This entry is part 65 of 119 in the series Cibola

Marcos (3) (conclusion)

The friar sighs. Coughs.
What dreamers, all those prophets!

How much more sensible
the Psalmist, eulogizing
the young lions
roaring for their prey,
seeking their food from God.

And the Seraphic Father, who wrote
in his homely way All praise
to you my Lord
for Sister Death . . .

Already three of his guides, knives out,
have reached the site.
He shouts them off it:
Déjalo, por piedad!
The lion too must eat.

He feels her eyes on him, breath
of coolness off some remnant
snow pack–he scans the peak
for a telltale glare among
the crags, the high meadows–
lingering like the words
of a favorite verse

long after the fire
that fixed them in memory
has paled, diminished
by far fiercer lights.

the young lions roaring for their prey: Psalm 104.

the Seraphic Father: St. Francis. The quote is from his “Canticle to the Sun.”

the words of a favorite verse: I.e., Isaiah 11:6. See Reader (9).

This entry is part 64 of 119 in the series Cibola

Marcos (3)

Panting from the climb, eyes
on the trail, the friar
almost runs into
his guide, who stands
with an arm outstretched behind
to stop him short. Then

without turning
his head, hooks
a fold of Marcos’s habit
& tugs him forward like
a trout, breathes in his ear: Mirad.
Within arrow’s range down
the slope, beyond
the pines with
their filigreed shadows
a meadow traversed
by a winding creek, sunlight
playing on the water

& there on the far bank
two animals lying down together
in the vast & reverent stillness.
The smaller one glows a burnished
copper flecked with white–
un ciervito, a fawn–
cradled by the golden
longtailed form that just then

raises her bowed head
to intercept
their gaze. A glimpse
of dripping jaws & tongue,
whiskered face stained red, before
she rises

& with one liquid
motion leaps
& vanishes.

(To be continued.)

I want to give myself back to myself, I thought, sitting on the porch at dawn & watching the dark details slowly filling in between the scattered patches of white, which, among all possible fallen things, I suspect will once again turn out to be nothing but snow.


My first published poem in years & they fucked it up, printing double spaces between the lines. And they’re short lines, too. I’m amazed by how well they manage to bear the burden of their isolation. My words have never seemed so measured before. They pick their way over the page on herons’ feet.


Along with What do you do? & Where are you from? I would like to ask each new acquaintance, What do you grieve for? Because I have this hunch that everyone clutches a portion of the self-same grief. We give it endearing names, as culture & circumstance may dictate. Our male or female nipples ache to give it suck.


I remember sitting under, inside, encircled – surrounded by her, as ripples in a pond surround a water-strider, rowing the skinny boat of his fish-bait body to & fro.


After a day spent hunched over a keypad, to stand outside in my slippers looking at the moon seems wholly fatuous. How does taking this in for a few minutes make up for everything I have failed to witness? The calendar on my computer tells me to expect a full moon, so I wait for the clouds to thin & the trees to grow shadows as they should. In the space of ten minutes, my front yard expands to an enormous size. The calendar on my computer says it’s Good Friday. Resist the urge to pray long enough & the sweetness will rise & spread to your outermost branches.


Easter Sunday: thick fog, dark shapes of redwing blackbirds in the walnut trees, all calling at once. They drown out the song sparrows, the robins, even the creek. It’s the auditory equivalent of a rolling boil: the overtones rise & burst, rise & burst.


Whichever direction I walk, the fog keeps its distance. It reminds me of driving in certain parts of the Midwest where trees are spread just thickly enough to make one swear there must be a forest on the horizon. Here, the woods are never far. A pileated woodpecker drums & cackles. This corner of the field where plow & mower have been absent the longest has the highest concentration of ant mounds & small mammal burrows. Leave land alone long enough & it will grow – not in acreage, perhaps, but certainly in surface area. Its dreams are no longer yours. They multiply, re-drawing the horizon. Like a girl turning into her own woman – a rarer thing than it should be in this over-farmed world.


The snow lingers on old logging roads & on the weather side of abandoned plow lines. On a clear day in the middle of March one can see such scars on wooded hillsides from miles away. But today we’re socked in with fog; I keep my eyes on the damp leaves beneath my feet. Here & there I can make out drag trails from last fall’s hunting season, tufts of white hair from a deer’s belly.


Coyote shit always lies parallel to the direction of the trail. Here’s a case in point: three hairy gray turds side by side, half caterpillar, half pupa. Remember this if you’re ever lost in the woods. As much as its priorities may differ from ours, a coyote can be trusted to follow a straight line for miles.


Orange on the ridgetop where a porcupine has chewed the bark off a fallen red oak tree, limb & branch. Orange in the Far Field where my father always mows the same path with his tractor, a stripe of broom sedge through the gray-brown mess of old goldenrod.


