Cibola 31

This entry is part 31 of 119 in the series Cibola

 

Marcos (1) (cont’d)

                    The old woman
points back to the pole they’d passed
at the center of the village, bedecked
with dark tufts he’d taken for raven feathers.
I danced with it–Me,
in my old rags, my dry
breasts flying,
she says, half
in pantomime,
                    laughing
at the white man’s grimace, his childishly
transparent face. The interpreter
tries to explain it: a widespread belief
that if you keep the crown
of the head in your possession
the soul of your slain enemy can’t leave
for the Land Below the East.
After the ceremony & the sixteen
days of separation, its owner–
this man–can fashion the scalp
into a homunculus, a slave
small enough to live in a basket
in the corner.

And reading de Niza’s expression
the interpreter signals an end to it, but
the friar steels himself,
persists: How do they make it serve them
without escaping–or slicing their throats
while they sleep?

The crone straightens, speaking quietly
the way an abbess he knew used to look
any time he tried to tease her
about her youngest charges.
They welcome him into the home like family.
Every day they feed him, even
sing to him at first so he won’t grow homesick.
He’s just like any servant–it’s only when
you forget to feed him that he starts
into mischief, seduces a daughter or a wife
.

The bloggers


The universe
(tiandi) doesn’t play favorites;
it treats all phenomena as if they were straw dogs.
The sage doesn’t play favorites;
he treats the people as if they were straw dogs.

– Daodejing Chapter 5 (my version). According to the Zhuangzi, straw dogs were sacrificial artifacts, treated with the utmost deference before they were used in the offering, and discarded afterwards.

*

The found object: how did it come to be born here, in the hand & in the eye? What does it ask of us? What might it become?

It passes slowly from hand to hand. We speak for it, taking turns. “I fell from the sky.” “I was thrown.” “I was dropped.” “I was laid down.” “I formed here, like dew.” “I sprouted.” “I popped out.” (What a bunch of jokers!)

We still think we’re the only ones here. Our word people means “human beings only.” Animal, mineral, or vegetable, we chant at the start of every game of Twenty Questions. There’s a campfire, of course. We’re singing, A, b, c, double x, y, z. Cat’s in the cupboard & he can’t see me. (Schrödinger never really cared about that poor cat, but we do!)

Well, let’s say someone gets up and tosses it on the fire. Yes. She drops it in the hottest part of the fire. “Now we’ll see!” (Will it burn? Will it burst?)

“Charcoal!”

“Cinders!”

“Ash!”

“Slag!”

(We pass the bottle, now. We fall asleep.)

Cibola 30

This entry is part 30 of 119 in the series Cibola

 

Marcos (1) (cont’d)

Only Francisco stayed strangely immune.
He outlasted what passes for a winter there
on nothing but thin gruel of maize
& for Ash Wednesday took a piece
of charcoal from the mission kitchen
& blackened the middle third of his face,
from eyebrows to upper lip, ear to ear.

That at least had always seemed to Marcos
a more-or-less Christian act–albeit taken
a bit too far–until last week, on the road
north from Vacapa.
                        As they approached
a farming settlement, the friar spotted
a figure sitting in the shade of a mesquite
next to the village dump, & left
the road to investigate.

The man gave no signal to acknowledge
their presence, motionless
except for his right hand, gripped
a scratching stick that seemed
to possess some heat-struck
consciousness of its own,
worrying an itch just below his wingbone
with such exquisite slowness, Marcos
felt himself blushing–put the apparent
parallel with Job to instant flight.

A clay bowl filled with thin corn gruel
sat untouched on the ground
in front of him, &
the bowed head, in shadow, hid
until they got quite close
the fact that this man, too, wore blackface:
a solid stain, perhaps
some tar or resin.

