Cibola 1

This entry is part 1 of 119 in the series Cibola


Today begins a new, daily feature on Via Negativa: the serialization of my book-length poem, Cibola. I have divided it into bite-sized sections, 157 120 of them in all. At six posts per week, it should take at least 29 weeks to present the whole book here. I expect to introduce many minor and perhaps a few major editorial changes as I go along; thus, I have removed the PDF file from my other website.

Briefly, Cibola is a psychological/anthropological drama based on historical events: the “discovery” in 1539 of an apparent Shangri-La somewhere in the mountains of present-day New Mexico by the Franciscan friar Marcos de Niza and the “black conquistador” Esteban, originally from Morocco and probably of Sahelian parentage and culture. Esteban had served as the main interpreter to the Indians for the four survivors of the disastrous expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez to “La Florida,” memorialized by Cabeza de Vaca in his justly famous account – the first truly great work of Euro-American literature. The Marcos-Esteban expedition was a hastily assembled affair sponsored by the viceroy of New Spain, designed to scout out a route for the real conquest, one year later, led by Coronado. Further details about Marcos and Esteban will be provided in notes as the poem unfolds.

Cibola represents about a year and a half of research and writing, ending in May, 2003. I’m not entirely satisfied with the result (though obviously I do feel it has plenty of solid insights and good language, or I wouldn’t be inflicting it on y’all). One of the main problems may be that it’s too dense: its language is closer to lyric poetry than to the lighter, easier flow of narrative verse. So I’m interested in seeing whether a division into shorter segments, spaced out over seven or eight months, doesn’t make it more enjoyable to read.

As always, I welcome any and all critical reactions, via comments or e-mail (bontasaurus, yahoo). Please let me know especially when more explication is needed; I’d like to keep notes to a minimum, but I don’t want lack of comprehension to interfere with appreciation. Although I’ve tried to adhere fairly closely to historical, geographical and anthropological realities as I understood them, my perspective has remained artistic and populist, not scholarly.

Writing this book turned out to be an intensely rewarding and educational experience. When I placed the outsiders’ descriptions of Indians side-by-side with what has been recorded from their own rich and at times psychedelic oral traditions, oddly enough, the Native words generally seemed much truer to life. However, given that modern ethnographies are a very imperfect guide to how people might have lived and thought 500 years ago, I allowed myself a great deal of artistic license in the retelling of certain myths and oral histories, not to mention in imagining what the people who first told them might have been like. And for details of the Marcos-Esteban descubrimiento, to say that the historical record is unclear would be a vast understatement.

One way I tried to keep the critical apparatus to a bare minimum was through the inclusion of passages from other texts, in 21 “Reader” sections preceding every section of original poetry. I think of these as the warp upon which the weft of the work is strung. Too, they place the reader of the poem (in which category I include myself) on a footing with the three, main protagonists: Esteban, Marcos, and the native community of Shiwanna, direct ancestor of modern Zuni pueblo. In most cases, the quotes in a “Reader” section are meant to introduce themes immediately upcoming. The inaugural portion, however, is more like a brief for the poem as a whole.

Reader (1)

Though a person find no gold,
Though he find no silver,
Should he find his freedom,
Then noble will he be.
A man of power is hard to find.
The Epic of Son-Jara (John William Johnson translation)

Your desire, my friend, has been fulfilled.
You have come, you stand upon my land.
Look around and see how poor it is.
It is filled with sickness,
It is littered with potsherds,
It is strewn with cuttings of hair.
The roads of my country are old,
And the houses of my country are about to fall.
My mountains are old and crumbling.
My streams are covered with accumulations.
“Welcome to the Aaduma [Eda Mel] Ceremony” (traditional Akimel O’odham
speech/sermon, translated by Ruth Benedict)

It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real
work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our
real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream
is the one that sings.
“Poetry & Marriage”

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