical creatures.
Daphne told us a long horror story about loupgarous, Haitian wolf-men who were rumored to have kidnapped children in the camps after the earthquake.
Baby kidnappings and men who could shed their skin like snakes. That was the story. We wondered if he believed these stories himself.
Daphne answered: I do not BELIEVE. But it is REAL.
* * * * *
In Puerto Rican folklore, the tooth of a shark is the most effective weapon against the evil eye.
This makes some sense if you think of the evil eye as a material thing.
As a stare draws a straight line, a glassy beam, to its intended target. a shark’s serrated tooth, hanging on the doorway or around a neck, shatters it and sends its shards flying.
The crystalline stare is a symbolic deed packed with intentionality and having material qualities it may also break and shatter.
As goes the crystalline stare, so goes the word.
Its material qualities are as real as the stare for sure.
Here it is, THE WORD, in my mouth, reverberating against your eardrum.
Words are objects that have weight and force, whether as groups of letters printed on a page or as voiced sounds pushed out from within a mouth and as such they interact as like things among other things.
I once thought that words were the most wordy of all things.
But then I started thinking about spells and saw that there in the spell the word can be an object and objects can be words.
The shark’s tooth, once it has left the shark’s mouth of course, is such an object.
Here it is in my hand.
It stands next to and among words as in a sentence.
All of speech is just this sort of hex.
Of a spell it is said that it does a kind of work.
That the word-things and thing-words in the spell perform a work.
It is at this junction where the question of belief arises.
Do you believe in the work of the spell?
* * * * *
The MOUTH, is a word and a thing that performs a kind of work.
Mouths are good for more than one thing. There is eating and speaking. But there is also wailing, crying, grunting, guffawing, biting, blowing and licking.
Set A is: wailing, crying, grunting
Set B is: Biting, licking, blowing.
At first everything seems to perfectly fit into two sets.
But then The mouth also mouths.
This is a peculiar quality of mouths that distinguishes them from other holes. A mouth mouths. It mouths uniquely, as only a mouth can, in ways that are peculiarly mouthy.
This mouthing emerges before speech and before eating, even, before suckling.
To mouth is to grasp with the mouth. But what? A nipple yes, but also babble, insults and false words.
Humans and dogs BOTH come to know the world first through mouthing. Its grasping is a way of knowing and mouthing is also our way of learning spoken language.
The mouth is for the mouther the coming into the symbolic, as it goes from the mother’s to its own mouth.
When a mouth mouths it is empty-full. Full of nothing.
(mouths MOTHER MOUTHING)
She neither swallows nor emits sound. Or she speaks, but only untruths, falseness. She pretends to speak, to know.
But instead she only mimics.
Mouthing, when it is the work of the mouth in which the word is absent, is helpful in ascertaining the material qualities of the word. Because it is missing from the mouth, we sense the weight of the absent word.
* * * * *
Now that we are thinking about words as part of the world of objects. We can go back to objects that act like words. A tooth inside the mouth of the shark can act upon my leg, but once it leaves the mouth, this is when it becomes a word in a sentence. More sign than action. More powerful as object-word than as a thing to act upon the world.
Palilalia (Palilalia, whispered) is the name given to an uncontrollable urge to repeat words or phrases. It is most common among young children and psychotics, says the medical literature.
Infants, psychotics and the rest of us really, take pleasure in SONG, that glorious form made up of repetitions and choruses, babble, and word games.
As I listened to my small archive of sound recordings, I noticed quite a few recordings of people singing.
Most of the recordings were of people that don’t normally sing or exhausted singers, amateurish and domestic singing, as well as singing while working.
In song, there is chorus and repetition, word games and rhyme, stretching out of words like so much elastic material. Something about the qualities of song in the mouth of an amateur weighs the words, makes their edges stand out, repetition becomes edifice. Something happens. There is a also a strong sense of vulnerability and tenderness in these songs.
I am going to play 4 recordings for you, and I ask you to think of them not only as sung words, but also as objects in the world, with material properties,
This is Elizam Escobar, a Puerto Rican political prisoner who served 19 and a half years in US prisons for the crime of seditious conspiracy. Here he is, free, sitting at home, humming a melancholic love song.
[sound file 1]
This is a song I recorded at the Marché Salomon—-a large central market in Port-au-Prince among the women who were selling crab. The woman who sang was laying out the crabs on a large cement slab table. The crabs seemed to move their claws in a tempo similar to her song. The song asks god why he has forsaken her.
[sound file 2]
This is Pablo Díaz Cuadrado, a farmer has who amassed an amazing collection of native seeds of Puerto Rico, and who built his house around the tree of a bell shaped hallucinogenic flower, Brugmansia versicolor. His farm is in the very center of the mountains of Puerto Rico in a place called Orocovis which means first mountain. He has never left the island. Here he sings the chorus from salsa song about a Syrian lover. Don’t torture me he sings, come back to me please.
[sound file 3]
Here is Daphne Menard who knows that loupgarous are real whether or not he believes in them. This night he was so, so tired. He was worried he did not sing well. He sings and old folk song about a kid that is arrested and held by the police while on his way to buy coffee. He wonders what will his mother think, will she worry, who will tell her why he’s gone?
[sound file 4]
* * * * *
It is interesting that one other powerful talisman against an evil eye, is the small black hand—mano de azabache—-lignite—-usually worn around children’s necks. The hand is in the shape of a fist with a thumb in between the fingers. If the hand breaks (and the material that the hand is made out of should be breakable) then the wearer knows that she has repelled a powerful evil stare.
You can see it at work here.
Although it was only in the year 2000 that the civil disobedience movement got the US Navy and its live bombing out of Vieques, it had been decades since fishermen had been resisting the military presence there. Cheché, a fisherman of creatures big and small, was one of those who would sabotage the air craft carriers by letting metal chains drop onto the rotor blades. He is over 80 years old and last year, he sold his boat. He says he is getting too old to fish. Last time I was in Vieques he had a little bag of shark’s teeth. He still has some shark oil and teeth from the last of the sharks that he fished last year.
This is one of those shark teeth.
I do not believe in it. But it is real.
A last word about loupgarous. This past September in Port-au-Prince the trial of Clifford Brandt, the son of a Haitian banking scion came to an end. He was found guilty of kidnapping and sentenced to 18 years of prison labor. Of all the rumors and stories about kidnappings, the one that turned out to be absolutely real, was the one that no one believed.