1. Whole and Possessed Forever
On the penultimate page of Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy the following passage appears:
Poetry remakes and prolongs language; every poetic language begins by being a secret language, that is, the creation of a personal universe, of a completely closed world. The purest poetic act seems to re-create language from an inner experience that . . . reveals the essence of things.
Why does this rather apt exegesis on (what feels a lot like) modern poetry appear in a book about shamanism? Eliade explains:
The shaman’s adventures in the other world, the ordeals that he undergoes in his ecstatic descents below and ascents to the sky, suggest the adventures of . . . the heroes of epic literature. Probably a large number of epic ‘subjects’ or motifs, as well as many characters, images, and clichés of epic literature are, finally, of ecstatic origin, in the sense that they were borrowed from the narratives of shamans describing their journeys and adventures . . .
The epic journey of Homer’s “man of twists and turns,” for example, is, as we know, fraught with ordeals. Odysseus’s year-long idyll with Circe is a period of stasis like unto death, but the time is not wasted: she prophesies that he and his crew will have to visit the Underworld so that they can confer with Teiresias on how to get themselves back to Ithaka. She aids them in their quest by giving them two sheep to sacrifice, as required for safe passage. Like the shaman, who journeys to a spiritual realm to bring back healing information for the sick, their journey to the Underworld is for the purpose of acquiring knowledge — as Eliade notes, “the living die only to live again.” The point of their long struggle is to arrive back where they started, but with a boon: they know themselves, and life, for the first time (and, in learning from them, so do we). Their journey has required patience, stamina, cunning and faith. They may have been wounded but, like shamans, their woundedness is precisely what enables true knowledge, and healing.
Eliade also writes:
It is likewise probable that the pre-ecstatic euphoria constituted one of the universal sources of lyric poetry.
At the confluence of epic poetry, the lyric, healing and pre-ecstatic euphoria I find Eunice Odio’s The Fire’s Journey — a boon that reveals the essence of things.
2. A Time in Disarray
Not a lot was known about Eunice Odio in this country until recently. Reading the facts that have emerged, one can’t help but recognize a striking familiarity — and tragedy — in the lineaments of her life as a woman writer outside the mainstream (perhaps purposefully so). She was born in San Jose, Costa Rica in 1919 and died alone in Mexico City in 1974. During the early 1940s she read her poetry on local radio stations under a pseudonym, Catalina Martel, to keep her work, and her identity as a poet, a secret from her family. Her first poetry collection, Los elementos terrestres (Earthly Elements), was published in Guatemala in 1948. After receiving a prestigious national award in that country (and little recognition in Costa Rica) she became a Guatemalan citizen and never returned to the place of her birth. Her second collection, Zona en territorio del alba (Zone in the Territory of Dawn), came out in 1953. In Spanish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book, Rima de Vallbona writes:
Many of the poems she wrote during this epoch only became known the year she died (1974) in an anthology prepared by the author herself . . . These poems were probably the ones that formed a part of three books that she mentioned and that have never been found . . . Her second book, Zone en territorio del alba . . . was written between 1946 and 1948, but it was not published until 1953 in Argentina, as an example of the best contemporary Central American poetry. A year afterward, she finished El transito de fuego . . . (English translation by Bertie Acker)
El transito de fuego (The Fire’s Journey) was first published in San Salvador in 1957. In 1959 Odio moved to New York, and in 1962 to Mexico City and became a Mexican citizen. She contributed work to literary magazines and began putting together a selected, published after her death as Territorio del alba y otros poemas (Territory of Dawn and Other Poems). She was never published in the country of her birth until the year she died.
