Robert Bringhurst


Griffin Poetry Prize 2001
Canadian Shortlist

Book: Nine Visits to the Mythworld

Translator: Robert Bringhurst

Poet: Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas

Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., University of Nebraska (USA)

Click here to read and listen to an excerpt.



Robert Bringhurst is one of Canada’s most respected poets, one of its most probing cultural historians, a skilled linguist who has worked for many years with Native American texts and author of Story as Sharp as a Knife, Volume 1 of the trilogy: Masterworks of the Classical Haida. He translated Nine Visits to the Mythworld from Haida, originally phonetically transcribed by a young American anthropologist on the Northwest Coast of North America in 1900. Among the legendary mythtellers was a blind man in his fifties by the name of Ghandl.

Robert Bringhurst’s book The Solid Form of Language (Gaspereau Press) delved into the creative tensions between oral language and written script. His 2006 and 2007 books The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks and Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking contemplate the connections between poetry, language, nature and philosophy.

See also: To celebrate the Griffin appearances at Poetry International in 2004, The Times Literary Supplement published new poems by Robert Bringhurst, Margaret Atwood, Anne Simpson and August Kleinzahler in their October 22nd issue. Enjoy those poems here.

Judges’ Citation

“For most readers, Nine Visits to the Mythworld will be a revelation. These sophisticated narrative poems by Haida mythteller Ghandl come from an unfamiliar imaginative world, studied by specialists more for its anthropological interest than its artistry. Robert Bringhurst’s sinewy language and acute formal intelligence now reveal poetry of vivacity and stature, which can be enjoyed as a cultural treasure.”

Robert Bringhurst reads Those Who Stay a Long Way Out to Sea

Those Who Stay a Long Way Out to Sea, by Robert Bringhurst

Those Who Stay a Long Way Out to Sea

And then there were the ten of them
who went to hunt with dogs, they say.
And after they had travelled for a while,
the mist settled in.

And they came to a steep cliff,
and they climbed the cliff, they say.

And then their dogs ran back and forth on the ground below,
squawking up at them like gulls, they say.

And then they built a fire on top of the cliff.
The one they called the brainless one
fed his hunting bow to the fire, they say.
And after it had burned away completely,
it lay there in plain sight on the ground below.

Then he fed himself to the fire as well.
For a while he burned.
Then he vanished completely
and stood in plain sight on the ground below.
And he called to his elder brothers to do the same.

«Come on, do what I did.
I suffered no pain.»

So they started to feed themselves to the fire.
And one by one, as soon as they vanished,
they stood on the ground.

When the put in the next to eldest,
his skin shriveled up and his eyes bulged.
This was because he was frightened, they say.
But after he vanished,
he stood with the others below.

Then the eldest did the same.
That cliff is called The Tall Thin Rock, they say.

Then they set off, they say.
After they travelled a ways,
a wren sang to one side of them.
They could see that it punctured
    a blue hole through the heart
of the one who had passed closest to it, they say.

They went a ways further
and came to the head of Big Inlet, they say.

And they went a ways further.
A falcon’s feather floated there in front of them.
They tied it into the hair of the youngest, they say.
They tied it with skin from the throat of a mallard.
It made him look handsome.

Then they came to a seasonal village.
One house in the middle had roof planks.
They stayed there, they say.
They gathered their food from the beds of blue mussels
    at one end of town.
And the brainless one played with the mussels.

He was trying to spit them as far as he could.
Soon the others were egging him on, they say.
One of them climbed up on top of the house
and held out his cape, away from his shoulder.

After a while he looked at the cape.
It was covered with feathers.
It is said they did not understand
that this was because they had broken their fast.

They walked through the town,
and they found an abandoned canoe, they say.
It was covered with moss.
Nettles grew over it too.

They cleaned it and patched it.
The brainless one made them a cedarbark bailer.
He carved a perching songbird on the handle.

Then they tied some feathers into another one’s hair.
The brainless one got in the bow with a pole.
And one of them lay on his back in the stern.
They went down the inlet, they say.

And they went for a ways,
and they came to a town
where a drum was sounding.
A shaman was calling his powers.

The firelight came through the doorway
    and all the way down the shore.
They landed below it.

The bow man went up for a look,
and as he came near:
«The Spirit Who Handles the Bow Pole is coming ashore!»
This made him embarrassed.
He returned to the canoe.

