THE LAST WORD.
Claude Levi-Strauss had set me on the wrong path: first through his work, then in a brief correspondence, and finally during a visit to his office at the College de France. The anthropologist had written, in Tristes Tropiques and then in The Savage Mind, of broken cultures, of the inability of a culture ever to recover from a visit by an anthropologist, let alone Aristotle or the Beatles. And almost everything I saw at the end of the 1960s, when I thought I was writing in defense of American Indians, as he would have, had led to the title of my book: The Death of the Great Spirit.
I sent the galleys to Levi-Strauss, who made no reply until he was inducted into the French Academy, where he spoke against this tragic view of American Indians, contending that indigenous people and languages could survive the incursion of European culture. His argument seemed flawed to me then, a romantic contradiction, for cultures cannot be both broken and whole.
The worm of my error was hidden by the immense suffering of the Indians. While traveling the country, visiting the vast and the tiny reservations where Indians lived, I had glimpsed resilience only once, in Anita Pfeiffer's Rough Rock Demonstration School on the Navajo Reservation. She taught the children in Dine, their own language, but I did not think it could last. And I may have been correct about the effect of one demonstration school on a nation of 100,000. In those days, most Navajo children entered school speaking Dine; a quarter of a century later, most of the children speak only English. There would seem to have been a death in the family.
The linguist Michael Krauss says that as many as 3,000 languages, comprising half of all the words on earth, are doomed to silence in the next century. According to Krauss, who, as the director of the Alaska Native Language Center, keeps count of dead and dying languages, 210 of the original 300 or more languages once spoken in the United States and Canada remain in use or in memory; 175 are spoken in the United States, including Alaska, and of these all but 20, perhaps fewer, cannot survive much longer. Only 250 languages in the entire world have at least a million speakers, considered the necessary safety level as globalization homogenizes every nation, every village, no matter how remote. Only languages with state sponsorship seem likely to survive: Spanish, French, English, Italian, etc. What of the more than 800 languages of Papua New Guinea? The 410 of Nigeria? The more than 300 in India? The unknown and as yet uncounted languages in the Amazon?
The effort to preserve these and other languages is furious, as linguists and their students across the earth record whatever they can find--song-birds or carrion, it matters not at all. Noam Chomsky made it clear that the study of language itself does not require more than a few examples here and there. Two are sufficient, three a plethora, because the same structure, he says, lies deep in the brain of every Homo sapiens. Given the apparent truth of Chomsky's work, only a few of the scholars in his footsteps involve themselves in keeping languages alive. The business of their lives does not encourage it: No university offers academic credit for the survival of the object of one's dissertation. Chomsky himself gives only mild assent to such work.
Increasingly, our own language, English, dominates the world. It is the lingua franca of science, the Internet, the movies, rock and roll, television, and even sports. The word for home run in Spanish is jonron. Weekend in French is week-end. While the rest of the world complains that English is taking over its speech, just as the dollar took over the Ecuadoran currency, the forces of English Only grow stronger in the United States. On the other hand, English does not stand still, which frightens the devotees of English Only as well as those who admire diversity but cannot bear to part with a vocabulary that has fallen from general use. I count myself among the latter group. The letters obs in the dictionary pain me. Another word is passing; the vocabulary available to the writer is shrinking. Hard to bear. A book reviewer in the Boston Globe once took me to task for using too many Greek words.
English, as it is generally spoken, appears to be losing more words than it gains. You need only look at the thin thesaurus that came with your word-processing program to see how the English language is losing its internal diversity. Nonetheless, ailing languages can be resuscitated; words can be brought back. The advent of another Shakespeare could vastly expand the vocabulary again. Cultures change, and languages survive by metamorphosis and the aesthetics of their creators. Who now speaks in the language of Beowulf?
The death of a language is another matter. When I was a young man, predictions of death came easily to me, but now I am at the age when men wish forevers, and I understand, as did Levi-Strauss so many years ago, that dying languages may be saved. But how?
There are theoretical answers, of course. Yet had I not traveled to the Yukon and Kuskokwim deltas and the Yucatan-Campeche border to start in both places a Clemente Course in the Humanities,(1) such theories would have remained to me as elegant and remote as they once seemed. Whether what I saw in the jungle and on the tundra proves that languages should be kept alive, or that those we have all but lost can be brought back to life, will remain open to debate. But for me, the first question left the realm of mere theory in Alaska.