But why? Vallbona notes that Odio’s name had been anathema in Costa Rica until the 1980’s, when her work finally began to be published there. The reason for this was probably her uncompromising personality. She had, according to Marting, “distinguished herself from her peers in the ranks of the extreme left by her belligerence” and had, while living in Mexico, “run afoul of the artistic community after denouncing Communism.” Keith Ekiss, one of the translators of The Fire’s Journey writes, in the introduction to the first part of this 456-page opus (to be published in its entirety for the first time in English by Tavern Books in four volumes):
A woman poet who lived a secluded life, Odio was born in a country with, at the time, an antipathy to artists and writers, who often relocated to Mexico City if they wanted to establish themselves as contributors to the vanguard. Odio herself was aware of her marginalized, self-exiled position. Octavio Paz once told her that she was ‘of that line of poets who invent their own mythology, like Blake, like St.-John Perse, like Ezra Pound; and they are rubbed out, because no one understands them until years or even centuries after their death.
An excerpt of her brief entry, written by Nicasio Urbina, in Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Latin American and Caribbean Literature: 1900-2003 completes the picture:
Odio’s independent personality, talent and beauty made life in San Jose very difficult.
Odio, always peripatetic, was traveling throughout Central America and Cuba for the Guatemalan Ministry of Education as she was writing — and completing — The Fire’s Journey, an intuitive exploration of the primordial through the “lyric-epic.” This term is not my own, but it works perfectly as a description of The Fire’s Journey. I discovered it while trying to come up with a fitting term for Odio’s work (and hoping to come up something that hadn’t existed before). It seems to originate in an article by Mikhail N. Epshtein in The Great Soviet Encyclopedia:
. . . a literary genre containing features of the epic and the lyric; in works of this genre the narration of events is combined with the emotional and reflective self-expression of the narrator, creating a lyric self.
The created (and creator) “self” that emerges from The Fire’s Journey is decidedly lyrical, and definitely epic. Additionally, her own journeys, notes Stephen Tapscott, editor of Twentieth Century Latin Poetry, may have contributed to this singular yet mysteriously multifaceted “I”:
The restlessness of her peregrinations is reflected in her poems, which are magisterial, lyrical, difficult diffractions of the single self in almost ecstatically shifting encounters with concepts.
3. Nourishing the Verb-Time
The first of the four volumes of The Fire’s Journey, “Integration of the Parents” (“Integración de los Padres,” published by Tavern in 2013) begins:
Nothing was foreseen
All was immanent
One day after a time immemorial
while the sky moved on foot
from eye to eye
thinking itself from heart to heart
in the cities
the order of the void prepared
a word that did not know its name.
(That word was the size of air.)
Odio’s “In the beginning” recalls not only the first words of Genesis, but also of the gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Creation, for Odio, derives from an act of sacred poetic language, the “word (made flesh)” of a poet-god. Words and speech-acts and parts of speech appear throughout “The Integration of the Parents”:
Rivers conjugating, arranging themselves in syllables of water . . .
. . . a word to listen to its color in the night
. . . hair barely the pronoun of waves
. . . to nourish the verb-time that matter demands
The fire’s journey is a process: the process of creation by and through the Word. Odio must’ve been as preoccupied as Blake had been with the questions of “how?” and “who?” “Why?” lies beyond language because it may forever be unknowable, inexpressible. Blake’s parents had been Dissenters (Christians who, between the 16th and 18th centuries, separated from the Church of England), and his disgust at organized religion is well-known. But he embraced Jesus (the Word made flesh) as a living avatar of Imagination as the true religion — "All had originally one language, and one religion: this was the religion of Jesus, the everlasting Gospel." (Descriptive Catalogue) — and the Bible as vatic literature. Blake and Odio (and Jesus as well) were prophets of imagination, misunderstood in their lifetimes, unrecognized in their own countries.
The figure of the shaman, Eliade’s “technician of the sacred,” also lurks between word and image in “Integration of the Parents.” This is Ion, named for the rhapsode who debates with Socrates in the shortest of Plato’s dialogues. In Plato’s “Ion,” the rhapsode and the philosopher discuss whether a a performer of other poets’ works succeeds by virtue of pure skill or divine possession. Socrates argues for divine posession:
"For a poet is a light and winged and sacred thing, and is unable ever to indite until he has been inspired and put out of his senses . . . it is God himself who speaks and addresses us through them."
