Cibola 12

Beginnings (cont’d)

While in their kivas at Shiwanna
the medicine priests preserve
their most arcane chants
in a foreign language, songs
attributed to the ancient Founder
of the healing arts: a gambler,
a vagabond chased from town to town
by stone-throwing children,
disappearing at last into the invisible
realm of the spirit animals
in the mountains to the east:
Shipapulima, city of mists.

And the friar Marcos–by all accounts
a man with a wretched ear–
commissioned to search out
the Seven Cities, hears
in answer to his obsessive query
as he forges northeastward from
the Gulf of California: Cí­bola.
A place of great riches, a fabled city
somehow linked to sevenfold
Shiwanna, itself
a site of pilgrimage for Indians
many leagues to the south,
who join his mission in droves:
the act of traversing the land
helps keep it young.

Toss cornmeal out before you,
straight, like every holy intention.
Smoke tobacco so prayers will have
their own road. Follow the sacred
transect running north.

Power is like water:
it flows where you want
only if you make a proper channel.
It has its own ideas.
Plant your prayer sticks
wherever you want it to slow,
wherever you want its fertile blessings
to sink into the parched earth.

*      *      *      *

chants in a foreign language: Keresan, the language spoken by Zuni’s nearest neighbors to the east, in Acoma and Luguna Pueblos. The Gambler story seems to originate there, as well, and some historical anthropologists see it as a mythologized account of the rise and fall of the Anasazi culture centered in Chaco Canyon, not far to the northeast of Zuni.

mountains to the east: The Sandia mountains, a low, southern extension of the Sangre de Christos, where members of medicine societies are reincarnated as animals of the same species as the tutelary spirit of their society. This is one of several afterlife destinations of Zunis, reflecting perhaps their tribe’s origin as a melting pot of several different cultures. Rain Priests and Bow Priests are reborn as anthropomorphic spirits in the sacred lake of the ancestors, to the west.

Cí­bola: The word first appears in Marcos’ account of his and Esteban’s 1539 journey, and in the writings of contemporaries after Marcos’ return to Mexico City. The suggestion that it might derive from Shipapu(lima), instead of – or in confusion with – Shiwanna, is entirely my own guess. Subsequent explorers, beginning with the conquistator Coronado the following year, applied the name Cí­bola to the Zuni confederation, whether or not that was in fact what Marcos thought he “discovered.”

plant your prayer sticks: The homology between prayer sticks (basically, effigies for the petitioner) and the sticks used to channel flash floods in desert farming is, again, something I came up with on my own. I could be mistaken.


The statistically average American family, consisting I suppose of motherfather, nemesister, brotherape, each in their separate seedpod of distraction, inhabit a house without a single active verb to keep them warm. They are all learning how to be outcome-oriented. If time weren’t still lurking among the flowerpots in the kitchen window, their lives would become joined in one vast wound, I wrote, standing on the stone bridge over the stream. The sound of water: something I used to think of often when I sat in classrooms waiting for the bell to bring us back to our senses. I always pictured a clearing deep in the forest where a spring welled up, unseen by anyone including myself. Later on, this favorite image symbolizing something like hope gave way to the cry of a night bird – a black-crowned night heron, a wild goose. I gave chase without avail. That cry offered the promise of shade in a land too brightly lit, like dark foliage in a 15th-century illuminated manuscript with hardly any blank space left in the margins. I hadn’t thought about this for many years, until the other night when I stood in the road looking back at my own house. It was all dark except for one window, dimly lit by the glow of the computer monitor – though to anyone who didn’t know this it might have seemed to emanate from the pilot flame on a gas stove, or a florescent nightlight. I stood outside in the darkness wondering what it might be like to have that statistically average family, wife and however many kids, remembering computer-generated images based on averages from hundreds of different, real faces. Male or female, such average features always turn out to possess uncommon beauty.

Building a better heffalump trap

When you are hidden, count me among the infidels;
When you appear, count me among the faithful.
What possessions do I have, apart from what you have given?
What are you after, thrusting your hands in my pockets?