A bush pilot had flown me in a single-engine plane to the landing strip at Akiachak on the Kuskokwim River north of Bethel. I walked through the mud to the library in the tiny village. Our purpose was to hold a town meeting to gain consensus for the beginning of a Clemente Course in the Yup'ik language and culture. The meeting began with a conversation in English and Yup'ik. The chatter quickly gave way to a level of seriousness I had not expected. I know now that this is often the case with Yup'ik intellectuals and elders, but here it grew out of the mention of teaching philosophy in the course.
The Yupiit listened first to elder Joe Lomack, the former chairman of the fifty-six Yup'ik villages, who spoke so eloquently and with such an astonishing vocabulary that they murmured ii-i in appreciation of the very words themselves. The others around the table were mainly scholars and professors, teachers of Yup'ik, but some of the words he used--the multiple suffixes, each one modifying meaning--were new to them, subtleties they had never heard before. As he spoke, there were pauses while they translated. It was the first time I had heard the problematic phrase "consciousness of the earth." I asked what it meant, and there ensued a conversation that was neither Thomistic nor Talmudic but Yup'ik.(2)
Peter Andrew, as old as Joe Lomack but not an elder, respected rather than revered, all angles and wrinkles under a red baseball cap, explained his idea of God by holding up a white styrofoam cup half filled with coffee and with his other hand describing a circle beneath the cup. The professors, Cecilia Martz and Lucy Sparck, who prefer to use their Yup'ik names, Tacuk and Uut, translated his words, but it was not necessary, for Andrew had made a Judeo-Christian tableau of styrofoam and circles in the air, with God above, separate and presiding over the universe. The Yupiit offered no argument, but neither did they agree. They were all Christians, Moravian or Roman Catholic, but God and God were not the same.
All the while grade-school kids kept sticking their heads in through the side door of the library, whispering and giggling at the old people sitting around
the table, then running out. More and more people joined the group around the table: nurses, schoolteachers, other members of the community. Everyone had the same silent response to Peter Andrew's words and gestures. Later, I came to understand why.
What he had described was Agayun, the Christian notion of God, which had arrived with the white missionaries in the nineteenth century. Ellam Yua is the Yup'ik phrase sometimes translated as God, though it has no such meaning. Ella means consciousness and world or universe; in other contexts it means outdoors, weather, and air. Yua is the more complex notion, for it is the possessive form of yuk, which means person, and what can a person own in the natural world other than his or her personhood?
The Yupiit have a word for consciousness, another for mind, yet another for the physical brain itself, and then there is this business of yua. According to Tacuk, if a person sees a piece of driftwood on the frozen tundra, he or she must turn it over to expose the other side to the air. It is a gift to the yua of the wood. If one behaves that way toward the wood, perhaps one day the wood will return the favor. Hunting and gathering follow the same rules: the seal, salmon, herring, duck, moose, caribou, cloud-berry, all things living and inanimate--all have this yua, and all are deserving of kindness. Was this pantheism, foolishness, a system of morals? What would Kant say? Was this a version of the categorical imperative "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law"?
Ellam Yua--in two words ethics is born of metaphysics. Or is it the other way round?
I tried to understand the idea by comparing it to other notions that I knew better, the Mesoamerican Ometeotl, God of Duality, the Mother/Father; Tloque Nahuaque (the Close and the Near), meaning omnipresent.
"Seen and not seen," Uut said, as complete a description as the spoken and unspoken of a writer's world.
So the question was on the table: Of the 3,000 languages that will be granted life beyond the middle of the next century, is Yup'ik a worthy candidate? Is there something unique and irreplaceable in other languages? In the words themselves? Is there a reductive and even murderous aspect hidden in Chomsky's view of language? If the survivors were limited to 300, would Yup'ik make the cut?
I went north, to Fairbanks, to see the man best prepared to answer such questions. Michael Krauss prowls the file cases of his office there like an Arctic bear. His passion is such that the Yupiit say of him, "Ask Michael one question and he will speak for three hours." Krauss has published an oral history of Anna Nelson Harry, one of the last speakers of Eyak. The last speaker, Marie Smith Jones, is eighty-one years old, and there is no other native speaker of Eyak on earth. What must she think of us? Neither T. S. Eliot nor Claude Levi-Strauss knew how the world would end, but the last speaker of Eyak knows: it will end in silence.
