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 …

Southern Platform

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Comment: The wind that whistles through Island View today carries snowflakes and ice pellets that pitter-patter across the window. The wind brought in clouds, grey wisps of drapery that curtained the sky. When the wind falls silent, the trees continue to wave and thereby fan the air into action and the wind starts up again. Yellow sunshine, warmth, the sun in Mexico, in Oaxaca, in Monte Alban where the danzantes dance in stone and my friends and I wander at will among sunshine and shadow. On grey days like these when I crave the sun, I conjure images of Oaxaca, its warmth and its mysteries of mescal, that early-morning spinner of inner myths, word music, and magic metaphors.

Dream World

 

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Dream World (Solace 2)

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… dream worlds circle outside my bedroom window … starry sky … two full moons floating, one real, one mirrored in the glass …  inside the bedroom, tulips inscribe red gashes on white-washed walls … sharp fingernails scrape across paint, blood red shadows trickle down to the floor …

… above the azotea, the temples of Monte Albán string out their sheets on the sky’s washing-line, glowing in the moonlight … against a background of granite and stucco, trenchant shadows sculpt dancers into grotesque, pipe-wire shapes as they struggle to escape their carved imprisonment …

… priests in long black robes gape at the night sky. From their sanctuary in the observatory, they plot how they will persuade the people to believe the future they will foretell as night’s giant finger herds the wild-cat stars …

… three young women walk at an angle up the temple steps … when they reach the top, a moonbeam holds them in its spotlight and they wax with the full moon’s beauty …  the doorway to an unclosed grave opens its crocodile jaws and the three women descend the temple steps, ageing as they walk … at the temple’s foot, they enter the tomb’s dark mouth … an old man in a faded grey suit walks behind them … the grave swallows them all, burying them in the hidden depths beneath the mound …

… dreams back themselves into a cul-de-sac, a wilderness of harsh black scars … an ancient Aztec god catches Rabbit by his ears and throws him against the second sun that sizzles in the sky … his sharp teeth burrow, burying themselves deep in the sun-fire’s light … the second sun loses its glow and turns into the moon’s cold stone …  the rabbit’s skull simmers in the new moon’s dwindling pool …

With a clicking of claws, knitting needles come together to pluck me outwards from my dreams and upwards towards death’s golden guillotine that floats in the sky. The moon sharpens its knife edge on the keening wind and sets my blood tingling. I want to be free, free from those nightmares, those nocturnal visions that rise up from the past and stalk me as I lie in bed.

Drowsing, I long for the alarm clock to shuffle its pack of sleepless hours and to waken me with its piercing call as it tears me from these winding sheets, these grave clothes in which I lie. I wait for the sun to shine into my window.

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.

 

Waste Knot

 

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Waste Knot
(6th Century BC)

finger-nails crack
red sealing wax
liberating gathering
knotted parcel string

broken finger nails
hard scarlet chips
blood flash-frozen
beaded on blade

underground
clawing for clues
damp walled
this cave-walk
distant the exit
thread leading out

reef knots slip knots
sheep-shanks bowlines
bowlines-on-the-bight
tight he tied them
used them
to measure distance
to distance him from doom

behind him
the bull head
boisterous
bellowing him on

Monte Alban

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Funny things, photos. When I updated my I-Mac, and I-photo became Photo, I lost some 10,000 photos, or more. Thanks to some hard work over the weekend by one of my good friends, we re-established contact with the missing photos. Skimming through them, I found this one, my words and Clare’s  computer art. I wrote it a long time ago, sometime after 1995, when I first visited Oaxaca. This piece records a visit I made, with Hayden Leaman, another good friend and an Oaxacan savant, to Monte Alban.

Under a hot sun that weighed us down and struck us like a hammer on an anvil, we wandered around the archaeological site and met with many vendors, some of whom seemed to have genuine artefacts, while others obviously offered us fakes. I couldn’t believe how the old men first discovered and then sat in the thin lines of shade emanating from a post, an edge, or a corner, la grata sombra / the welcome shade, as they say in Spanish. This one gentleman, who told us he had walked over from Arrazola,  some six kilometres or so away, asked us for nothing, chatted with us, and proved to be a wonderful source of local information. It was a pleasure to share our water with him. He was the possessor, he assured us, of a genuine green card, and didn’t believe in illegal immigration.

The words in the picture above summarize my thoughts at the time. I asked Hayden later where he wanted to go. He looked around at the temples, the monuments, the tombs, the ball court, the observatory … “Who wants to go anywhere?” he replied. “I am happy right here.”

I visited this and other sites later with Clare. She too proved to be very adept at finding the shade and just sitting still. Look and listen carefully: you too may be able to see and feel the beauty and the silence.

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Sun

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Sun

The sun has decided to take a vacation.
He’s left us and gone down to Mexico
for a week or two. Right now I think
he’s in the main square in Oaxaca.

He’s wearing a flashy, floral shirt
and a panama hat and he’s sunning
himself in El Jardin as he sits in the shade
and sips his ice-cold Oaxacan beer.

This evening he will go to Monte Alban
to see himself set. Tomorrow, bright
and early, he’ll pop over the mountains
to Puerto Escondido where he’ll gild
sand castles and play games on the beach.

I know where he is, because he sent me
a postcard saying “Having a great time.
Wish you were here.” I miss him so much.
I really do hope he’ll come home soon.

Comment: Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been 107 years old. I was thinking of him this morning, how he loved the sunshine, the sea, and his glass of cold beer. He also liked to travel. I don’t think he ever went to Mexico, but he would have loved Oaxaca and the beaches at Huatulco and Puerto Escondido. He would have appreciated the old temple compound and palaces at Monte Alban.  I thought of calling this poem, this ‘very raw’ poem, Sun & Son, but it’s all about him really, the Sun as warmth and protector and father, and the Son as missing the Sun.

Sun and Moon 9

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Sun and Moon 9

Old Woman walks within a cloister of stars
the heavens arched above her like a peacock’s tail

she chants the garland of her rosary
pearls she sheds from her cratered eyes
stringing them like counters across night’s throat

beauty she calls forth
beauty fresh and youth renewed
flushed with virgin pride
she steps into her jewelled boat
and sails across a sea of crystalline sky

she enfolds the cardinal’s wings in a cage of moonbeams
“Sing!” she whispers
she rocks a new born baby in her arms
the night is hushed with lullabies

 

Sun and Moon 8

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Sun and Moon 8

draped across night’s blackboard
stars and constellations all erased

my black angel bruised by the dark
the world’s feathered wonder reduced to shadow and ash

what dreams are these?

feathers against night’s window
an angel of darkness descending a steep stairway
tumbling through the night

who’s dreams are these?

 

Sun and Moon 7

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Sun and Moon 7

Old Woman weaves a crinoline from stars
she plucks roses from the void and turns them into haloes
nochebuena blossoms on the perfume of her breath

the cardinal’s song is a crimson voice hidden among leaves
mercurial in the moonlight
Old Woman coils her relentless cage

one by one the cardinal’s tunes are imprisoned
a butterfly impaled on a moonbeam
the last note of his song