My Father

The Jaguar Symbol of Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico.

I saw my father yesterday evening. I walked through the zócalo, opened the main cathedral doors and walked in. The doors closed behind me. I looked towards the main altar and there my father stood, motionless. The evening light shone through the engraved glass panels and illuminated him as if he were some long passed saint come back to visit me. We stared at each other, but I couldn’t open my mouth to speak. The hairs on my neck stood on end and my hands shook. When I forced my mouth open, words stuck in my throat. He wore his best grey suit over a light blue shirt and a dark blue, hand woven tie: the outfit in which I had buried him.

               Three old women, dressed in black, broke the spell. One stood in front of me and wouldn’t let me approach my father. She held a large bag of knitting in her hands and the wool spilled everywhere as she pushed me away. The second threatened me with a pair of scissors that she held in her left hand and thrust towards my face. The third smacked a tailor’s measuring rod against my father’s head.  He nodded, smiled sadly, and they all turned their backs on me and hurried away out of the cathedral and into the square.

               Just for a moment, I stood there in silence. Then I pulled the doors open and ran in pursuit of my father. The setting sun filled the square with shadows that whispered and moved this way and that, as if a whole village had come down from the hills to walk beneath the trees and dance in the rays of the dying sun. I stood on the cathedral steps and called out my father’s name, but I could see no sign of him among the cut and thrust of the shadowy crowd.

               I ran out into that crowd and pushed at insubstantial people who stood firm one moment and then melted away the next like clouds or thick mist. I came to a side street and saw real people, flesh and blood beings, a group of villagers gathered behind their band. I stopped and as I did the village elder put a live match to the taper of the rocket that he clutched between his thumb and forefinger. The taper caught on fire and the rocket soared upwards with a searing whoosh. The village band marched forward and started to play a traditional dance as the rocket clawed its way into the sky to explode with a loud knock on the door of the gods.

               Tired of grasping at shadows and afraid of this living phalanx of men that marched towards me I went back to the cathedral and knelt at the altar of La Virgen de la Soledad, the patron saint of Oaxaca. Real wax candles stood before her altar, not tiny electric lights, and I inserted five pesos in the slot, took a taper, and lit a fresh candle from an ageing one that had started to sputter. I knelt and, for the first time in years, I prayed. I prayed for the soul I had saved from extinction by lighting my candle from another’s flame. I prayed for my father and my mother and, above all, I prayed for myself.

               On the way home to my second-floor apartment where I live alone, I bought two litres of mescal, one to send me to sleep, and the other so I would survive the next morning.

Comment: A Golden Oldie that I had forgotten about. I found it among the drafts of earlier work. Monte Alban is also known as Dani Ba in the indigenous language of the region. Click on the link for more on Monte Alban. And click on this link for another piece on my father and Oaxaca. It’s a funny thing about Golden Oldies: sometimes they stick with us and are ‘unforgettable’, but sometimes they were better off left in the pile that gathers dust, like a forgotten book on a forgotten shelf. Speaking of which, have I told you about the time when …

Codex

Ay Ay Ayeres

Codex (Solace 3 & 4)

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Down below, in the courtyard, the handy man wakes me as he tumble dries a TV ad in the washing machine of his song sparrow throat. He gargles with gravel and churns stony lyrics skywards until they grate at my bedroom window and drag me from my dreams.

My ears fill up with a crackle and roar. Wave after wave of sunlight breaks over the azotea. Blind with music, deaf with light, I am awash in the sea-surge rhythm of this surfacing sun. My dreams break up like biscuits and between my fingers I feel a sandstorm of crumbs.

Morning blows fresh colours into each corner of my waking mind. An early breeze shakes cobwebs and dust from my brain. New visions crawl out from the vellum codex I left open last night on my table. Red and green gods wearing black and white masks crawl through spaces still alive in my mind. Sometimes they move when the eye doesn’t watch them, but when I concentrate, they freeze in intimate poses. I link them with lines and arrows and vow that my life will never again be scarred by their secretive smiles.

The red glare of the day’s first rocket climbs its ladder of sky to smash at the gods’ front door. A second rocket draws me back to daylight. Awake, I lie there, counting. A third explosion is much closer. The fourth rocket surges skywards and the fifth and sixth rockets are two fiery giants exploding above my apartment. I pull back the bed clothes and swing my legs over the side of the bed. My day has begun.

4

The codex lies open on the dining room table I use as a desk. I scan the interpretation I made late last night, transferring the visual to verbal.

