Ursa Major

by Robert Bringhurst
ISBN: 1894031660

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A Review of: Ursa Major: A Polyphonic Masque for Speakers & Dancers
by Iain Higgins

"Tout, au monde," wrote Mallarm in "Quant au livre", "existe pour aboutir un livre." Not so, implies Robert Bringhurst in Ursa Major: if all worldly things exist to end in a book, then the book will be their dead end. In any case, his poetic concerns have long been anti-worldly, anti-bookish, anti-anthropocentric, and his anti-Mallarman aim both more ambitious and more limited than that of merely filling folded paper with everything "au monde." His aim involves instead the fitting of a few storied bits of the cosmos into a book in a way that blows its covers off-an oddly ironic goal for a poet who is also a gifted typographer and book designer (his work includes this beautifully made object with its pleasures both tactile and visual).
Still, Bringhurst would no doubt agree with Mallarm that a book can be an "instrument spirituel" in that it can contain the transcribed score of the "hymn, harmony, and joy-like a pure whole grouped in some dazzling circumstance-of the relations between all things." The circumstantial relations dazzlingly hymned here are those of animals, humans, and gods, as represented in bear transformation stories originally told by Ovid and K-Ksikw-phtokew, a Sweet Grass Cree elder, but retold here by a daughter and a son, respectively. People are creeping back into Bringhurst's work, then, but in their indigenous form as animal beings once capable of moving between worlds. Displaced from their humanist centrality, they are here replaced into their earthly cultural localities and made to speak similar tales alongside each other: "the voices intertwine with one another," Bringhurst says in his Preface, "but their separate agendas prevent them, on the whole, from falling into a reciprocating, linear exchange." How is such speaking-beside-and-across made possible?
It is made possible through polyphonic speech. The result here is a relational hymn in which the separate multilingual voices (Latin, English, Greek, Cree) disappear into the mostly sustained sonic "shoom" of vocal counterpoint. The resulting score-given twice, first in linear form, then as a "voice map" in which all the cross-cuts can be seen at a glance-is in its utter "illisibility" a post-structuralist's dream, and there is no little pleasure to be got pouring over its complex text with its several alphabets. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to know how such a polyglot polyphony might sound, and this beautiful book is limited by the lack of a CD recording of a performance (I have heard Bringhurst's polyphonic "New World Suite No 3" performed twice, and that experience radically transformed my "silent" reading of the score).
In fact, Ursa Major is limited by the lack of a DVD, since Bringhurst's book is more than a text; it is the verbal score for a symmetrically shaped five-act masque whose performance involves dance, costume, scenery, music, and song (the two main speakers are offstage). Peter Sanger's thoughtful afterword, "Late at the Feast", partly compensates for the absence of both a sound and video version by offering the extended meditations of a reader who did not attend the original two performances in Regina in 2002. Even so, his opening words rightly insist on performance as the best commentary. For without experiencing a performance it is next to impossible to feel the work's effects or think seriously about the concerns it embodies or enacts, including those of selective cultural cross-breeding and appropriation, and myth as opposed to history. Here is a renaissance man resurrecting an aristocratic renaissance form, the masque, and drawing on some of its traditional features and values, yet also hybridising an already much-mixed thing (there is no anti-masque, though). Such a feat ought to prompt lively discussion and debate, but how can it if no one can hear and see it alive, even if only in the ghostly traces of recorded form?

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