Another went up for a look,
and as he came near:
«Pierced by a Wren is coming ashore!»
He looked at himself.
He was punctured and blue.
This made him embarrassed.
He backed away.

Another went up for a look,
and when he came near,
he also heard the shaman speaking.
«Now the Spirit Who Holds up the Sky while He Travels
is coming ashore!»
He went back too.

Then another went ashore,
and a voice said,
«Well now, the Spirit Who Runs on the Water
is coming ashore.»

Another went up for a look
and when he came near:
«Here is Swimming Puffin Spirit coming ashore.»
He was embarrassed as well,
and he backed away.

Then the next one went ashore,
and a voice said,
«This is Falcon Feather Floating on the Water
coming ashore!»
He took a close look at the shaman.
He saw that the shaman’s clothers were the same as his own.
He went back too.

Yet another went ashore,
And when he came near:
«Well now, Necklace of Clouds is coming ashore!»
And he also backed off.

The next went ashore,
and as he came near:
«Now Spirit with the Bulging Eyes is coming ashore!»
The he remembered
That something had happened to him, they say.

Another went ashore.
When he came near the doorway:
«Well now, the Spirit Who Lies on His Back on the Water
is coming ashore.»
He went back to the canoe.

Then the eldest came up for a look,
and when he came near:
«Now the Spirit Half of Whose Voice Is the Voice of the Raven,
who’s in charge of the canoe, is coming ashore.»

And the eldest one said,
«It’s true: we have turned into spirits.
If that’s how it is,
we should be on our way.»

They took some of the village children aboard,
and they stuffed them into cracks in the hull of the canoe.
From one end of town,
    they gathered some grass to make nests.
They arranged it around themselves
where they were sitting.

Then they headed for the open coast, they say.
When the one with the pole pushed them off,
the wood turned red wherever he touched it.
He moved the canoe by himself with only the pole.

As they travelled along,
they found feathers afloat on the sea.
They put them in a painted box and saved them.
Flicker feathers were their favorite,
and they saved them above all.

They came to another town,
and they beached the canoe.
Not far away, a woman was crying.
They brought her aboard.

When this woman’s husband came in from his fishing,
he saw someone’s arms embracing his wife.
He threw live coals on the hands,
but his wife was the only one there,
and the only one screaming.

She is the one who was sitting there crying.
They took her aboard, they say.

They opened the cracks in the hull,
and they stuffed in her hands.
That cured her, they say.

They adopted her as their sister
and gave here the seat reserved for the bailer.

Then, they say, the arrived off Qaysun,
and Fairweather Woman,
    the headwater woman of Swiftcurrent Creek,
        came out to meet them.
«Hello, my brothers. I’ll give you directions.
The eldest brother sits amidships.
He’s in charge of the canoe.
His name will be
    Spirit Half of Whose Voice is the Voice of the Raven.

«Half of the canoe should be Eagle
and half of it Raven.
Half of the dancing hats should be black
and half of them white.

«Next will be the one whose name is
    Spirit with the Bulging Eyes.
Next will be Pierced by a Wren.
Next, the Spirit Who Holds up the Sky while He Travels.
Next, the Spirit Who Runs on the Water.
Next, the one named Swimming Puffin Spirit.
Next, the one called Necklace of Clouds.
Next, the Spirit Who Lies on His Back on the Water.
Next, the Spirit Who Handles the Bow Pole.
He will set the course of the canoe.
He will take you wherever you go
to give power to people.
And the next to the youngest
    will be Falcon Feather Floating on the Water.

«Your sister, who sits in the stern,
will be called the Spirit Woman Who Keeps Bailing.

«Now, my brothers, take your seats in the canoe.
Go to Charcoal Island.
He’s the one who paints the spirit beings.
He will paint you.

«For four nights you will dance in your canoe.
Then you will be finished with your changing.»

Four years is what she meant, they say.

That one also gave them clothes.
He dressed them in dancing hats
    and aprons with puffin-beak rattles.
Then he wrapped a skin of cloud around the whole canoe.
Inside the cloud, he assigned them their seats
and built them the nests that they sit on.

Then it was finished.
This is where it ends.

From Nine Visits to the Mythworld, by Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas
translated by Robert Bringhurst
Copyright © 2000 Robert Bringhurst

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