Marcos inquired (through two interpreters,
his own & a local woman) whether
the Indian meant thereby to pay
homage to his slave errant, Estebanico–
an object of superstitious fascination
among all these people.
But no, they said, He separates himself
from everything human
to atone, to get clean.
He has killed.
–Killed whom?
–Three of our friends the Enemy.
They loot our granaries
& kidnap our sons & daughters, so
we have to steal their medicine power
to stay alive.

__________

Estebanico: The diminutive form was used to connote social inferiority. (In this poem, by chosing to call him by the more neutral “Esteban,” I risk some confusion since “Estebanico” – or “Estevanico” – is how he has been remembered.)

our friends the Enemy: In native North America, relationships between “warring” tribes did not preclude periodic trading and sharing of rituals, and even violent raids were often conducted with the aim not of killing but of kidnapping children for adoption into the other tribe. And as I will endeavor to show here (and elsewhere), even killing can be construed as a form of adoption rather than, for example, as an attempt to dominate, humiliate or obliterate an anathematized Other.

Nude

Here’s a poem that I don’t think I’ve posted here before. (If I’m wrong, please let me know and I’ll put something else in its place.)

A pile of shed
garments on
the hardwood floor
rising in layers
of ever thinner
firmament,
                from denim
to lightest cotton
to breathless
silk &
a trickle
of sunlight
spilling through a crack
in the curtains.
                        While
the prim unwrinkled
bed, the generic nightstand
pinned under
a thick phone book
& the blank TV atop
a chest
          of drawers
all resist
engagement: nothing
to capture
the enchanted gaze
or even the bemused
appraisal.
              No stage
hand could stand
such inattention
to properties,
such utter abandon as
this room’s lone
occupant displays.

Cibola 29

This entry is part 29 of 119 in the series Cibola

 

Marcos (1) (cont’d)

Who but the Lord?
For idealists like Las Casas there’d be
few other options, denying Satan’s power
as they do. With a conjuror’s wave
Bartolomé used to dismiss all talk
of rivals to the Good Word:
Men need little help to lie,
to covet, to rebel. It’s
our conscious choice of the light
that makes us worthy of salvation.

He revisits the memory a second time
in a slightly different key, rehearses
the argument as it should’ve happened:
an articulate Marcos pointing out
that with malevolent spirits so strong–
their rites so various & seemingly ancient–
would it not rather seem the case
that these tattooed nations sprang
from none but Cain, first & most deceitful
of all marked men?

For not only sorcerers & idolatrous priests
but everyone, as he’d discovered–
everyone consorted with familiars.
In dreams they came chivvying,
dickering down the price of a soul
to little more than power
over a game of sticks,
success with women or the hunt.
And if not in dreams, in drugged trances.

Or merely through mortification of the flesh:
he remembered how as they died
they begged for hairshirts.

__________

first & most deceitful of all marked men: See Genesis 4:15.

The forger

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Antiphony: Daodejing

 

Radiant way-making (dao) seems obscured,
Advancing way-making seems to be receding,
Smooth way-making seems to have bumps,
The highest character
(de) seems like a deep gorge,
The most brilliant white seems sullied . . .
The most pristine and authentic seems defiled.
The greatest square has no corners,
The greatest vessel is last to be attended to,
The greatest sound is ever so faint,
The greatest image has no shape.

Daodejing Chapter 41 (Ames and Hall version)

*

Picture an artist’s studio in Montreal. The middle-aged, male artist is chatting with a new female model a few years younger than himself. Many artists he knows prefer to sketch or paint in silence. But how can you paint somebody you don’t know?

“I’m through with slogans and campaigns,” he says when the subject of politics comes up. The causes of his parents’ generation strike him as sad and futile. “‘Never forget?’ As if memory could forestall the ultimate dissolution of all things! Sure, collective memory is a powerful thing. But humanity won’t last forever. Even this planet will be swallowed up by the sun someday.”

“But you do seem to have quite an appetite for the news,” says the model.

