Strange Arts & Visual Delights
Some years ago I was interested in the French poets who call themselves Oulipo, for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, workshop of potential literature—“a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians who seek to create works using constrained writing techniques” borrowed from games, math, chess, and other fields to widen the possibilities for poetry. For example, Charles Perec wrote a book (“La disparition”) that excludes the letter e (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oulipo).
In my limited forays into the Oulipo, my favorite book is Jacques Roubaud’s “Les animaux de personne,” a playful book of poetry written primarily for children. My favorite poem is the title poem, excerpted below.
In this poem, the author speaks to the animals in irregularly rhyming stanzas, of 5-6 lines in length, and the animals reply with a series of out-of-the-way words. At first, I took the animals’ reply to be onomatopoetic cries, and that may well be true. But several years ago, after hours of research (mostly on the web), I discovered that most of the words are names of animals in various languages of Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia.
L’auteur aux animaux :
C’est vous les animaux, les animaux
Dont nul ne parle, nul ne dit mot
De Cucuron à Carcassonne
Pauvres Animaux de Personne !
[The author to the animals: You are the animals about whom no one talks or says a word, from Cucuron to Carcassone, poor animals of nobody.]
Les animaux :
rüelbar ! cuchumbi ! manaviri !!
aswail ! fiael ! fraess ! vielfrass !
jerf ! dimug ! rosomaka !
hyrax ! hyrax ! sakie ! byssinicus !
pitpit ! pitpit ! press ! press ! press ! tana !!
Here are my research findings so far; some of the links may no longer be active:
rüelbar ! – I haven’t found this one
cuchumbi ! Spanish vernacular name for kinkajou (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Potos_flavus)
manaviri !! Another name for kinkajou or honey-bear. According to an early 20th century dictionary, found on Google Books, synonyms are American potto, guchumbi, honey-bear, yellow macaco, yellow lemur, and Mexican weasel.
aswail ! The sloth bear (Melursus labiatus) of India. It’s also called the honey-bear (see http://www.pdmpantiqueprints.com/store/By-Subject-Animals-Undomesicated-Nature-39-s-Wild/Honey-Bear-Sloth-Bear-or-Aswail-Melursus-labiatus-/prod_6127.html), so there’s a pattern here.
fiael ! I’ve had no luck with this one. Fiel is Spanish for loyal, faithful. An Etymological Glossary of the Shetland & Orkney Dialect, by Thomas Edmondston (found in Google books) provides the following: fiael - Norse, Fiall, a mountain, modern Norwegian Fjel. There is a farm called Fiael situated just at the foot of Roeness Hill, the highest mtn in Shetland. Also one at the foot of Housa-fiael, a hill in Unst, and in other parts of the islands.
fraess ! no clue; the context suggests it is a variant of wolverine
vielfrass ! (Vielfraß): German word for wolverine
jerf ! a Scandinavian word for wolverine; related words—jerv, järv
dimug ! no clue. Dimak is one way to translate the Hindi word for termite, but that seems unlikely in this context. It is also an Indonesian word for mug. The context suggests that it refers in some language to wolverine.
rosomaka ! Per Wiktionary, this is the Polish word (inflected, I think—perhaps genitive case) for wolverine. Polish: rosomak m: wolverine (Gulo gulo, a mammal)
hyrax ! This one I already knew, and it was one of the clues about the nature of the animals’ words. Per Wikipedia: “A hyrax (from Greek ὕραξ "shrewmouse") is any species of fairly small, thickset, herbivorous mammals in the order Hyracoidea.”
sakie ! Probably refers to saki, a kind of new world monkey. Wikipedia: “Sakis, or saki monkeys, are any of several New World monkeys of the genus Pithecia. They are closely related to the bearded sakis of genus Chiropotes.”
byssinicus ! Probably refers to one or more animals with “abyssincus” in their scientific name. A couple of examples: Arvicanthus abyssinicus=african grass rat; the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill or Northern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus abyssinicus).
pitpit ! I found an interesting (and I hope accurate) blog post: “Pitpit is a Spanish word which refers to this bird we call pipit in both English and Tagalog. … The word could have passed onto to Tagalog by deleting the t in the first syllable for easy pronunciation. Or it could be just through an imitation of its onomatopeic way of singing.” (http://tagalogtranslation.blogspot.com/2004/07/pitpit-is-it-bird-plane.html)
press ! – This one has proved hard to find.
tana !! – This one has also proved hard to find.
Inspired by my research into Roubaud’s poem, I wrote my own, using many of his words and a few of my own discovery.
How to Write a Thank You Note
Every gift, however trifling, should be acknowledged.
—Lillian Eichler Watson, Standard Book of Letter Writing (1948, 1958)
Beginning my song of thanks as big as the world: alleluia!
For these I am thankful: for cara-rayada and mirikina,
for schmalschnauzige and potto and cuchumbi, and for all
milky plants, dandelion, milkweed, and sow-thistle: shushuk! bhulan!
For names that make me laugh—bouncing bet and pig-sty daisy--
I praise God in brief and simple words: safi! umununi!
For plants that grow on roadsides and beautify dumpsters
and for those called common—mallow, plaintain, mullein
(for I too am common)—I give thanks, as I do for the victuals
the wild swine eat—oak mast, prickly pear fruit, and leopard frog.
I am grateful for the devourers, boar and barrow, gilt and sow.
For piglet and shoat I sing this hymn of thanksgiving and instruction:
O feral hog of Arkansas, O mulefoot from the Mississippi,
write the letter quickly, while the glow is still with you!
O snuffle-snout and nose-plow, the words will come of their own accord!
You bacon- and chitterling-maker, it’s more gracious to mention the gifts,
the sowbread, grub and fawn, for which you give thanks.
For khuk and budur, for the moon in her cirrus boa
whose silvery snout roots up the truffles of the stars,
who sweet-cures the dreams she sends to my beloved,
I will always give thanks. Scham-scham! Zizel and susel! Hallelujah!
• cara-rayada—Spanish for the stripe-faced monkey
• mirikina—Spanish for owl monkey
• schmalschnauzige—The Indian, small-snouted dugong
• potto, cuchumbi—names for the kinkajou or honey-bear
• shushuk—the South Asian river dolphin
• bhulan—Indus sub-species of the South Asian river dolphin
• safi – rabbitfish found in the Persian Gulf
• scham-scham—The spotted phalanger found in the Moluccas where, in Wagiou, it is (or was, in the mid-19th century) called by this name
• zizel—any of several large Eurasian squirrels
• susel—Polish for gopher
Words not from Roubaud are:
• umununi – Kinyarwanda for sunbird
• Selah—A word of unknown meaning used more than 70 times in the Hebrew Bible, primarily in Psalms. It may have marked some liturgical action, or emphasized the section of text, or indicated a musical interlude.
• khuk—Farsi for pig
• budur—The feminine form of the Arabic word for full moon