The Eyak language and others are collected in manila folders on the open shelves of the steel cases in Krauss's office. Since these folders contain the pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary of Eyak, you might say that the language has been preserved. He has made, in effect, a museum for Eyak. But this is not Alexandria; a museum is not a university now. A museum displays the peoples and works of times past, musty no matter how interactive or holographic. The American idea of manifest destiny was to consign the native peoples to museums, to make them as dead as yesterday.
Anthropologists and, until quite recently, most linguists have been content to embalm the dead, preparing languages for the file cabinet and the museum. This killing of a language happens exactly as one would expect: the weak must speak to the strong in the language of the strong. Eventually, the language of the weak loses its utility, except for secrets and the making of ill-fated rebellions. The Eyak fell into silence in the old way, caught between two larger nations on the south coast of Alaska, crushed to a whisper, until the whites came and reduced the Eyak to a single speaker. The Darwinian way of the world bears some responsibility, globalization does the rest: movies, television, Reeboks, and the Internet. The single most prominent feature of the landscape of a Yup'ik village on the Alaskan tundra is the dish for the cable television system. In the homes of the Yup'ik poor, as in the homes of all the poor of the United States, the television set plays during all waking hours.
Steven A. Jacobson, who operates the Alaska Native Language Center with Krauss, has produced both a Yup'ik Eskimo dictionary and a grammar, good work and useful, but what if the Yupiit had only the dictionary and the grammar without the question raised on the first day of Tacuk's class in Chevak, a little village a few miles from the Bering Sea, where the winter wind chill reaches 100 degrees below zero and at least 69 percent of the residents collect some kind of federal assistance? Tacuk and her students were speaking in Cup'ik of the ircinrraq world. From dictionaries and anthropological works written by outsiders, one may gather little more than that this world is home to tiny creatures, perhaps half-human and half-animal. Although I was familiar with some of the English-language literature about the Yupiit, which mentions these little people, I had not read anywhere of an entire alternate world.
During the discussion, two elders who were teaching along with Tacuk spoke of directions in the ircinrraq world, one of which is known as qetegkun, the other as qelakun. Then they came upon a problem: The elders knew the meanings of the words in what they refer to as the "tangible" world. The words have to do with going toward or coming from the sea. But even the elders were not sure which meaning went with which word in the other world.
Yup'ik is an agglutinative language, in which base words change and become more subtle through the addition of postbases (or modifying suffixes), generally one or two, though half a dozen is not unusual. Eloquence depends upon one's ability to use postbases, and the status of elder is conferred upon only those who speak eloquently. It appears that one's ability to use the language implies knowledge and even wisdom for the Yupiit. Knowing the meaning of words referring to the ircinrraq world is vital for an elder, but direction in the ircinrraq world does not follow the same rules as in "the tangible world." The elders of Chevak would have to consult with elders from other villages to learn the proper definitions of the words. There was nothing unusual about the quest; the Yupiit are a nation of lexicographers.
How can this be? They are hunters and gatherers, still living largely by subsistence on fish, seal, caribou, moose, and berries. Where are the books? How can one be a lexicographer without a book?
I spent several days with elder Joe Lomack. We ate together, flew in tiny airplanes, sat beside each other in meetings and during an Eskimo dance in Chevak. And all the while we spoke. I told him I was going to write about the question of the survival of languages, and he agreed to help. Joe Lomack's English is sufficient but not good. I know only a few words in Yup'ik, and I usually mispronounce them. I noticed that when I wanted to say angalkuk, which means shaman, what emerged caused great laughter among the Yupiit. They finally told me I had been saying "an old piece of shit." Uut tried desperately to help me to pronounce the word correctly, but every time I said it, she and Tacuk and the others could not help but laugh. Now I say "power person," which is a poor translation of angalkuk, but not funny.
Joe Lomack and I conversed according to the eccentricities of his English. He seldom made assertions, except to explain that a person who went out on the tundra in winter might "get dead." He told stories, and from the stories I was expected to infer theory. Joe had no interest in the bluntness of mere exposition; he made daily life into a series of fables, history into story, the world into an epic seen and not seen: literature.