Fifty feet off the trail, a tree drops a limb just to see if I’m paying attention. I am now.


Winter-bleached leaves on a stand of beech saplings hang tip-down, curled like funnels, holding moisture for no good reason I can think of. When the wind starts up they drop it all at once. I hear the patter from around the bend & picture things running – yet another harmless conclave broken up by the approach of a human being, two legs at noon.

This entry is part 63 of 119 in the series Cibola

Reader (9)

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together . . .

[T]he animals, because alike mortal and endowed with similar physical
functions and organs, are considered [by Zunis] more nearly related to man than
are the gods; more nearly related to the gods than is man, because more
mysterious, and characterized by specific instincts and powers which man does
not of himself possess.
Zuñi Fetiches

The sacred is what repels our advance.

Spring snow:
the night before, I woke
to the sound of swans

Spring snow:
the spicebush outside my window
captures more & more of the sky

Spring snow:
one mourning dove adds
an extra half-note

Spring snow:
the soft ground sinks
under my boots

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Spring snow:
last year’s stalks of Oswego tea
don fresh caps

Spring snow:
whitewashed walls of a springhouse
look anything but white

Spring snow
clinging to every twig
trunks glow green with lichen

Spring snow:
the black cat crouches
beside a vole’s burrow

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Spring snow
on budding maples:
faint blush of pink

Spring snow
covers up the letters
on a “No Trespassing” sign

Spring snow:
the woods won’t be this dark again
until early summer

Spring snow:
soft thumps as it drops off the trees,
water loud in the creek

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UPDATE: Thanks to Ivy Alvarez for suggesting a change in the first haiku (“I woke” instead of “I had awoken”).

This entry is part 62 of 119 in the series Cibola

Esteban (3) (conclusion)

He drifts, listening to himself go on
as if in an overheard conversation,
the voices slightly muffled
by a blanket draped
across the door.

I didn’t ask for this. How
can a slave volunteer?

How can he not?

Or am I still a slave, I wonder . . .

The paper in the locket
on my breast calls me
a ward of the crown: who isn’t?
The friar is at most
my trustee. By the terms of his vow,
he can’t hold alienable property . . .

I must’ve slept. The girl’s gone,
the room a vivid red. I thought
the fact of thinking meant I was
at least conscious . . .

So now I’m awake, I’ll spend
another night with drums & songs
& calabash, deep in trance.
Released from the tyranny of thought
to clamber up & down dream-creepers,
severing the artful
tendrils of disease: a pilgrimage
as looped & convoluted
as the entrails of a sheep.

Where no haruspection could find
anything but the pit,
this blank hole in
the center of the map,
one road
through all the poor & hungry
quarters of the earth.

This entry is part 61 of 119 in the series Cibola

Esteban (3) (cont’d)

But why should he feel
so lost, so much more a wanderer
now, with the destination fixed?
As castaways, their goal had never been
any more certain than rescue.
Like Moses & Aaron returning
from the mountain for
the first time, before the exodus,
with a directive that seemed
so straightforward, so just.
The tribes all so tractable–even joyous.
The cane of power still slight enough
to fit comfortably in the hand.
No plagues in sight.

Toward the end of it they start hearing
about seven cities. By then
they’ve become almost acclimated to
the miraculous–the dead returning
to life, the chronically ill
rising from their mats, the possessed
regaining their wits–
so they’re hardly surprised that the No-
Place of the balladeers should lie
just over the next chain of mountains,
guarding the heart of La Florida,
the not-yet-deflowered land.

But they draw back, turn south
despite Esteban’s pleas.
Refusing to enter what sounds like
a new Canaan without reinforcements:
the same shrinking
that condemned the Hebrews to forty
years in the desert. Cursed
to follow their dwindling herds
until every last rebel was zeroed out
& the waters of rebirth
could once more part–but only
for those born in the wilderness.
Even though the majority probably
never wanted to revolt.
Like Esteban, perhaps,
they’d nowhere else to go,
no other prospect.

La Florida: then applied vaguely to the entire mainland north of the Caribbean. Native and European notions of utopia (literally, “no-place”) cross-pollinated in the imaginations of many of the conquistadors. In the widespread Indian conception, the flower-strewn land that greeted the souls of the dead was always just over the next set of hills.

the waters of rebirth: Israel’s final exit from the wilderness required the miraculous parting of the Jordan, echoing the parting of Reed Sea in flight from the Egyptian army forty years earlier.

This entry is part 60 of 119 in the series Cibola

Esteban (3) (cont’d)

When had he ever felt like this before?
was no home for him, not really . . .
Yesterday evening the village elders
had cut him off, politely–
they were always polite–when he tried
to present his credentials
by giving a full account of the Journey
From the East. It’s too late
for stories,
they said.
The sun’s already past the midway
point on its northward run,
& all the banded tribes that creep
on their bellies–they’re awake,
they hear everything.

a snake can hear through its scales,
belly to belly with the earth–
where all words sink that don’t
follow paths of cornmeal
or tobacco smoke.