“Two breasts: one green, one yellow, symbolic of the hill where the church stands; the church itself bi-coloured, strong stone walls, a spire. A large red heart symbolic of the love we bear for you, our masters. Two feet walking the path of enlightenment you opened before us are accompanied by two hands pointing the way. The feet below the heart; the hands above the heart, like wings; and the heart becomes the body of the new place you have built for us. And in the heart is our sacred symbol: the Earthquake, a sign of leadership and power used only by those of Royal Stature and the Noblest Blood. Attached to the heart is the Numeral One which means Lord of the Earthquake; for you are Number One in our Hearts. Attached to the heart is a speech scroll showing felicitous words of praise; below it is the sacred earthworm, and beneath that the serpent head of wisdom and the flint knife promising strength through sacrifice.

But be wary: for our symbols are double-edged! The colors of the hill are divided, as the hill is divided, showing strife and division. The church is on top of the hill, for the symbol has conquered the people, and the people are starving, subject, and destroyed. The feet are pointing in opposite directions, for the people are stalled. They have no forward movement, nor will of their own, for they are conquered by the sword and not by love. And the hands are pointing in opposite directions; for the right hand knows not what the left hand is doing. And the hands are reversed showing anguish and distress. The sign of the heart is the sign of the disembodied heart, torn from the heaving chest of the vanquished and thrown to the dogs. The sign of the earthquake is also the sign of movement. And that movement is a bowel movement. And one movement in the middle of the sacrificed heart is the victor excreting on the vanquished and treating them with scorn and contempt. The scroll protrudes from the nether part and says that the victors are speaking words of excrement, that verbal diarrhoea issues from their lips. And the serpent has no feathers; it cannot fly. It is as a snake treacherous and bitter, crawling on the ground. The head of the serpent is two tongued and tells of treachery and of deceit. The flint is attached to a heart; it speaks of the heart that is as hard as flint, knowing no mercy. And at the end that heart will receive no mercy in its turn.”

Figures on the codex page take on a fresh life. They walk and strut, nod their heads, move their limbs. The sun climbs in the sky. Shadows shorten. Footsteps march steadily across the page from right to left. I blow a kiss to the piggy-back bride and she waves back.

Too much, too early. I reach for the remains of last night’s bottle of mescal and gulp them down. Order is restored. The cartoon figures go back to sleep. Normality, whatever that may be, returns.

Wanderer

Wanderer
El Árbol de Tule

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So many tales are told about the árbol de Tule, that thousand year old tree standing outside the city of Oaxaca. Hernán Cortés is said to have sat beneath it when he came to Oaxaca in 1525, or thereabouts. And it was old then, and famous in folklore. The tree is also famous for the pictures that nestle in trunk and branches. For small change, the little boys, released early from school, will point their mirrors up, into the tree, and spotlight with reflected sunshine the features that you seek. A thousand years, or more, have produced a thousand images, or more. Even the face of  Hernán Cortés himself is said to be captured somewhere along the tree-trunk’s art gallery, if you can only find it.

Like Borges’s eternal library, your own portrait can be found there, somewhere. You must search patiently for it, staring into the tree bark until it takes on your features. Then you can move on, knowing that whatever happens you will be caught forever in the life of one of the world’s wonders: el árbol de Tule. But beware of imitations and avoid the plastic imitations and the photos from cheap camera’s that will trap your soul forever, leaving no trace of you in the real world. Ignore these warnings at your peril, or you too will be locked into your cell phone and sentenced to life imprisonment within those digital walls.

Yesterday

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Commentary:

Ocho Venado / Eight Deer is a legendary person who is described in the pre-Columbian Miztec códice known as the Zouche-Nuttall codex. He lived from 1063 to 1115, the date of the codex. The códice describes his life and conquests. I brought a facsimile copy of this códice home in 1995 and my beloved started reading it on Boxing Day. It took her two days to decipher the first page. One day for the second page and, by my birthday, she had read the whole thing. She inspired my love of the codices and they figure largely in my writings from that time, especially The Oaxacan Trilogy (Sun and Moon, Obsidian’s Edge, and Obsidian 22, the first two available on Amazon).

Eight Deer appears frequently in my poetry, partly because we have a family of deer, often as many as eight (!) that walk through our garden in Island View. The joining of the Canadian natural world with the Oaxacan historical and mythical world brings me great joy and it is wonderful to weave stories and poems where the two worlds mingle and become one. Hence the dream world of the prose poem that figures above. Chocolate beans, incidentally, were one of the cash currencies used in Oaxaca at the time of the arrival of Cortés and the Spanish. Oaxacan chocolate (xocotl) is something wonderful.