As the days went by I learned his English, though he was not much interested in mine. The old man, slightly bent, round as innocence, bald, brown, his ancient eyes gone yellow, his lower lip full and thrust out as if in contemplation or pout, mesmerized Eskimo people with his oratory. He was their dictionary and their grammar: words.
If the words are lost, silenced, what of Ellam Yua? If no one thinks of the meanings of Ellam Yua, what of the words? Joe Lomack answered with long stories of what sounded to me like the uneventful routine of life on the tundra; he never used the abstract language I thought I needed to hear. I asked Uut if she would help me to ask the question in Yup'ik, thinking he had not understood me. "But he just answered it," she said. "Weren't you listening?"
Yup'ik immersion courses now extend through the fourth grade in southwestern Alaska. They will taper off as the children grow older, limiting the study of the language and thought to the primary schools. If the silence of the next generation begins at the entrance to complexity, the vision of those who believed in the manifest destiny of the United States and all it inherited from Europe will have been fulfilled: speakers of Yup'ik will have been reduced to the level of children.
Miguel Leon-Portilla, the renowned Mexican historian and translator, has said, "In order to survive, a language must have a use." He has worked for many years to keep languages alive in Mexico, which was once home to 240 different living languages. Like all Mexicans, he has had the nearby spur of the great, silenced Olmec and Teotihuacan civilizations.
In the city of Teotihuacan, which was one of the largest cities in the world in 600 A.D., speakers of various languages lived in neighborhoods of foreigners, but the language of the Teotihuacanos, perhaps 125,000 to 150,000 within the city itself and many more in the surrounding area, can no longer be heard. The pyramids and palaces stand in the sun, beautiful and magnificent, but no one speaks their language. For all the wonders of its structures, sculptures, coffers, and painted walls, Teotihuacan has no history other than in your imagination or mine.
Perhaps the death I saw from inside the preposterous garrison of youth must eventually occur, not only the Death of the Great Spirit in the Americas but the death of hundreds of languages in France, New Guinea, the British Isles, India: 3,000 within a hundred years, soon 5,750--a catastrophe. To save languages, to provide some use, might require wars or nationalistic urges, the desperation to exist that drives the people of Wales and Catalonia. The example most often given of the rejuvenation of a language is Hebrew, which had been limited almost entirely to religious and scholarly use until it was made the state language of Israel.
In Guatemala, the K'iche' Maya struggle to stay alive in their own words. Humberto Ak'abal, killed in an automobile accident at the beginning of an international reputation, said, in one of a series of many brief poems in K'iche':
Elaq'an chaqe ri ulew, ri che', ri ja'. Ri man e kowinan taj xa are ri', ri Nawal. Man kekuwinta wa'.
The work cannot be adequately translated. The best one can do is:
They have robbed us of lands, trees, and water. They have not been able to take what belongs to the Nawal. Nor shall they.
Ak'abal's poem can only be explained, and then with difficulty, because the concept of the Nawal--one's other, not exactly one's alter ego, nor exactly one's spirit, but an other, parallel but of a different order, like and unlike, impossible to summon, found or encountered but never merely dreamed--has no English or Spanish equivalent. It cannot be appropriated by the more powerful, not even by military dictators or death squads. The Nawal has no natural enemy but silence.
To save the sound of the Nawal, the K'iche' are willing to die, and many have been shot, dismembered, burned, buried, or thrown into volcanoes in Guatemala. Perhaps the war itself worked on the Maya in some Nietzschean way, strengthening those it did not destroy. But the history of wars between cultures would argue that the K'iche' Maya were an aberration; the odds favored the Spanish-speakers and their helicopters.
For all that I admire the fortitude of the Guatemalans, their situation did not prove the error of what I had written in that long-ago book. Silence had not yet fallen in Guatemala or in Chevak; these were among the living languages, those that could be lost. The demonstration of my mistake began one afternoon in a tiny village in the low jungle of the Yucatan, where I went to do research for a book and found myself starting a Clemente Course in Maya.(3)
The situation requires a few words of history: The decline had gone on for many centuries. The Maya city-states had ravaged one another in terrible wars of betrayal and fire. Then the Spaniards invaded, burning the painted books, destroying culture for the sake of culture. The Maya resisted the Spaniards, attempted to secede from Mexico, prayed to Yum Chac when the Christian God and His saints failed to bring rain, but they could not stand up before the economic power of the henequen planters. Henequen, the agave fiber used to make rope and sisal matting, had finally been the worst enemy in that part of the peninsula.
