June 2005

A small brown moth drawn in
by the glow of his laptop
clings to the flat screen
with wings outstretched.
A few pixels show
through the clear patches
in the center of each wing.
Does that feel good? he murmurs
when the blinking cursor passes
underneath it.
The bedsprings creak
in the other room.
Beyond the softly whirring fan
the famous skyline flickers
with heat lightning as
his fingers go on clattering
over the keys.

This entry is part 119 of 119 in the series Cibola

Cibola (cont’d)

The Ne-Witch dances
crazy–the feathers
on his arms flap,
the fetishes on his chest
flop & flash,
the rattlesnake rattles
on his legs clatter
like dry beans
being threshed. Then
the deus ex machina:
a loud thud, a cloud
of butterflies
& it’s Payatamu,
straight from
the Sun’s house
with his head on backwards,
turning somersaults.
He too reaches
between his legs, extracts
his trademark flute.
Blows
one high
& hideous note.
The Ne-Apacha topples over
to a chorus of cheers.
Leaps up
smiling his thanks,
falls back down:
cheers mixed with laughter.
(No witch stays dead
for long without
special measures.)
Six Newekwe in solemn
ceremony act out
his dismemberment
with children’s wooden knives.
One carves, another
rubs a growling belly,
a third, impatient,
tries to swallow
his own hand.
At last each takes
his cut & parades it
around the plaza:
nothing in fact
but clothes & calabash,
feathers & rattles & every
other trapping.
They wolf it down
in plain view, leave
no doubts about
their medicine power.
The clown who gets
to eat the gourd
first sits on it like an egg
then smashes it against
his forehead, stuffs
the fragments down
his gaptoothed maw,
burps extravagantly.
Another blast of the flute
& they scramble off.
*     *     *
A completely naked
Ne-Esteban
sits up, stares vacantly around.
Stumbles to his feet.
The hushed crowd makes way
as he wanders slowly
out of town
heading west toward the river.
A small band of children
tailing at a distance
watch as he pauses,
spreads his arms
in a gesture that could
mean anything
& plunges in.

THE END
__________

Payatamu: Payatamu may be compared to a cross between Apollo and Dionysius; in his Dionysian form (as here) he is often called Ne-Payatamu. The “Ne-” signifies the comic inversions identified most closely with the Newekwe clown order.

On the distinction between Payatamu and the New Age invention Kokopelli, see the very lucid explanation near the bottom of this page.

As mentioned elsewhere, “Apacha” is the Zuni word for “enemy,” applied without distinction to the various Diné (Navajo and Apache) peoples with whom they have had fraught, trading/raiding relationships over the centuries. Enemies are witches almost by definition.

For my Bahktin-influenced descriptions of the Zuni sacred clown orders, see Laughing in church and Houston, we have a problem…

Live out your life in a lonesome hollow. The unattainable horizon comes to crush you all the same.

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The real pity – says the benignly neglectful gardener – is that the flea beetles are too busy ever to stop and admire their handiwork.

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Slime molds always remind me of the late Emperor of Japan. Imprisoned by protocol, worshipped as a living god, Hirohito made an infinitesimal progress around the grounds of the Chrysanthemum Palace, magnifying glass at the ready for these otherworldly creatures that evade every category humans can invent.

Like the proverbial army that travels on its stomach, the bulldozer chews up the earth with its caterpillar feet.

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Some merely stoop to conquer. Japanese stilt grass falls all over itself.

Put out to pasture, the rotting muscle car gives its last joy ride to a multiflora rose.

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The sun oozes into view. Seven-thirty and already I’m bathed in sweat. On a brief walk around the field, I spot my father hanging out laundry. He’s whistling “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” as he pins up the underwear.

UPDATE: My father insists that he was in fact whistling “God Save the Queen.” Could’ve fooled me.

This entry is part 118 of 119 in the series Cibola

Cibola

Feet drum
on the plaza:
from all seven cities
the people pack the terraces,
crowd the streets.
The air
crackles. Faint
whiff of ozone.
Then
Newekwe!
They pop
out of skylights,
fall off roofs. Children
shriek with joy.
The clowns mimic
jealous lovers,
men who can’t
get it up,
old women
who can’t get enough.
The grownups howl.
Three Newekwe circle
the Sun Priest
slowly wagging their heads
from side to side.
One pulls out a pouch
& solemnly sprinkles
handfuls of dust
as if it were sacred prayermeal.
The Milky Way People
stop at nothing,
they can drink four day-
old piss & smack
their lips, eat shit
& live. On this holy
day of feasts & dances
they bring out for
their star attraction
the Head Witch:
one of their own
dressed as a black Apache.
He grimaces,
sticks out his tongue
at the priests, dashes
around the square bellowing
an invocation to one
of the predator spirits.
And reaching under
his breechclout, leering,
pulls out a calabash.
Gusts of laughter.
He shakes it threateningly.
Another clown impersonating
the head Bow Priest
blanches, covers his eyes
with both hands, hollers
May your roads
be fulfilled!

More laughs.

(To be continued.)

Reading something for the second time is so much more satisfying than that first read-through. So many books withhold their full treasures from the first-time reader. Not that the first time can’t be special too, of course: surfaces are beautiful, and not to be taken lightly. During that first, heady encounter with a text, it is not merely the words that entrance us. The typefont, the design, the texture of the paper, the look and feel of covers and slipcovers, even the smell of the bindings – if new – or the patina that comes with good use: these too are manifest occasions for pleasure and surprise.

But few of us possess the skill as readers to avoid succumbing to that first-time excitement and finishing the book too soon. And to lay it aside at that point, never to return, would constitute not simply callousness but profound disrespect. Unless the book at hand be some cheap, manupulative thing, in which case even a single reading amounts to little more than “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” as Shakespeare once said about something else entirely.