As usual, he has the shortwave radio on in the studio. It’s tuned to the BBC World Service, and he keeps it at a fairly low volume so it won’t dominate the conversation – or the play of his own thoughts when he’s alone. Mostly, it’s the sound of the voices that appeals to him, that ceaseless murmur.

“They call it news, but by the time it hits the wires it’s already a little old, you know? The bluebirds continue to perch out there on the electric line as if nothing were happening, even on the coldest days. Now that’s news!”

“What I don’t like,” she says, “is the way different stories of hugely different magnitudes are made to seem like they’re equivalent, just by the way they’re placed side by side in a newspaper, or one after another on the radio or TV.”

“Mmm,” he says. And after a moment: “But that’s not exactly new, is it? And I wonder what the alternative would be? Just yesterday I went for a walk in the country, and was puzzling over the odd conjunctions of animal tracks in the snow. A coyote accompanying three unhurried deer? Raccoon and fox in a pas de deux? Careful, now! This isn’t some tawdry scandal sheet! But when you see a line of small rodent tracks suddenly cease in the middle of a pair of wing prints – well, that’s clearly genuine Page 1 material. Or so I would like to think.”

“You have to be true to your own vision, I guess,” the model says vaguely. But the artist is still warming to his theme.

“My vision? Who says it’s mine? How do I know that? Turn back this way please – right there. Great!”

An hour later, they continue the conversation at a cafe down the street. “I just don’t understand how you can so dismissive of the power of memory,” she says. “Don’t you want to be remembered?”

“Part of me does, yes. But when I paint, I have to put that part aside. I have to forget.”

This is something she hasn’t heard before in all her years of working with Tormented Artists, and it goes very much against the grain of her Jewish upbringing. Which may be why she finds herself wondering whether it’s time to rethink that rule about never sleeping with her clients. The problem with artists, though, is that they’re always so distracted.

“So you think it’s better to forget?”

“No, I never said that! It’s not a question of one or the other. Let the “t” off and what do you get? A forge! In here” – he taps his chest – “or here” – his head – “or maybe – I don’t know. Maybe nowhere!”

“So it’s forgeries you’re after, then!” she exclaims, laughing. “Forgetting does entail a kind of forgery, doesn’t it?”

“No, I think it’s the other way around,” says the painter – who, it might be worth pointing out, gathers a substantial income from the sale of perfect reproductions of the Old Masters, many of which now hang in place of the originals in museums around the world. She doesn’t know this yet, of course. But her interest in the argument intrigues him. He could use an assistant.

“Because, look, at any given moment, the snow is mute. To forge a story from its maze of tracks, you have to forget the present, calculate melt time at various temperatures in the last 24 hours, and weigh the likely scenarios. Even if you set up cameras to record everything as it takes place, whatever narrative you derive from that is still a condensation, an imposition – a forgery.

“But! The patterns visible in the present do have something to say in their own right, I think. And that something changes from one moment to the next, as the sun beats down or more snow falls or another creature forges through the snow.”

“And what if that creature is you?”

“Or you! Imagine this: Imagine if every time you looked at a painting, everywhere your gaze tracked it would leave an impression in indelible paint. Imagine if we couldn’t look at anything without overwriting it, without leaving our own tracks. Not only would paintings become wholly transient things – or happenings, really – but the distinction between artist and non-artist would largely disappear. Museums would lose their separation from the rest of the world.”

“But surely you can’t want that!”

He smiles. “What makes you think it isn’t already true? Every time we look at something, we’re changed in some way ourselves, yes? And as we change, from one moment to the next, our perception changes. We do leave tracks, even if they are visible only to ourselves.”

“Okay. But something tells me that if seeing were as physically consequential as you seem to wish, that things would develop very thick layers of paint in some areas, and thin to nonexistent layers in others. Any artistry a painting might have at first – or, I mean, right after someone with real artistic vision interacted with it – would quickly be overwhelmed by the untrained gaze of the mob.”