The Maya descended into the depths of colonialism. The planters owned everything; they brought overseers to the peninsula to work the Maya like beasts in the fields all day and lock them into cells at night; they devoted themselves to silencing the language as a defense against rebels and other heretics; and all the while the henequen fields displaced the corn and beans and squash of the Maya farmers and the forage food and medicinal plants of the low jungle. Then the market for Mexican sisal collapsed in the mid-twentieth century and with it the economy of the henequen area. The people lived on government welfare until in the late 1980s President Carlos Salinas de Gortari ended the welfare, and nothing remained.
The professors and I traveled about two hours from Merida to the village in a van driven by Raul Murguia Rosete, who directs more than fifty programs for the United Nations Development Programme in the Yucatan. The faculty was to meet the students for the first time that afternoon. I had prepared the students, working in the comfort of Murguia's genius for organization and the trust he had earned from the villagers. The students and I had discussed the Socratic method, which would be used in the course, though the entire project had come near to ending in laughter after I told them I would be their partera, or midwife. Murguia had leapt in to explain that I meant dialogo maieutico, but even he could not help but laugh, so far was Socrates from the Yucatan and so inept was my explanation.
After the long trip in the air-conditioned van, the heat and humidity of the village staggered us. We went quickly into the shade of the single room of the building that had become our school. It was hotter inside. With neither glass nor screens in the windows and nothing except a sheet of metal to cover the entrance, the building gave shade but amplified the heat. It offered little protection. If a drop of sweetness spilled, the flies that came from the dilapidated remnant of a henequen-shredding plant covered the spot in no more than a minute. Mosquitoes sped through the windows as darkness fell. Some may have carried dengue fever.
The students sat around a long table, a place made for dialogue, but that evening there would be no midwifery. It was an orientation, a greeting, nothing more. Each member of the faculty would speak for his or her subject. Alejandra Garcia Quintanilla of the Autonomous University of Yucatan, a historian and the head of our faculty, spoke first. She did not hide her hope to win the students over. It fluttered her hands and took her breath. The students watched her, perhaps more than they listened, for they had never seen anyone like her in this village of 1,400 people. They knew how the mestizos and whites of Merida treated the Maya: the household slaps, the public insults, the ingenuity of exploitation. And here was a woman of Merida, one with the word "doctor" before her name, who had come to a place without running water or sewerage and yet had dressed so carefully out of respect.
By the end of the afternoon the sun had turned the building into a sweat lodge. The skin of the students shone. In the humid air, perspiration had no cooling effect. The faculty sat in wet clothing, as if they had just come in from a salty rain. All but Miguel Angel May May. He was the last to speak. The students had been waiting for him. They saw him as the true test of these outsiders. They had been told that he would teach them their own language in their own place, as if they did not speak Maya to their own grandmothers every day. He had come to teach them their own secrets in a place not fifty yards from the house where don Romulo, the ancient h-meen, or doer, or shaman, kept his hollow cane filled with rattlesnake fangs and stingray spines and sang in the sweetest tones to cure the colic of infants and the madness of men and women as old as the h-meen himself. The students, some of them not yet twenty years old, trusted the h-meen's herbs but not his words; a distance had developed in the henequen areas, a silence had grown among the generations.
After he was introduced, May May, a writer, critic, and professor in the Academy of Maya Languages, paused for a moment, as if to acknowledge the silence. Then he stepped out of the shadow of the western wall of the building into the center of the room. His white guayabera reflected the last of the light. He was as cool as old stone; more brown, more Maya, against the white of the guayabera; taller than the other Maya, young yet with flecks of gray in his hair. He greeted the students in their language as their language had been spoken before the henequen planters, before the Caste War. He spoke easily; every accent, every tone of the complex language, came clean and clear into the room. He laughed; he made them laugh. He walked the length of the room, words pouring from him as if he meant to hold off the silence forever.
