Cibola 21

This entry is part 21 of 119 in the series Cibola


Esteban (1) (cont’d)

He studied Aztec medicine
at Motolinia’s school
across the lake in Texcoco,
learning plants–each one filling
a page with its name alone.
The spellings, he found, were archaic
even to native speakers, translations
told him nothing. In half a year
he just made it past the threshold–
& quit in disgust.

Once deciphered, their skeins
of dead metaphors turned out
to be cunning traps, snares set
for the heart-breath of a patient.
Of a piece with the half-
demolished temples, the deposed
aristocrats nourishing
dreams of reconquest, priests
deprived of their diets of blood
whispering bloody apocalypse.
The peaks ringing the Valley of Mexico’s
beggared bowl reminded him
of nothing so much as
an old man’s ragged teeth.

If mountains didn’t exist,
people would conjure them up:
the need is too great.

Gods give blessings, people feed the gods–
when, at what place
was that ever enough? At Sinai
the universe convulsed into
a singular
No: the strongest,
the most unknowable of words.

And behold, this flame became a tongue,
said to Moses: Don’t use my name
with this, you bastard,
you murdering slave.


Motolinia’s school: Toribio de Benevente Motolinia was one of the first twelve Franciscans to arrive in Mexico. The religious school he established in Texcoco included instruction in the Nahuatl language almost solely for missionary purposes.

skeins of dead metaphors: Esteban is conflating names with spells – a not unreasonable association, given how many spells take the form of an elaborate naming/praising/summoning of the being whose power is invoked. Many Nahuatl incantations were collected and translated by Ruiz de Alarcón in the early 17th century, and have been re-translated into English by J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hartig (Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions That Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain, 1639, University of Oklahoma Press, 1984).

Don’t use my name with this, you bastard, you murdering slave: Combining the sense of Exodus 3:14 with the import of Exodus 4:24, where God’s mysterious attempt to kill Moses as he re-entered Egypt has been most plausibly explained as a response to the bloodguilt incurred by the act of manslaughter that precipitated Moses’ original flight from Egypt.

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