“Would it? I don’t know. I have a hunch that those unpainted areas would quickly develop their own charism, so to speak, and that the feedback loops formed by such interactive gazing, in combination with an ordinary intelligence, would eventually lead almost everyone to become expert in the art of forgery.”

She laughs. “So you would save nothing – no artifact of anyone’s private vision?”

“Oh, I would! But paintings age just as we do. The colors fade. Grime collects. The paint cracks. They change, and our collective evaluations – our memories – change with them. I mean, the act of restoration can be highly controversial. Restore it to what?

“Oh c’mon. It’s not that bad!”

“It can be. Think of how the great cave paintings in France and Spain were threatened by the mere presence of visitors: not only the molds and spores we carry with us, but the very carbon dioxide we exhale was profoundly damaging to them. In order to preserve anything at all, they had to be completely sealed away again. Faithful reproductions were created with the help of digital imaging so visitors would have something to look at in their stead.”

“If you don’t want immortality, what do you want?” she asks softly.

“I want to immerse myself in that forging,” he says, his eyes flashing. “That’s all! Not to be an artist. Not to be anything! Simply to become a part of everything that is beautiful, spontaneous, original!”

He touches her hand. “You and I – we’re nothing. Mayflies. Soap bubbles. There’s no great Artist in the sky. There’s only . . . ”

She places a sudden finger across his lips. They slowly get to their feet, put their coats on and pay the bill without another word. Outside, the streets are glistening with melting snow.

__________

Thanks to Susan, whose typo in a recent comment thread prompted this little exercise in philosophical fakery.
UPDATE (Feb. 4): Thanks to Siona for suggesting some additional insights.

Cibola 28

This entry is part 28 of 119 in the series Cibola

 

Marcos (1) (cont’d)

Not that Marcos had ever sought
such loyalty: Christ shall be
sole Master of the New World–
that World, he still maintained, that is
Not Yet–& of course our father
& brother the shoeless saint . . .
Whom they took to, he realizes now,
for reasons that had little to do
with the Gospel, or a love of poverty.
They adored his bleeding hands,
his legendary converse with bird & beast,
with highwayman & angel . . .

One language? Francisco would warble, grinning
as Frere Marc de Nice struggled
in his barbarous Castillian to explain
the Pentecost. And how often then
they’d ask about the Canticle–
a mystery to him how the news of it
had spread. Perhaps the doing
of an unrepentant schismatic, one
of the so-called Spirituals. Or worse:
some unconverted Jew, a wolf
in friar’s garb.
Making sure every native priest & scribe
confounded the saint’s visions
with their own empty fantasies. The very
title of his hagiography, “Little Flowers
of St. Francis,” had they heard it,
could only have given credence
to Indian superstitions of a Flower World
awaiting the souls of warriors slain in battle.
He remembers the innumerable
late-night arguments: he and the Dominican
Bartolomé de Las Casas, self-appointed
advocate for the Indians, swearing
they had songs & stories to equal
the pagan Greeks, even making
excuses for their bloodletting,
their abominable sodomy–
How can a just Lord condemn them
if they’ve never heard the Gospel?

And Marcos tongue-tied as always
would simply nod. The clarity
that comes with strong convictions
was something he could only pray for.
Bartolomé had indeed been blessed.

But Who–he wanted to ask his friend–
Who sends the pox?
The fevers that merely sickened Christians
killed Indians like flies–
or like the Egyptians, when Pharaoh
refused to acknowledge
the divine Word.

__________

the shoeless saint: i.e., St. Francis

his bleeding hands: Francis was the first saint to receive the stigmata. In this and in several other respects, he can be viewed almost as a second Christ. In native Mesoamerica, blood was viewed as the preeminent medium of exchange between humans and divinities – in a sense, it was the fuel of the cosmos.

the Canticle: St. Francis’ praise poem to “Master Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon,” “Our Sister Death,” etc. Considered the first work of literature in the Italian language. Three different translations are available here.