Almost two years have passed since that steamy evening. In the village, where only 120 people have work and those who work earn no more than eighty-five cents a day, the students speak of the literature of their ancestors. They know the poetry and stories and those works the ancient Maya called histories of the future. May May taught them the difficult and subtle sounds of their language again, using the ring of coins on stone and the clack of bricks and the conk of wood. He gave them writing as well as reading, and the other teachers built the culture again in the minds of the students, starting from the corn, as everything among the Maya starts with corn, the one grain that cannot live without the help of man.
At first, the eroticism of the Kay Nicte, the Flower Song, embarrassed them: Naked beside a stone pool set them to giggling, but then the gorgeous language of the old Maya poem reached them, and they understood that language also carries meaning in the sound, and at last they knew that they are descendants of singers and also sing.
The students read the Popol Vuh, a work with deep pre-Hispanic roots sometimes known as the Maya Bible, and spoke of the suffering that lies behind the making of art. They understood the homologous lives of heroes and corn. They learned the fate of the ancient men of wood, those early technologists who were destroyed when the things they had made to serve them rose up and tore them apart.
Soon, other villages heard of this antidote to silence and asked to be part of it. One evening, I met with a group of old men in a town north of Merida. They asked for help in putting off the silence, but not with children's words, kitchen Maya, the overseer's vocabulary of force. That was another silence. The old men knew; they remembered. They wished to be philosophers, mathematicians, poets, artists. One old man sang songs he had composed, but they were in Spanish. The others screwed up their faces.
What could they hope for now? Why did the old men want to know? Linguists divide the world of languages into four classes in descending order: those spoken by children, those spoken by people of childbearing age, those spoken only by people beyond childbearing age, and those spoken or remembered only by a few old people. Many of the languages of the world are in the last three categories, apparently moribund.
Then why did the old men, moribund themselves--hobbling, toothless, aged leather valises full of bones--want the words? "Will you come back next week?" they had asked.
"Then who will tell us our stories?"
"Perhaps ...," I had said, offering a common Spanish antidote to despair.
I think now that every language has its Ellam Yua. The consolation the old men sought existed only in Maya. Every epithet implied a unique set of attributes, every sound described a unique Being. It is not merely a writer's conceit to think that the human world is made of words and to remember that no two words in all the world's languages are alike. Of all the arts and sciences made by man, none equals a language, for only a language in its living entirety can describe a unique and irreplaceable world. I saw this once, in the forest of southern Mexico, when a butterfly settled beside me. The color of it was a blue unlike any I had ever seen, hue and intensity beyond naming, a test for the possibilities of metaphor. In the distance lay the ruined Maya city of Palenque, where the glyphs that speak of the reign of the great lord Pacal are carved in stone. The glyphs can be deciphered now. Perhaps. Only perhaps, for no one knows what words were spoken, what sounds were made when Pacal the Conqueror reigned. It may seem cryptic or even Socratic to say, but, in truth, only spoken words cart be heard.
There are nine different words in Maya for the color blue in the comprehensive Porrua Spanish-Maya Dictionary but just three Spanish translations, leaving six butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving beyond doubt that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth.
(1) A one-year university-level course that will be taught to poor young people at twenty-six sites this fall in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, the Clemente Course was described at length in the September 1997 issue of Harper's Magazine. The majority of the sites in the United States are supervised by Bard College.
(2) There are two dialects spoken in the Yukon and Kuskokwim deltas. Yup'ik is the most common, being spoken in all but two villages near the Bering Sea, where the people speak Cup'ik. The plural noun is Cupiit or Yupiit. I have conflated the dialects into Yup'ik and the plural Yupiit here, which is a common practice, even among the Cupiit/Yupiit, and not considered harmful.
(3) Maya may be transliterated into roman letters or written in its original form. The key to pre-Hispanic Maya writing appears to have been deciphered by the Russian Yuri Knorosov, though many people since Knorosov have advanced the work. If they are correct, the writing is both phonetic, in the sense that symbols represent sounds, and ideographic, with symbols representing entire words. The technical term is logosyllabic.
Earl Shorris is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. He is the author of twelve books, including, most recently, the novel In the Yucatan and Riches for the Poor: The Clemente Course in the Humanities, which will be published this month.
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|Title Annotation:||efforts to save world's small languages|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2000|
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