Cibola 94

This entry is part 93 of 119 in the series Cibola


Marcos (5) (conclusion)

He glances again toward the people
& sees how some of the women
look appraisingly toward those plants
he’d thought were weeds
growing randomly through
the piled rocks–which, he realizes,
follow the contour as regularly
as terraces. Wipe out
any infertility from this land
filling the hungry with
an abundance of good things
so that the poor & needy may praise
Your wondrous name forever
world without end. (Amen.)

The Indian Marcos passes him
the calabash filled with holy water
& he sprinkles it where the elders indicate,
pursing their lips toward the stone
nurseries with their odd crops
which he recognizes now as some relative
of the maguey plant,
leathery green clusters
of upthrust spears. Then
before continuing the procession

they erect an extra, larger cross–
the one Esteban had sent back
with a message to hurry,
the mission fields were ripe–

& since the ground’s too hard
to dig, they pile up stones
pirated from the fields
to form a miniature Golgotha.
Holy Cross, which art the divine
gateway to Heaven, Altar
of the singular essential
sacrifice of the body
& blood of the Son of God,
open for us a safe & peaceful road
for their conversion & for our conversion.
Give our king peaceful possession
of these kingdoms & provinces
for his most sacred glory.

Another holy song,
the interpreter whispers.
He uses still the priestly language,
but we understand that this
is the most important blessing of all
upon the land.
The headman
shifts the rogational cross
to his left shoulder. If I have to keep
my face solemn like this
for very much longer,
he mutters
to the man beside him, I swear
it’ll turn to wood. Who ever heard
of a god served in sorrow?

But at a signal from the friar he resumes
his stately walk, leading the people
to the next point in the circuit
where long ago First Woman
stippled the soft wet ground
with her planting stick.


Holy Cross . . . glory. I took this formula for the Act of Possession from a quote attributed to the notary and secretary of Juan de Oñate, when he “took possession of all the kingdoms and provinces of New Mexico” in 1598. It actually constitutes a tiny subsection of a very lengthy legal and religious discourse delivered by Oñate on the spot. To read such speeches in close conjunction with translations of Native oratory is to be struck anew by the gulf between the two civilizations.

It was recorded by Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, a lieutenant under Oñate and subsequent author of Historia de la Nueva México. This work, recently reissued in a bilingual edition by the University of New Mexico Press, is actually an epic poem–one of many 16th- and 17th-century New World epics written by Iberians heavily under the spell of Virgil. It’s unique for its length, for the interminability of its sentences, and for its composition in blank verse rather than rhymed meter. The central drama in the book is the “revolt” (more accurately, resistance) of Acoma Pueblo, just east of Zuni/Shiwanna, ending in a Spanish victory complete with cameos by the Virgin and St. James the Moorkiller.

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