Odio’s Ion is a poet-god, purveying (as well as creating) sacred language to bring the world into being. Like a shaman, he will embark upon a descent/journey to restore order and bring healing: in The Fire’s Journey Part II: Creation of Myself, Ion will confront the Void, a negative elemental spirit of silence and entropy that threatens the young universe:
My creatures and I . . .
. . . are not alone in danger.
The Void shall also approach ready to contain.
One and all we shall risk the dimensions
of our unnameable substance;
the one who loses shall be destroyed.
If we ourselves lose, the Void shall be born again . . .
Like a shaman he speaks with spirit animals; in this case, a bee:
Speak of what was forgotten.
It had the attributes of dew,
the goods and the growth of the morning . . .
Its movement was an endless perfume,
its petals were thick and smiling,
high was its moistened fortress . . .
May He who watches over everything be with you
May a physical word from God
be with you, possessor of all things
In his expansive gestures Ion also seems related to Blake’s Luvah (one of the four Zoas), who represents imagination expressed through experience, existence. In Blake's system, Luvah, the third Zoa, is connected to the word "lover,” love being the highest emotion. Luvah is also related to Jesus, the “Word [imagination] made flesh” — after Luvah falls and is transformed into hate (to become Orc), Jesus incarnates and replaces Luvah in physical form.
4. Renewing the Origin of Silence in the Verb
Odio reveals her version of creation-in-progress, which occurs in the time before Time, through a series of paradoxes, metamorphoses and associative leaps that are surreal in nature and always accrue to language:
“Speak of what was forgotten”
“Dust is in the silence of the first sounds”
“Silence . . . where the lip never shadowed itself/nor the syllable alighted”
To Odio, the dynamic interplay of sound and silence is the source of all creation, and in Creation of Myself, she continues to reveal the mysteries of how the Word created creation:
“ . . . something has passed from the soul to the first scent;
it smells of piano scattered in the morning . . .
it smells of harp beds”
“The word that will make the cupolas soar
and bloom on the tongue of the dead,
a new word unborn and blind,
renewing the origin of silence in the verb”
“I will show touch what darkness is
and darkness will seize it”
But there is progression here: from the Word to flesh, and from flesh to action, participation. In part two Odio pairs Ion with Daedalus, father of Icarus, labyrinth-maker to King Minos. The original title of this part, “Proyecto de mi mismo,” can also be translated as the “projection of myself,” and here Odio seems to heighten her assertion that creation was indeed a projection of an artist-god, though now we have moved from creation-by-speech to creation-by-craft. The introduction of the figure of Daedalus seems a clue as to how Odio believes the universe was crafted. According to Bullfinch, the name Δαίδαλος, in ancient Greek, means “cunning worker.” Other glosses include “to work artfully,” “cunning,” or “curiously wrought.” Ion’s dialogue with Daedalus takes place after the five senses have been formed — what was imminent has now been realized — and reveals what dangers lurk there. As Ekiss explains in the introduction to part two:
“ . . . we learn that in order to preserve peace in the universe, Ion must now battle the Void, the force of chaos and non-existence who threatens to cast the world back into darkness. Ion’s weapon against the Void will be the highly-wrought language of poetry. Along the way, Ion finds himself guided by Daedalus . . . who has temporarily imprisoned the Void ‘beneath slabs of fire’ . . .”
What they say to each other recalls the dialogue that comprises the Bhagavad Gita: the conversation between Prince Arjuna and Krishna, his charioteer, in the deciding battle between the Pandavas (Arjuna’s family) and the Kauravas, descendants of King Kuru. More than just advice to go forward and do his duty, Krishna reveals the essence of things to Arjuna:
Your birth followed the birth
of the sun;
how can I comprehend that you taught it
in the beginning?
I have passed through many births
and so have you;
I know them all,
but you do not, Arjuna.
Though myself unborn, undying . . .
