Esteban (1) (cont’d)
He’d met a palmer once who told him
that Mount Zion itself–Jacob’s ladder,
the zero point where three religions
of holy spots, he said,
was nothing but a bump.
A little hiccup of earth, overtopped
by forests of minarets.
These mountains at least
don’t require a steady diet of blood
to keep their power: see
how godlike, how impossibly complete
their shifts from red
like actors changing costume.
No, like sorcerers changing shape
with the turn
of an unmoored phrase–
man into jackal, jackal into termite mound–
or rock, or colorful comb
for some maiden to find & carry
home in her hair.
& butter of marabouts, those stories.
La illaha illa’llah might be the All in-
All, but human ears
still crave a bit of spice.
Though Esteban, having read Avicenna
& Plotinus, Maimonides & Dionysius,
neither believes nor disavows
Three years ago he would’ve
owned himself a mystic,
firm in his faith.
tableaus of misery, cruelty,
sickness in every shape
& his New World visions faded.
Though he persisted there
as a curandero, the medicine gourd
& his heart-felt songs & prayers
had little effect. In every corner
of New Spain the Indians kept dying.
He felt again like the child
on the beach at Azemmour
learning his letters, scrawling
the lines of holy script
over & over for the waves
to erase. Let the ocean redeem
your imperfect words,
his teacher’s favorite saying–
the one quarter of Creation
that was never cursed.
a palmer: A pilgrim to the Holy Land.
with the turn of an unmoored phrase: One of the distinguishing features of magical speech in West Africa (and elsewhere) is a sense of complete non sequitor. As a performative speech act, a charm or spell should never assume the quality of rote recitation. As with an effective prayer or curse, every syllable must carry the speaker’s full intention.
marabouts: The West African term for dervishes of various orders, who served a variety of social roles: entertainers, diviners, scribes and missionaries for Islam. (Below, I imagine Esteban having had a marabout for a teacher as a child.)
La illaha illa’llah: The pervasive Muslim confession of faith, “There is no God but God.”
having read Avicenna & Plotinus, Maimonides & Dionysius: In other words, having spent equal time studying the rationalists (Avicenna, Maimonides) and the mystics (Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysius).
Mexico: Then only the Valley of Mexico, dominated by Tenochtitlan, which became Mexico City – the capital of New Spain.
New World visions: The use of the term “New World” (Nuevo Mundo) carried a strong teleological flavor at the time, and was controversial. The idealists viewed the Americas as something of a blank slate whose inhabitants dwelt in pre-lapsarian innocence. According to this view, Spain’s divinely ordained mission was to lead the Indians in the construction of a Christian utopia. Cabeza de Vaca was an especially strong exponent of this view, so it’s reasonable to suppose that Esteban shared his enthusiasm, at least for a time.
curandero: A healer. The term is still widely used in Latin America to denote a Native or mestizo healer, though contemporary evangelical Christians and some devout Catholics may scorn curanderos (other than strict faith healers) as practitioners of witchcraft.
medicine gourd: A small gourd rattle, a prominent implement of African and Native American healers alike in the 16th century (and down to the present day). Esteban’s gourd rattle is described in some detail in contemporary sources.
the one quarter of Creation that was never cursed: I.e., by the Biblical Flood. This belief seems to have influenced the ancient use of a fish symbol for the Son of God.