Writing about it – even just thinking about it – chases it away. That’s the problem. And there’s nothing you can say that hasn’t been said countless times before, sometimes even by people who knew what they were talking about. The only way to get at it in a halfway authentic manner is to approach it obliquely, without trying – hell, without meaning to. Write about something you saw on a walk, the lint in your own or somebody else’s navel, or maybe the idea of redemption – pretty much anything, so long as it isn’t self-indulgent. Because if this is going to work, you have to care about these things for their own sake, both in an aesthetic and an ethical way (where “ethical” means “hospitable and respectful”).

–Can’t I just issue a blanket repudiation of everything I have written and will ever write?

–Sure, but this is America. People expect other people to say what they mean and mean what they say. 1 If you keep going the way you’re going, by far the largest proportion of Via Negativa’s readers will forever continue to be transients, people who drop in from god knows where, read for a few minutes or a couple weeks and leave again, vowing never to come back. Can you blame them for feeling used? I mean, what the fuck?!

–Okay, so I’d better just keep the link to that so-called Apologia in place. I mean, I haven’t read it in many months. I don’t want to. I’m sure it’s a whole lot of nothing. But at least it’s there, so people who like to think of themselves as smart and reasonably well-educated can read it and say “Ho-ho!” in a knowing sort of way, like Piglet’s imagined Heffalump, and proceed to plow through a number of posts with relative equanimity, secure in the belief that they know where this is all trending.

Remember, Small was only found after they gave up looking. He ended up somehow in the Heffalump Trap. 2

1. Which somehow makes us the most gullible people on the planet, not only tolerating the pitch and the spin, but actually begging to be lied to and happily paying for the privilege. But that’s a topic for another day.

2. Only the illustration leads us, rather arbitrarily, to believe that Small was a large beetle. Nowhere in the text is his identity spelled out, beyond saying that he was one of Rabbit’s innumerable friends-and-relations. Which is, of course, tantamount to saying that he is that Friend who stands in the same relation to every seeker.

Cibola 11

Beginnings (cont’d)

In the cities on the lake
in Mexico, too, the Aztecs
wax nostalgic for a fabled past–
a story they may have stolen,
like everything else, from those
they sought to surpass: how
their fathers once inhabited
seven caves far to the north
& half the tribe remains there
while the rest wander southward,
shunned by everyone.
When they rise to power
they strip the chronicles of all
competing accounts. This world
needs to be flayed.
But in
the songs, the Flower World
beckons from every horizon,
true home of jaguar & eagle.
The knife-winged vulture
casts one eye
toward its former haunts.

Flower World: The chromatic, flower-laden spirit world in pre-Cortezian and 17th-century Nahuatl poetry. Versions of the Flower World also occur in oral literatures in many other Uto-Aztecan languages, including Huichol, Yaqui, Piman (O’odham) and Hopi, as well as some of their neighbors, including Zuni.

jaguar & eagle: Totems of the two, main warrior societies of the Aztecs.

knife-winged vulture – Knife-wing, in Zuni cosmology, is the guardian of the Zenith.

Transcript of an editorial meeting

YAH: Almost everything you’ve written here is wrong – or at least, seriously misleading and lacking essential elements of context. No one will read it.

MOSES: Can’t we just dispense with the text and go straight to the commentary?

YAH: The Oral Torah concept? Yeah, but remember: the devil is in the details. Basically, everything you think you know is wrong.

MOSES: Wrongness, then, would seem to be an existential attribute of – um, I mean, the unavoidable condition of Your creatures, correct me if I’m wrong.

YAH: I will, trust me. Generally speaking, to be wrong is to be consumed – by burning, say. Though just once, I would like to feel that myself. It’s hell to be right all the time.

MOSES: I think if we want to write a real bestseller here, we have to put in a lot more angels. Tell me about the seraphim.

YAH: Beetles! I never tire of them, their hard & shiny outer wings, the way those diaphanous inner wings unfold, their way with flowers, dung or carrion. Their almost infinite variety.

