Obisidian’s Edge 1

At the Edge of Obsidian

“everything burns, the universe flames,
nothingness burns itself into nothing
but a thought in flames: nothing but smoke”

Piedra de sol
Octavio Paz

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“todo se quema, el universo es llama,
arde la misma nada que no es nada
sino un pensar en llamas, al fin humo:”

At the Edge of Obsidian is the second book in The Oaxacan Trilogy. It was published in 2005 and outlines the events of a single day in the City of Oaxaca (Mexico). I have always loved the Medieval Books of Hours and wondered if they would transfer themselves into a book of hours based on a day in a place with which I was familiar. This is my effort to do just that. I will publish regularly from this book, beginning at the beginning with the church bells and the early morning light that waken the sleeper from his dreams.

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6:00 am
church bells

1

The alarm clock shuffles
its pack of sleeping hours:

a clicking of claws,
needles knitting outwards
towards dawn’s guillotine;

a knife edge
sharpened on this keening wind
sets my blood tingling in my toes.

Bright jungle parrot,
its querulous caged voice glimpsed
darkly through dawn’s looking glass.

2

Tochtli was caught by the ears
then thrown against the second sun
sizzling in the sky.
His sharp teeth burrowed,
burying themselves deep in the fire’s red light.
The second sun turned into the moon;
now we can see Tochtli’s face,
simmering in its dwindling pool.

Old myths, like languages,
grow legs and wander away.
They gather in quiet corners,
in village squares
where the night wind weaves
dry leaves in endless figures of eight.

 An old man now,
I dream of white rabbits,
running down tunnels,
escaping the hunter’s hands.

 3

When my dreams break up,
they back themselves into a cul-de-sac:
a wilderness of harsh black scars.

Dream words:
scalpels carving
red slashes on white-washed walls,
trenchant shadows, twisted dancers,
old warrior kings
bent into pipe wire shapes.

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 Suddenly, beneath my balcony,
the handy man
tumble-dries a tv ad
in the washing machine
of his song sparrow throat.

Danzantes

My poem, The Dancers and the Dance, refers both to the danzantes and to Monte Albán. Monte Albán was the capital of the Zapotecs and the principal city in the Oaxaca Valley (Mexico) between its foundation in approximately 500 BCE and its abandonment in approximately 750 CE. The White Mountain, thus named by the Spanish conquistadores, is justly famous for its temples, its tombs, and its carvings.

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Two natural phenomena affected Monte Albán and its population. The first was drought and the dried earth with its brown and yellow tinges is clearly visible in these photos. The second natural problem came from earthquakes, for this is indeed an earthquake zone with active volcanoes causing tremors at regular intervals. The temples, even today, sometimes need repairing as earthquakes have been known to destroy even the reconstructed temples.

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In fact, the abandonment of Monte Albán may well have been caused by an earthquake that cracked the enormous natural cistern in which the population’s water supply was stored.

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The Danzantes are strange, grimacing characters that have been carved into prisons of stone. They may be captured warriors awaiting sacrifice or the chieftains of conquered tribes humiliated, perhaps tortured, and then flash frozen into stone photographs where for centuries they have danced out their torment. Whoever and whatever they may be, they still dance on  Monte Albán.

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My poem, The Dancers and the Dance, captures a different form of dancing. It is taken from my book Sun and Moon: Poems from Oaxaca (2000) and contains echoes of the vibrant folkloric culture that thrives to this day both in the city of Oaxaca and in the Oaxaca Valley. Here, traditions are remembered and relived. Each year, on the Day of the Dead, for example, families place food and drink alongside photos of the dearly departed on altars inside their houses and their doors are thrown open to welcome their deceased family members as they return along the marigold paths that lead to their former homes.

The Dancer and the Dance

 1

she comes here to dance for me
only for me does she dress this way

 she shows me her dreams
unfolding them one by one
silk and cotton garments
drawn fresh from her scented closet

thin copper bracelets
carved wooden mask

 only her eyes reveal
subversive flesh and blood

 2

she orchestrates her story
skin drum
rattle of seeds in a sun-dried pod
single violin string
stretched across an armadillo’s shell

 I too am tense like an instrument
waiting to be played

 the bones of my love
reach out towards her

3

when she makes her music
familiar spirits return to the earth
dancing in a sash of moonlight

 she recreates an ancient spell
gold letters plucked from dark scrolls
no wands no words
just water’s purity
flicked fresh
across lips and face

 she binds me with the string of notes
she undoes with her hair
our bodies form an open altar
we worship with mysterious offerings
drawn from wells set deep within us

4

rain falls from the sky
Moon turns his face away
suddenly in darkened alleys
clouds hold hands and dance

dense streamers of light
dangle from street lamps
shadows remember their forgotten steps

gently she draws me to her
I try to follow
frail whirlpools of withered leaves
fragment weak sunshine
in light’s watery pool

 5

her magic grows
I take my first step
an unmapped journey
into desert space

we move to old rhythms
across moon flecked clouds

raindrops fall more slowly
faltering drum beat
diminishing water

6

high above us
the ghost of a melody
shaking its head
wringing its hands

 we return at last
to light and air
the moon’s vacant face
scowls in an empty field

someone has plucked the stars
one by one
and threaded them like a chain of daisies

 now there are no sky flowers
to adorn the night

7

noche de rábanos
someone has taken a knife
and peeled an enormous radish

this cartoon moon face
this full skull hanging from nothing
this lantern lighting from above

 now my lover sculpts time
and space
into small chunks

 each sacrifice
a jewel between her fingers

 I pin to my chest
three small notes
and a skeleton of words

8

inside my dancing head
the fires have gone out

 without her hands to guide me
my feet have turned clumsy

 scars layer my wrists and ankles
star crossed bindings
cutting against the grain

 I gather a harvest of stars
she holds them in her eyes

 her fingers are grasshoppers
making love in my hair

when she kisses my fingernails
one by one
we both know our bodies will never be the same

9

together we weave a slender cage
she cuts out my heart with her tongue
placing it on an altar inside the bars

she locks the tiny door
a silvery key wrought from moonstone

 my fluttering heart grows miniature wings
next time the door is opened
my wings will fly me to her lips

my heart is a caged bird on a tiny perch
it chirrups a love song
its image in the mirror answers back

breathless it scrapes its wings on the moon
its body striving upwards to the stars

10

on Monte Albán the danzantes
sway to soft music
their shadows dance in and on stone
as they have danced for centuries

wind rustles the grass
moon casts sharp shapes

darkness ascends the temple steps
huge fingers grasping upwards
an owl’s feathers clutching at the skies

at dawn tomorrow
the sun will rise beneath our feet
we will squint down on its majesty
we will pluck the ripeness of its orange
in our outstretched hands

11

our last night together
I pluck a blossom from the tulipán tree
a final offering of my love

 she gives it back
I place it in the pocket of flesh
where I once kept my heart

 tomorrow when the flower breaks
it will stain my shirt
a damp splash of blood
no longer running in my veins

 the scent of our happiness
will cling forever to my fingers