Kyle W. West is a medical anthropologist and research assistant at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. He is currently working on a study investigating clinical depression in patients with chronic kidney disease. He holds two degrees in anthropology (BA, MS) from the University of North Texas.
Correspondence to Kyle W. West, email@example.com.
In 1981, anthropologists Renato Rosaldo and his wife Shelly arrived in the Philippines to conduct field research on a society of former headhunters known as the Ilongot. In his book The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief, Rosaldo uses free verse poetry to reflect upon Shelly’s death after falling from a cliff almost 30 years earlier. Through his lean prose, Rosaldo paints a picture of his own confusion and shock, the empathy of others, and the muddled thoughts of his children. His poetry is followed by a critique of anthropology and anthropologists’ tendency to ‘eliminate emotions by assuming the position of the most detached observer’ (p. 130).
Opening with a foreword penned by literary critic and academic Jean Franco, the subject matter of Rosaldo’s poetry is introduced in clear and concise prose to give the reader a frame of reference. Franco then guides the reader through Rosaldo’s concept of ‘anthropoetry,’ which ‘reaches beyond the narrative of personal loss and gives voice to a chorus of villages, officials, priests, nuns, and the children’ (p. xvi).
The main body of the book is split into two parts. The first part consists of the author’s poetry, which is further partitioned chronologically, and includes an essay titled ‘Notes on Poetry and Ethnography.’ To further clarify the rather hectic chain of events, Rosaldo opens the first section of the book with a timeline outlining their arrival in the Philippines through to the time the family leaves Baguio City with Shelly’s body. The book’s second part is written for the more anthropologically-inclined, and discusses the nature of grief as seen through the lens of the Ilongots.
Rosaldo employs a cinematic effect as his free verse begins. In the poem ‘Silence,’ he describes the noises of his surroundings just before a local woman arrives saying, ‘Don’t panic’ just before telling him of Shelly’s fall (p. 6). The next poem, ‘Edges of Tranquility’ (p. 7), whisks the reader back to the previous evening when he shared what may have been the last moment of tenderness with his wife.
The poems then focus on the family’s arrival in the Ilongot settlement of Kakidugen, where the Rosaldos had previously conducted research. Here is where ‘anthropoetry’ is used to great effect. Nine poems are used to give the reader a basic familiarity with a number of Ilongot informants. In these ethnographic poems, the various Ilongots speak of themselves, their relation to others in the settlement, and the newly-arrived anthropologists. In a very short span, Rosaldo paints a vivid picture of the individuals he had come to know during his fieldwork.
At first, it seems as though Rosaldo is prepared to discuss the tragedy openly within the first few stanzas. However, it is not until roughly halfway through the collection of verse that he gets to the unpleasantness of discussing the death of Shelly. We all know what is coming, but his poems paint such a vivid picture of the people and the world around him, that we dread the inevitable. The section marked ‘Mungyang, October 10, 1981’ is greeted with apprehension and dread. It is the day before. The eve of Shelly’s death is marked with only two poems, one of which foreshadows the coming tragedy by discussing her new hiking shoes, ‘a gift to keep us safe’ (p. 48).
The reader then finds a sparse grey page with nothing but ‘Mungyang, October 11, 1981’, signalling that the fateful day has arrived. The poems contained within this section slowly hint at the news that Shelly Rosaldo has fallen to her death. There is a detached quality to the words – reflections upon the previous evening’s tenderness, the observation of a mouse, remembrance of the coin toss that would ultimately put the wife in harm’s way. Interspersed with random thoughts and observations, each verse contains an allusion to death, as though the harsh reality of what has occurred is forcing its way through the poet’s mental shock. An example of this can be found in the poem ‘A Mouse,’ (p. 54) when Rosaldo seem to ruminate on the ultimate futility of life. The poem begins with a description of a mouse going about its normal search for food. The news of Shelly’s death is given, and the poem closes with:
‘Mice give birth
looking for droppings
The poems, regardless of whose point of view is being employed, communicate the haze of confusion that often affects those left behind after a sudden death. These poems express the wide range of reactions from the local population that Rosaldo encountered as he and his children escorted Shelly’s body from the Filipino hinterlands to Baguio City. Using the other person’s perspective filtered through his own mind, Rosaldo tells what he imagines to be the thoughts and motivations of his children, a taxi driver, a nun, and countless others, even the personified cliff that Shelly had fallen from. All of these poems, with the exception of ‘The Cliff’ (p. 84), have been made so believable by the anthropologist’s ability to see life from another’s perspective. Among the most poignant of these is ‘The Soldier’ (p. 69).
