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This review is taken from PN Review 171, Volume 33 Number 1, September - October 2006.

EASING ITS LANGUAGE TOM LOWENSTEIN, Ancestors and Species. New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry (Shearsman) £9.95

 ‘ Ethnographic poetry’ may be an unusual concept but it is a simple one. It is the application of poetry to a subject-matter (ethnography) beyond poetry's usual concerns, the use of poetry to cope with material which it is felt prose cannot sustain. The book is concerned with Tom Lowenstein's thirty years' experience researching the oral narratives of the Inuit of Tikigaq in north-western Alaska. From his writings about this, some published, some not, he has taken a dozen passages in which poetry is the principal vehicle of understanding, prefaced by three pieces from his earlier book of poems Filibustering in Samsãra.

 Why poetry? The original intent was to find and report the stories, with later schemes to recount historical and sociological realities, and perhaps even a novel, with a separate intent to write ‘a long poem in the open field idiom’. But these forms could not be kept separate; ‘the intensity of ethnographic work and the power of the material I encountered’, he says, scrapped the poem and made poetry integral to the entire enterprise. It is a question of wholeness. In his work Tom Lowenstein had to confront and absorb a world view in which the particular and the whole are indissolubly united, in which myth, history and current factuality constantly run round each other. He speaks of ‘the composite, historically syncretic nature of local time. Many things happen at once in this sphere.’ No scientific telling could do justice to this, no dividing into ...

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