Comprehension Way Ahead of Speech: On Renato Rosaldo’s “The Chasers”
By Tara WestmorAugust 16, 2019
The Chasers by Renato Rosaldo
I had wanted to be both a poet and an anthropologist but had no real idea how to achieve either goal. Then I discovered Renato Rosaldo’s beautiful, gut-wrenching ethnographic essay on mourning in Papua New Guinea, “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage.” In this essay, Rosaldo discusses his fieldwork in the wake of losing his wife, suggesting that our personal experiences cannot be ignored when conducting research. The summer before my MFA program in poetry was set to begin, Rosaldo published his first book of poetry, The Day of Shelly’s Death (2013). In it, he revealed that, when academic writing came to feel useless, poetry took its place. He used the term antropoesía to describe a new genre that fused ethnographic and poetic language, making a case “for poetry that situates itself in a social and cultural world; poetry that is centrally about the human condition.”
Now, I am facing the first year of a PhD program in anthropology, and by some enormous stretch of good fortune, Rosaldo has published a new work. The Chasers is a collection of prose poems about a group of high school kids — “more club than gang” — as they grew into adulthood and fell out of touch. Composed after attending his 50th high school reunion, Rosaldo’s poems orchestrate a chorus of voices, each clearly distinct but all exemplifying a strong, resounding similarity:
Eleven were Mexican-American, one Jewish. Ethnicity was trumped. You were or were not a Chaser.
I was a Chaser.
Through interviews, discussions, and emails, Rosaldo collects the experiences of his high school peers in “their prime.” The Chasers crashed parties, flirted with girls, made jackets, drank, smoked, and would never have been caught dead with textbooks in their hands.
Rosaldo expertly interweaves descriptions of the everyday lives of the Chasers with polemics about Chicano students living in a border town. An Anglo friend says about his high school experience, “You could do Okay or become a juvenile delinquent. Certain signs told whether you were going one way or the other. […] People thought the Chasers would go the other way, that you’d chosen the delinquent path.” But the group’s members created an identity that had its own power: “We walk as one. Blossom as one.”
While they felt collectively empowered, the Chasers nonetheless had to negotiate the realities of the Tucson borderlands. “A new friend calls Mexicans dirty, looks my way, says he doesn’t mean me.” Later, another Chaser recalls, “Louie decided to devote his life to crime, treated it like a career. ‘If you’re Mexican, you lose,’ he says. Then he challenges Ralph to a game of pool. Louie wins.” While Rosaldo powerfully captures his youthful identification with the group, he also registers moments when he felt othered, caught on the sidelines. He struggles with issues of authenticity, both in relation to his Chicano identity and his membership in the group. “I do the Chaser thing,” he says, “hang out in the stairwell, studiously casual, nod, chin slightly upward, greeting friends. I watch the others, their chin-lifts, my imitation precise.” Yet others felt isolated, too: one Anglo, John Warnock, says that the Chasers was the “[o]nly club I wanted to join that wouldn’t accept me.”
Ultimately, The Chasers is an assemblage of remembered events that Rosaldo pulls from his interviewees: small snapshots of a collective (and collected) memory. Rosaldo’s prose sweeps in and out of reminiscence, constantly emphasizing, to himself and his readers, the many fictions we create in our remembering. In the first poem, Rosaldo says that “[p]oetry revived memories of my feelings. Personal losses gave me vital perceptions. Collective recollection of bygone camaraderie opened me to this book.” Yet, just a few poems later, he contradicts these assertions: “Can’t sort what I invented from what I remember or what I lived.” Rosaldo shows compellingly how our memories are always storied. The Chasers tell stories, gleefully, of their childhood, throwing oranges, playing sports, performing “Chaser.”
Rosaldo has come a long way from the ethnographic narrative of “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage” and from the field-notes-in-verse of The Day of Shelly’s Death. In The Chasers, Rosaldo does not qualify his poetic voice in any “academic” way; he merely employs this voice without question or hesitation. In the book’s prelude, Rosaldo calls The Chasers both an “auto-ethnography” and an “historical ethnography,” both of which are nontraditional ethnographic forms. Anthropology is an interpersonal discipline, and poetry delves ever deeper into the personal. Anthropologist-poets can cross disciplinary boundaries, employing a scholarly lens while exploring the ambiguities that poetry allows. Rosaldo’s antropoesía is an emerging hybrid genre, a method of knowledge production that cannot be codified. It insists on highlighting nuances rather than erecting schemas. It is precise in its ability to articulate the uncategorizable.
Between the prose poems in The Chasers, Rosaldo folds in Tucson High yearbook photos of the group as they were in 1959. All young and in suits. Some tight-lipped, some with gleaming smiles, some with heads tilted, casting a cool gaze. And all subsisting, memorially, beyond simple ethnographic codification. After the final poem, Rosaldo includes a handful of images of each Chaser at the 50-year reunion, including one group shot. I spent a long time looking into each of their faces, all the while thinking: “This is what a poem can do that ethnography can’t. A poem can get right down to the heart of things.”
In “Grief and a Hunter’s Rage,” Rosaldo states: “The problem of meaning resides in practice, not theory.” In other words, meaning is always at stake. Although a traditional ethnography might have shed light on the cultural phenomena that produced the Chasers, Rosaldo’s transparency is even more telling. As Rosaldo’s recent work makes clear, an anthropologist can no longer pretend to be simply an invisible observer; personal experience always plays a large role on the practice of the discipline. No longer can biases go unspoken; rather, a poetic self-reflexivity is key. As Rosaldo puts it in The Chasers: “I listened with all I had, became a quiet guy, laughing, being an audience, observing. Comprehension way ahead of speech.”
Tara Westmor is pursuing an MA in Southeast Asian Studies and a PhD in Anthropology at the University of California, Riverside. She has poems published in The Cincinnati Review, Greensboro Review, Hunger Mountain, and elsewhere, with work forthcoming in Prairie Schooner and Common Ground.
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