I fashion nature,
which is mine, and I come into being
through my own magic.
* * *
To devour the Void, to exile him is my task.
The one who wins the first endless battle
shall win it all.
The one who loses, loses all . . .
It seems like a solid, unvarying route . . .
it is nothing more than potency sharpened
until it loses its point
Where he begins the air is left deserted,
unmoving, the word does not endure.
There is only an atrocious verb that surrounds him . . .
You shall fly like a burning arrow,
you shall return annihilated words
A Chorus (there are several chorus, as well as dialogues interpolated by choruses, throughout parts one and two) then narrates the epic battle action:
He’s tired and he wants to recline;
but in the attempt he collapses . . .
He is condemned not to perish . . .
his sweet limbs rush over angry waters,
a drop of hurricane flesh alone . . .
Now he knows where the shore is.
One day he found it passing through his soul . . .
They switch to addressing Ion directly as he vanquishes the Void:
Through blood and fire you entered yourself
and exited by the trilling space in living flesh,
by the throat’s passage . . .
vigilance is part of you,
you have conquered sleep trembling
At the end, when Ion says to Daedalus, “It is time to reveal myself through my body,” the world begins to resemble something that we recognize as our own.
Like Odio herself, Ion will, in parts three and four, go on to re-create language from an inner experience that reveals the essence of things.
5. Swim, Swimmer Who Aimed Your Shouts at the Masts
I had earlier mentioned that Odio, like Blake, was a prophet, and I also cited a quotation by Blake himself from the Descriptive Catalogue. That catalogue was for an 1809 exhibition of Blake’s illustrations took place in his brother’s London hat shop (because Blake had had a disagreement with his original promoter). The show included illustrations for the Canterbury Tales, and some of Blake’s most breathtaking drawings, among them “Jacob’s Ladder,” and “Angels hovering over the Body of Jesus in the Sepulchre.” The Wikipedia entry for the Descriptive Catalogue concludes with: “The exhibition was very poorly attended, with none of the temperas or watercolours sold, and was described as ‘a dead failure’. There was only one review, in The Examiner, which was hostile. Between April and October 2009 many of the works displayed at the original exhibition were displayed together once more at Tate Britain.”
In the introduction to part one of The Fire’s Journey, Keith Ekiss makes the point that Odio “is now recognized as the leading Costa Rican poet of the twentieth century for crafting a singular, challenging, and distinguished body of work . . .” Nuestra Eunice — our Eunice — she is now called. A bronze bust of Odio, with Medusa-like hair and wild eyes, now stands in front of Costa Rica’s National Theater.
We know that certain gifted individuals really do die only to live again. In his anthology, Technicians of the Sacred (its name derived from Eliade’s phrase), Jerome Rothenberg notes in his commentary on “How Isaac Tens Became a Shaman”:
. . . the shaman can be seen as a protopoet, for almost always his technique hinges on the creation of special linguistic circumstances . . .
Through Tavern Books’ publication of The Fire’s Journey, “An unknown brilliance has been released.” Those are Eunice Odio’s words, and she shall have the last one(s).
All section titles are lines from parts one and two of The Fire’s Journey
Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Mircea Eliade, Penguin/Arkana, 1989
Spanish-American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book, Diana Marting, editor, Greenwood, 1990
Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Latin American and Caribbean Literature: 1900-2003, Daniel Balderson and Mike Gonzalez, editors, Routledge, 2004
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979), the Gale Group, Inc., 2010
Selected Dialogues of Plato: the Benjamin Jowett Translation, Modern Library, 2001
Bullfinch’s Mythology, Avenel Books, 1979
The Bhagavad Gita, Barbara Stoler Miller, translator, Bantam, 1986
The Fire’s Journey Part I: Integration of the Parents, Eunice Odio, Tavern Books, 2013
The Fire’s Journey Part II: Creation of Myself, Tavern Books, 2015
Technicians of the Sacred, Jerome Rothenberg, editor (second edition), University of
California Press, 1985