As a reader, I must always aspire to do better next time and never become satisfied with my current techniques. If I know that my first time through a book tends to be a bit on the shallow side, I may change strategies and begin by lightly skimming through what look like the best spots, or re-visiting it at unexpected times and places, dipping into it just enough to whet my appetite for the first, prolonged session. But by then the first reading is really the second, or the third – it doesn’t matter. I’m no longer keeping score.

The kinds of books I enjoy most don’t necessarily need to be sampled in a set order, and sometimes I like to start with the last poem or chapter and work my way slowly toward the front. Or sometimes it’s fun to start in the middle and work toward both ends, alternating between the front half and the back. Hence, I suppose, my disdain for tightly plotted novels that insist on rigid conformity with standard procedure. Plus, given my addictive personality, I hate to get sucked into a book like that because I know I won’t be able to sleep, eat or do much of anything else until it’s done. Ten or twenty hours later I’ll emerge from the novel as if from a parallel universe, shaking with adrenaline and ready to drop from exhaustion at the same time. After an experience like that, it will take me several days to undo the spell and fully return to my own, familiar weltanschauung.

There was a time in my youth when I thought that kind of full-throttle excitement was indispensable to the enjoyment of a book. But as I near the threshold of maturity I find myself craving a calmer and – I would argue – deeper form of immersion. This doesn’t rule out novels altogether, but it does definitely favor the second reading over the too-hasty first one. The plot once exposed for the artful contrivance that it is, one is free to take one’s time and relish the writing for its own sake. All goals have been abandoned aside from the most general: to advance in pleasure through insight – or is it vice versa? Unless one has some ghoulish analytic project to complete, some heartless application of the whips and restraints of academic theory, one can dwell within the garden of the text almost indefinitely for the colors and the scent alone. The mind explores gently and almost by instinct now, enfolded in a matrix where word, image and meaning are coterminous and virtually indistinguishable. The senses return to an almost Edenic innocence. Freed of judgements and distances, the patient reader at last attains a kind of high plateau, every pore fully open and flooded with the clearest, coolest light.

*

What the writer finally wants to save,
laboring into the white afternoon
at her kitchen table,
adrift in drafts,
ringed in scraps for
the compost, is just this savoring
of time’s luxuriant spread.

Last night, just as it was getting dark, I heard a noise outside that I couldn’t immediately place. I went out into the garden, then around to the front porch. The sounds were coming from right inside the woods’ edge, and hard as I looked, I couldn’t see anything. But as I listened, it became increasingly obvious what I was listening to: bears. Probably the mother with three cubs that my mom saw up by the vernal ponds last month.

We’ve had this same mother bear around for about six years now, but she has yet to become habituated to us, which is probably a good thing. People are bad news. She might well be the same bear who, as a yearling cub, alerted us to the death of her sibling with her loud bawling one beautiful October morning around 10:00 o’clock. It was throatier than the bleat of a fawn, with an uncanny keening edge to it. We looked down from the front porch of my parents’ house and saw two black shapes in the springhouse lawn, not more than twenty feet away from where these bears were now.

The one that had been bawling retreated into the woods when we approached to examine the carcass – a half-grown black bear with the shaft of an arrow protruding from the middle of its back. Someone had shot it from a tree stand down in the valley, most likely, and it had gotten this far before giving up the ghost. We posted a $500 reward for any information leading to the apprehension of the would-be poacher, but nothing ever came of that – people just don’t like to rat on their neighbors. Still, the local paper picked up the story and the word went out: leave the bears the hell alone in Plummer’s Hollow.

The surviving cub was obviously pretty traumatized, but if this is the same bear, she must’ve found our end of the mountain to be a relatively hospitable place to raise a family, with three litters in the years since. I briefly considered walking over with my camera and trying to get a flash picture of a charging bear, but decided I wasn’t quite ready to risk a mauling just to get a good blog post. I stayed on the porch listening until the mosquitoes drove me back inside.

*

Right at dusk the mother bear
leads her cubs down to
the edge of the woods
& stops, hearing a screen door
ease open, smelling trouble.

My grossly unequal nose picks up
nothing of her musk or
the sweet milk oozing
from well-bit nipples.
My primate eyes are made for
the colors of day, not shades
of darkness. I peer
into every shadow between the trees,
each clot of night.

The space between us fills
with explosions of breath:
HUH. HUH.
I hear claws on tree trunks
& small things running through the brush.
When the mother clacks her teeth,
I hear the dangerous size of her
in that hollow TOCK
TOCK
TOCK.

I lean out over the porch rail, listening,
naked from the waist up.
A mosquito whines in my ear.
The fireflies, as usual,
illuminate nothing.

The next morning, when I go to look,
every rock on the hillside
has been moved from its bed.

This entry is part 117 of 119 in the series Cibola

Reader (21)

–Quién es este labrador
que os responde y acompaña?
–Soy el que dice al revés
todas las cosas que habra.
(“Who’s this yokel of yours
always chiming in, talking back?”
“I’m the one who says the opposite
of everything there is.”)
LOPE DE VEGA
El mejor alcalde, el rey

Beyond creeds and anti-creeds, the [Neweekwe] clowns, by their ability not only to conceive but to carry out their burlesques, display their ultimate detachment from the particulars of religious beliefs of all kinds. . . . In their gluttony the clowns even violate the boundaries of their biological being: not satisfied with saying the unsayable, they eat the inedible. . . . [T]hey see boundaries, of whatever sort, as easy hurdles . . .
BARBARA TEDLOCK
The Beautiful and the Dangerous

The mouth knows nothing of yesterday.
MALINKE PROVERB