By Juan Felipe HerreraMarch 7, 2014


The Day of Shelly's Death by Renato Rosaldo

IN RENATO ROSALDO’s The Day of Shelly’s Death, the inner and outer elements of the poem — that is, the poetics of eyes, notes, hearts, bodies, and voices, and the whispers, murmurs, shouts, grief-howls, and body-mind-word implosions — trace out, like bullets, from what he calls the “irruption,” the “event”: his wife and research partner Shelly Rosaldo’s fatal fall from a cliff in an Ilongot village of the Northern Philippines on October 11, 1981.

These “tracings,” as Rosaldo calls them, collect, rewind, re-speak, and reveal, and make us feel as if he is still walking back and forth, staring at the crumbling rim of an irrigation trough, in the barrio of Mungayang, town of Kiangan, Ifugao province, on the day Shelly fell to her death.

Shelly and Renato had been there before, doing ethnographic research on the Ilongot in Kakidugen: for three years, 1967-’69, and again in 1974. Shelly was most interested in the notions and practices of oratory in settling disputes. Her work culminated in Knowledge and Passion: Ilongot Notions of Self and Social Life (Cambridge University Press, 1980), and Renato authored Ilongot Headhunting, 1883-1974: A Study in Society and History (Stanford University Press, 1980). Here, among other things, he contested the prevalent notions in the field of anthropology and on the rest of the island of Luzon — the common view that Ilongot peoples lacked a history — by setting out on a trek to uncover and cover Ilongot accounts of the changes they had witnessed through generations.

Somehow all this — the half-century of research, the fierce anthropological debates, the oratorical prowess of the Ilongots, the entrance into headhunter territories, the foibles and successes of Renato Ethnographer, his meditations, most of all his heart-fired eyes and tear-fed years and his return as poet-speaker nourished by losses and wounds and findings and love — all of it comes to full form in this chorale of tellings, this daybook, this book of “The Day,” broken, re-figured, and lived again.

Yet The Day of Shelly’s Death is not confessional, nor romantic, the work is not text-centered nor a set of language-to-language Legos as the old arguments in good old poetry used to go. This text is revolutionary; it presents another way, a new way of making poetry matter. Here Rosaldo performs — almost three decades past George E. Marcus and Michael M.J. Fischer anticipated the same in their groundbreaking volume, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences a site where “ethnographic field work and writing have become the most lively current arena of innovation.” Rosaldo lays out a new map — a poetics he calls antropoesía, a verse soft-rooted in the human condition. And he makes a great case for it in the next-to-last chapter, “Notes on Poetry and Ethnography.”

The handsome photographs of the village speakers opening the book, taken by Rosaldo, reappear in its second half. In a sense, they compress the narrative and flip back to the end point of his 1981 field notes, only to appear here as a hybrid anthropoetry, along with penciled sketches, maps, re-drawings of the trail to the cliff. In this shadowy realm of the poem-walk, these images are more like body imprints of a place, space, partner, self; of sheared flesh and of a coming together of two bodies, Renato and Shelly, or four, Renato, Shelly, and their children, Sam and Manny, who were present, or five, with the Ilongot, or six with Luzon, itself. Text and the earth and the “human condition.” We are all there.

The poems stand individually and are threaded to each other. The people in the village speak — the taxi driver, the soldier, the nun, the body carrier. Each one comments, each one is a witness to the “irruption.”

Wagat, married to Tukbaw, speaks of her husband:

He orates through the night,
his oblique, flowery speech soothes bruised feelings,
tires him. He does for others what he doesn’t do for me.

Tukbaw responds:

Does she think oratory nothing but speaking?
I listen for what’s hidden, call out the hearts of others

Each one appears with dignity, unfinished, yet whole. The wholeness is everywhere — the charts, the maps, the death certificate, the “notes.” This is what makes Rosaldo’s book, his third of poetry, a masterpiece.

At the edge, near the end of the book, “The Cliff” speaks:

but I
am blamed
though I
never wanted
this day
of lamentation.

No matter where we fall or rise or rest in this collection, we cannot escape the heart, the rage, the compassion, the 32-year trail of introspections and transformations, the multivoiced reverberations, re-cuerdos, re-tracings, and documentations of one Day made of many days, of one loss, made of many losses, and one finding: that is, what it is to grieve, with force and love, what it is to be taken by the unexpected rush of creative transport, with its all-life outpourings made of all things inside us and around us — and now with us in this paradigm-shifting volume.


Juan Felipe Herrera is the Poet Laureate of California.

LARB Contributor

Born in Fowler, California — learned corridos and rhymes from his mother, Lucha, on the farm working roads and small towns. His father, Felipe, played harmonica telling tales of work in early 1900’s Wyoming. He graduated from UCLA, Stanford and the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. His awards include the Guggenheim Poetry Fellowship, the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, LA Times  Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award and recently, the International Latino Book Award. He is Emeritus Professor from Fresno State’s Chicano and Latin American Studies program and UC-Riverside’s Department of Creative Writing. In the last decade he has served as a Chancellor of the Board of the Academy of American Poets, California’s Poet Laureate, and the Poet Laureate of the United States. Recent book is Every Day We Get More Illegal.


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