And like any shaman, the snake’s rattle
can bring a rain of sickness
if you cross him.
The blow tubes in his teeth
can bury festering darts, invisible
bullets, in the body of one
who gives offense, in the dirt
outside his house or in his fields.
In the Land of Summer, it is said,
the serpent thinks all beings
belong to him.

And Esteban, recalling his mother’s
stories during harmattan
about the great snake that made
& unmade Wagadu–
Four names to the city four times born
on the shores of the great Sand Sea

finds it hard to listen to the calabash rattle
without his own head
starting to spin
along with the patients’. And feeling
as if their symptoms somehow
have something to do with him.
Whatever the complaint–
a shooting pain in the side, a tightness
in the chest, a throbbing under
the scalp, stabbings in the joints
of the hands, the wrists, the feet–
in the few moments it takes them
to tell it, it registers
in his own body.

It’s too late for stories: In much of native North America, casual storytelling – outside of a ritual context – is reserved for the winter months. The belief that snakes will punish those who tell stories is similarly widespread, and may be related to the cult of the plumed serpent.

Wagadu: Legendary capital of the medieval kingdom of Ghana. According to West African oral tradition, a large serpent once destroyed the city when regular human sacrifices were halted.

This entry is part 59 of 119 in the series Cibola

Esteban (3) (cont’d)

He remembers Cabeza de Vaca’s sermon
on Ash Wednesday, the date
revealed in a dream–or so he claimed.
The Ever-Present, Dios, speaks
through fire. This day recalls
a time his Word walked
like a man, even went
through the motions, the agonies
of death, solely to heal us.
To keep us from burning
in the lights of primordial Wisdom,
stronger than a thousand suns.

Had the four of them not been traveling
from the east, he often wonders,
would they have been so welcomed?
And could the lack of such orientation
explain in part why his present
journey pales? For now, too often
his medicine stays in the gourd–
or bottled up in some high canyon–
& in dreams he chases trails of smoke,
teasing clouds whose rain
never reaches the ground.

Three years in that squalid
ruin of a capital have made me soft,
that’s all
. Most days his guides
leave him in the dust, & lately
even the women seem impatient.
Take this one:
at first she didn’t want to,
then when she consented, pinched
her lips tight against all kisses,
rode him so grimly he was afraid
his heart wouldn’t keep up
with his over-taxed lungs–
would liquefy, or fly to pieces
from a misplaced blow.
                              He pictures
the smithies he hung around as a boy
in the Black Quarter of Azemmour,
learning to operate the goatskin
bellows with his feet, pumping
the master’s signature rhythms–
in counterpoint, sometimes, to the wives’
steady rain of pestles
in the yard–& all the ghetto’s
apprentices joining in, the smiths
grinning as they toyed
with the soft white metal.

This entry is part 58 of 119 in the series Cibola

Esteban (3) (cont’d)

It was never clear who decided
that they should all play doctor:
probably, again, the Indians.
But the same strange enthusiasm
gripped all four. A fever.
He remembers the first morning
after their escape, how the air,
suffused with floating tufts
of cottonwood down,
turned to fiery gold through
the sun’s alembic. They took
deep lungfuls of the stuff.
Praise God–the world’s nothing
but pure Spirit!
Castillo exclaimed,
& for a long time thereafter
everything that happened seemed only
to confirm that inspiration.

Though now, plagued
by second thoughts, he wonders
why he never considered the obvious
opposing proposition: that this so-
called spirit simply masks
holy matrix, uttermost matter.
Which might’ve been closer to the views
of their various hosts, who saw them
clothed in power despite their nakedness
& their condition as virtual hostages,

unshod & shuttled from tribe to tribe
like the sticks or balls of rag
in an Indian relay race, propelled
by deft maneuverings
of toe & instep.
Twice entrusted to old women
as they bridged borders
between hostile nations,
too delicate a thing for male
guides to try. And not quite
as galling as he would’ve thought:
the women were chosen because
they had nothing to prove.

He can still recall that first
sensation of power, ocotillo wands
crackling in the faintest breeze,
a slow fire unfolding at the tips
of a leafless palo verde,
the sound of water dripping
in a dry land. And each night
when the sick & wounded
crowded in to be cured, the gourd
whispering in Arabic transported him
back before the Fall, to the place
where earth & sky come together
at the source of four great rivers–thus
the old man who gave it to him
described its origin.

To use it, he’d had to learn
how to sing from the Beginning,
how to act
as if the world were still
somehow in essence a garden:
it lurked like a troupe of angels
in the wings. Waiting for the curtain,
the shroud that cloaks the East
to rip, to fall . . .