MOSES: O.K., maybe I’d better stick with violence and begetting, then. But something you just said made me wonder: philosophically speaking, would it be fair to say that Creation is the only escape from tautology?

YAH: Stop trying to pin me down! I ain’t no beetle! Despite what some Egyptians might have told you.

MOSES: But I heard that you gave Abraham something called Sefer Yetzirah, The Book of Creation – like the Chicago Manual of Style for the cosmos. Where can I get a copy?

YAH: That was just a test, like the Binding of Isaac – which he failed miserably, by the way. What a tool he turned out to be! A cog in search of cogma. Haven’t spoken to him since.

MOSES: “Teaching to the test” is wrong, though, isn’t it?

YAH: He was supposed to figure that out on his own. That was the test. This is not a test! I don’t play dice.

MOSES: But, I mean, is it really possible to create new life forms by combining and recombining the letters of Your name, over and over, in precise and non-intuitive sequences?

YAH: Genetic engineering? Yes, but it’s a waste of time – and leads, of course, to hubris and atheism.

MOSES: Suppose, however – just suppose! – there were a need…

YAH: Look at the way unrelated species come to resemble each other, so-called convergent evolution. What are they converging toward? Look at how species co-evolve – the flower and its pollinator, an intricate pas de deux for which it took billions of years and a couple supernovas to set the stage. Beautiful, yes? But let me tell you, Moe: It’s all in the smiting.

MOSES: O.K., but let’s think of our target audience. The priests are going to want to know: how can we be holy, as You are holy? I mean, that is what you said you wanted to communicate, right? In a nutshell?

YAH: As some German Christian heretic will say in the fullness of time: “If you want the kernel, you must break the shell!” Tell the priesthood to suck on your left nut.

MOSES: That’s not very constructive.

YAH: Then tell them to pay attention. That’s it!

MOSES: What is?

YAH: PAYING ATTENTION! What Adam and Eve had such a hard time with. You know, “the only escape from tautology.” Or solipsism, to look at it from My point-of-view, for once.

MOSES: Come again?

YAH: Bugger off, tablet boy!

Cibola 10

Beginnings (cont’d)

Where memories fail,
where the chroniclers fall silent,
songs spring up to fill the void:
Seven bishops set sail on seven ships
in the year of our Lord
seven hundred & fourteen,

fleeing the African invaders,
the Moorish warriors for a new faith
irrupting in the heart of the old.
Thus the Iberian balladeers
for centuries keep stringing out
new verses: the freedom-seekers
settle in the West,
rebuild their Seven Cities
on the blessed isle first envisioned
by pagan Greeks. Antilla,
growing in the minds of errant
knights & vision-questing friars
until it occupies most
of the space on the globe
between Portugal & Japan:
unspoken goal of Columbus,
Vespucci, Cortez.
A kingdom without a king, marked
by all the purported virtues of
the early Church–peace,
brotherhood, charity. No use
for jails, no heretics,
no famished lions.

One-line poems

William Matthews was an extremely versatile American poet and translator (of Martial and Jean Follain, among others). Almost everything in his Selected Poems and Translations is quotable: he was one of those poets with a real gift for aphorism and memorable lines. (The complete text of his third book, Rising and Falling, is available on-line; check out in particular the closing piece, “Long.”)

But what I want to do here today is reproduce from the Selected Poems and Translations his selection of “One-liners” – possibly one of the most difficult poetic forms to master.

In the book, these are presented just two per page. I’ll leave a lot of white space around them, to try and preserve the effect.

by William Matthews


    Here comes the blind thread to sew it shut.


    But desire is a kind of leisure


    Border with no country


    is not for fire to tell


    To be warm, build an igloo


    “Pilfer” is true enough for me


    Insomnia, old tree, when will you shed me?


    The moss on the milk is white


    I’m sorry this poem’s already finished


    Grief comes to eat without a mouth


    The dead are dreaming of breathing


That’s the lot of them. Anyone care to try an imitation? I’m intrigued by the fact that


    The title doesn’t count