 

Eight Deer

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Eight Deer
(1113 AD)

eight deer visit
my garden each night
they raid my feeders
capture my birdseed
lusting for gold
anything to keep out
this winter cold

raccoons
leave claw-marks
grubbing for grubs
dug up like donuts
circled on my lawn

who captures whom
when the full moon
descends from the sky
walks among men
making them mad

death by snow plow
snow-melt and crows
Eight Deer emerges
his sacrificed body
preserved on this page
and in salt snow

Thursday Thoughts: Downsizing

 

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Thursday Thoughts
05 April 2018
Downsizing

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax,
of cabbages and kings,
and if the sea is boiling hot,
and whether books have wings.”

Downsizing: such a sad time. Over the last few weeks we have slowly and steadily packed seventeen boxes with a part of our precious book collection. We are giving it to the Harriet Irving Library at the University of New Brunswick, our local provincial university. The collection contains several specialist areas including Mexico, the State of Oaxaca, and five pre-Columbian Mixtec codices, the 1492-1992, quincentennial facsimile editions. Today the Mexico collection, minus the codices (which we will deliver later, by hand), departed.

Their departure has left an emptiness on our shelves and a sadness in our hearts. Old friends, they are. We sought for them in Oaxaca, chasing through old books stores, market places, state institutions, and the houses of friends. The result: a steady accumulation of literary gems. Clare, in particular, took a delight in the codices, learning first to read them, then to analyze them. Much of the Mexican collection centres on how to interpret these precious documents, one of which still bears the burn marks where a wise priest drew the manuscript codex from the Inquisitional flames and saved it for posterity.

When the Mexican collection settled down in the boxes, a little space remained and we filled one box with the first set of books from our Quevedo collection. This was La Perinola, the Revista de Investigación Quevediana. I lay awake most of the night agonizing on whether or not I should let this review series go. Then, at 4:00 am, I got up, put on my dressing gown, went downstairs and photographed the Perinola, in all its glory. When this was done. I returned to bed and was finally able to fall asleep.

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The Perinola meant (and still means) so much to me. I still remember the thrill of being asked to sit upon the consejo honorífico, the only Canadian scholar, and one of only two Anglophones to be so honoured, my external reader being the other. To read my name next to that of the external examiner for my doctoral thesis on the love-poetry of Francisco de Quevedo (University of Toronto, 1975) was, and still is, an extraordinary honour. I still get butterflies when I see my name attached to this review. The butterflies settled, bit by bit, as I realized that I could preserve my personal memories with a photo while donating the series to the greater glory of Quevedo Studies in the wider world of Hispanic Academia.

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Sun and Moon 3

 

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Sun and Moon 3

at midnight Serpent slithers through
a gap in the fence of my dream
he slides close to my shivering body
and lies there chill against my skin

his length – a sword without a scabbard
unscaleable wall of unblemished steel
severing all warmth

“Tomorrow,” he says, “I will take you to the sky.
But first, you must watch me dance.”

he twists in circles winding and unwinding
infinite loops and figures of eight
endless cat’s cradle of bottomless shape

sleep draws my feet deeper into quicksand
the night wind whispers me a head full of dreams

 

 

Sun and Moon 1

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Sun and Moon 1

Last week an old man squeezed the moon;
tonight, she’s a shrunken orange in the sky.

“Tell me, Moon:
when all the stars have been caught in my net,
what will I harvest?”

Silence descends a ladder of moonlight
bearing an offering of gift-wrapped stars.

“Wise Old Woman who lives in the sky:
what man tore your bones apart
and gave me your face?”

Dead leaves rush out through my eyes.
My hands stretch out before my face
and I wash them in moonlight.

“One day, I’ll climb to your silver palace
and steal all your secrets.”

Comment: Sun and Moon 2 (as sung by Cat Leblanc) is introduced and complemented by Sun and Moon 1. These are the first two poems in the ten poem title sequence of Sun and Moon. The eagle costumes, shown in the photo, belong to the original dance sequence from Sun and Moon as performed on Monte Albán.

Sun and Moon 2

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Sun and Moon 2

Eagle paints my eyes with daylight.
He offers to fly me to the sky.
His feathers trap sunshine in his pinions.
Morning is a rebozo draped over his plumage.

“My mother is blind,” says Eagle.
“Her sight: cold ashes in the fireplace.
Stripped of her dreams,
she wanders in darkness.
You must give her
the fire from your eyes!”

Tiger offers to carry me to the sky.
Flame speckles his pelt.
His eyes are two scorched blocks of charcoal.
“I will break the bread of your bones,” says Tiger,
“and warm myself on the fire of your blood!”

Serpent offers to bear me to the sky.
His scales are shards of emerald and ruby.
His serpent’s blood runs cold through his veins.
He weighs me in the twin dice of his eyes.

“Where I lead you must follow,” Serpent says.
“There is no other price.”

 

Comment: Here as promised are the words to yesterday’s song as composed and sung by my good friend Cat Leblanc. This is the second stanza from the ten poem title sequence of Sun and Moon. Here is the link.