Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Songs of the Silent Shriekh

Playa names are used by many Burning Man participants and they range in significance from the deeply personal to the tongue-in-cheek. My own playa name evolved from my campmates' comments about my desert garb. During the hottest, sunniest hours, I wore a keffiyah and soon enough Chris referred to me as "the sheikh."

"By temperament, I'm more like a shriek," was my lame response.

Chris said, "Hmmm. You would be a silent shriek. Wait! That's your playa name! 'The Silent Shriek!'"

And thus "Shriekh" was born. People started introducing me as "Shriekh" and there you have it. My nom de burn.

* * *

One of the cardinal values of Burning Man is participation. All participants are encouraged to interact and shape the environment of Black Rock City. Just about any kind of workshop, art, or service you can think of is on offer during the week. There are camps offering yoga classes and meditation. Massage therapy. There are cafe camps serving up lattes. There was a gymnasium camp near us. Workshops on sexuality. A mini-golf course. Body painting. Thrift shops. Bicycle repairs. Activities for kids. Poetry. Dance parties that lasted all day and all night. All offered for free. Black Rock City operates mostly on a gift economy for this one week.

The biggest challenge is finding the camp that is offering something you want. Since most of the real estate is first-come, first-served, finding a particular camp requires some detective work and perhaps some luck. Me, I gave up, and just walked around the camp city finding whatever I found by chance.

For instance, I happened across the "Haiku For Beer" camp. If you wrote a haiku, you got a cold beer. When I arrived, the haiku master was not in, so no beer for me. I was able to view others' work, however.





Some time after this, while waiting out a sand storm, the Shriekh Poems came into being.

The Shriekh Poems were inspired by the memory of Han Shan, a 9th-century hermit from China who named himself after the mountain where he spent much of his time. Han Shan's poems were written spontaneously and left for others to find. Some of his poems are teasing commentaries about the dharma and current events, some are nature poems or enlightenment poems.

A mountain man lives under thatch
before his gate carts and horses are rare
the forest is quiet but partial to birds
the streams are wide and home to fish
with his son he picks wild fruit
with his wife he hoes between rocks
what does he have at home
a shelf full of nothing but books


-translation by Red Pine


While the Thursday storm blew sand into my bones, I sat down and wrote out 20 spontaneous poems. None of them came close to Han Shan's eloquence, wit, or beauty. They were short and pointed at events going on within Black Rock City, the landscape, tongue-in-cheek invitations to sit Zen, a spoof of Han Shan, although I also indulged some positive affirmations that Han Shan would have found distasteful. On Friday, I wrote 20 more. The poems were signed, simply, "Shriekh" with the date. On both days, I took long walks around this village of 48,000 people and left poems in various locations where they might be found eventually.

100,000 greedy eyes
Already burned the man


-Shriekh (from memory)


I tucked them under bicycle seats, in mailboxes people had erected beside their camps, securely fastened to windshields or camp equipment or street signs. I was even able to drop a couple of poems into purses and bags - like a reverse pickpocket.



Were they all found? Did they amuse for just a moment? I hope so. I hope they didn't end up as litter. "Matter Out of Place" (MOOP) is one thing. "Poetry Out of Place" would be POOP, and that is not a contribution I wished to make.

To date, one person from Great Britain (!) tracked Shriekh down by way of internet searches:

You left a very lovely poem on my bike – I've just re-discovered it unpacking from BM and thought maybe there was a chance you'd be somewhere and here you are and so I can say how yummy it was to find a few words that made me smile and warmed me through and through and so a warm smiley thank you is due to you.. No coincidence perhaps that you are part of the fab museum camp that made my almost most favourite part of the week and rendered me speechless and unable to voice anything because I loved it so much and, almost missing my wine completely because of my dumstruckness, and so Shriekh, another reason to genuinely say thank you for being at BM and a big old la-de-da to you.


Well, la-de-da myself. What a lovely, gratuitous thing.

No need to wonder about the other poems too much, I suppose. They are offered like meager sticks of incense, to burn away in the wind.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

That's awesome! I didn't know someone from GB wrote you!