Immediately after the collection of poetry, Rosaldo includes an essay, which intends to ‘provides a context for anthropological readers who are not habitual readers of poetry,’ and ‘constitutes, for poets, a manifesto for antropoesìa or anthropoetry’ (p. 101). Here, Rosaldo discusses his wife’s death in detail, as well as his impetus for writing the poetry almost three decades after the fact.
The second part of the book is another essay, entitled ‘Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage,’ which is arguably the most important section of the book from an anthropological perspective. Here, Rosaldo outlines a thoroughly rational and well-researched critique of an important shortcoming in the way anthropological fieldwork is often carried out. Instead of discarding emotional reactions, as anthropologists are often wont to do, he states that they must be able to understand emotional experience within the social context. He argues that the ‘approach of showing the force of a simple statement taken literally instead of explicating culture through the gradual thickening of symbolic webs of meaning can widen our discipline’s theoretical range’ (p. 117).
Anthropology as a discipline has matured a great deal since its 19th century inception. Long past are the days of looking for the rigid laws of social evolution espoused by the likes of E.B. Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan. However, anthropologists will sometimes feel the influence of our Victorian predecessors and try to be a bit more like the hard sciences. To this end, the less quantifiable a social aspect, the more likely it is to be downplayed in ethnographic research.
Rosaldo provides an example from his own research of an Ilongot man who had recently lost a child after having lost three others in a brief span just a few years earlier. Before the prohibition of headhunting practices, Ilongot men would vent rage through taking the head of another man. Once this had been banned by the Filipino government, it left a cultural void that many sought to fill by converting to Christianity. Rosaldo, not properly understanding the man’s bereavement, assumed that the Ilongot man had converted believing ‘that the new religion could somehow prevent further deaths in his family’ (p. 120). However, Rosaldo later realized that the man was looking for an alternative method for coping with his grief. In this second essay, Rosaldo wonders how he ‘could have failed to appreciate the weight and power of the man’s desire for “venting his wrath and thereby lessening his grief”’ (p. 120).
Rosaldo credits the rage he felt over his wife’s death for allowing him to recognize this flaw in ethnographic research. He describes the intensity of the experience by saying, ‘Immediately on finding her body I became enraged. How could she abandon me? How could she have been so stupid as to fall? I tried to cry. I sobbed, but rage blocked the tears’ (p. 124). Reflecting upon this rage, and wishing in his journal for the ‘Ilongot solution,’ Rosaldo recognized the anthropological deficiency his essay highlights.
Kurt Vonnegut, who held a master’s degree in anthropology, described the discipline as ‘a science that was mostly poetry’ (Vonnegut 1981:90). Rosaldo embraces that description with his concept of ‘anthropoetry’. Not only does he illustrate how ethnographically-informed poems can effectively communicate the qualitative facets of a culture, he uses it to illustrate a deficiency in anthropological fieldwork. Anyone interested in the social sciences could stand to benefit from reading this brief, yet insightful, book as Renato’s poetry shows an innovative way of expressing what is often missing from traditional ethnographies. Finally, the avid reader of poetry find great value in how Rosaldo maximises the emotional impact of the situation with his laconic verse.
Vonnegut, Kurt. 1981. Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage. New York: Random House.