Cibola 8

This entry is part 8 of 119 in the series Cibola


Beginnings (cont’d)

But the dry lands survive
through concentration. The original
nations persist, despite the epitaphs
their would-be partisans have
so often composed. Though the dreams
served up on satellite dishes are more
& more entrancing, a few old-timers
still share stories around the stove
on a winter’s evening, whenever
their grandchildren start to get
too wild:

Back when newness was made–
they say–the earth was still soft
& yielding as the crown
of an infant’s head.
anyone stepped, the footprints
would fill with water. Back
when the spirit beings still mixed
freely with the people–the Zuni,
A.K.A. Ashiwi, or Ashiwanni–who
after years of wandering, had
discovered & settled the very
center of this six-
faceted world at
Shiwanna . . .

The Flood had come & gone
& the people newly made were talking,
chittering & chattering all the time
like mockingbirds, so that even
Coyote couldn’t sleep, & the God
the O’odham used to call Earth Doctor
divided their hearts, half for the day
& half for the night, & gave
the power of dreaming to
the dark half, so they could travel
in their sleep & gain wisdom. And
so they would have something
of greater note to mull over
in the heat of the day.

as the crown of an infant’s head: This simile is my only departure in this selection from the recorded myths of the Zuni and O’odham as they appear in the scholarly literature. Outright metaphors are exceedingly rare in their respective oral traditions, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t present in a more hidden form. As with Sufi teaching stories, part of the considerable art of Native songs, stories and oratory lies in the way their lessons slowly ripen in the listener’s mind over the course of months or years. When metaphors are made explicit, meaning is channeled in one, main direction – a direction that may be right for part of the audience, but can’t possibly be what every listener needs to hear. (The notion of One Best Truth for Everybody is, let’s remember, unique to the totalizing World Religions, and foreign probably to over 90 percent of all other belief systems ever invented.) I am quite sure that my interpretations in this poem are, at best, woefully inadequate – an outsider’s glib attempt to reveal a single facet in order to communicate at least the potential value of a gem.

this six-faceted world: the Zuni – like the O’odham, but unlike some of their closer neighbors – include zenith and nadir for a total of six sacred directions. Sometimes they also include Center as a seventh “direction,” and thus the number seven appears to be a more perfected form of six in Zuni numerology.

By the waters of Babylon

Here is an image that has haunted me for years.

Six hundred yards north of the “Tower of Babel” rose a mound called Kasr, on which Nebuchadnezzer built the most imposing of his palaces….Nearby, supported on a succession of superimposed circular collonades, were the famous Hanging Gardens, which the Greeks included among the Seven Wonders of the World. The gallant Nebuchadnezzer had built them for one of his wives, the daughter of Cyaxares, King of the Medes; this princess, unaccustomed to the hot sun and dust of Babylon, pined for the verdure of her native hills. The topmost terrace was covered with rich soil to the depth of many feet, providing space and nourishment not merely for flowers and plants, but for the largest and most deep-rooted trees. Hydraulic engines concealed in the columns and manned by shifts of slaves carried water from the Euphrates to the highest tier of the gardens. Here, seventy-five feet above the ground, in the cool shade of tall trees, and surrounded by exotic shrubs and fragrant flowers, the ladies of the royal harem walked unveiled, secure from the common eye; while, in the plains and streets below, the common man and woman ploughed, wove, built, carried burdens, and reproduced their kind.

Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage (Simon and Schuster, 1954 [1935]).

Even allowing for the obvious Orientalist slant here, it’s disturbing to think that any human being, no matter how heartless, could enjoy idling around fountains in full knowledge that slaves were actively toiling right beneath one’s feet, in the dark and in stifling heat, to keep them going. But isn’t it really just hypocritical of me to think that way, as the beneficiary of the equally invisible, equally dehumanizing toil of so many people in sweatshops abroad or in dead-end service industry jobs here at home? Who’s hanging in your garden?

Around the same time that I first thought to inquire about the reality of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, I read Psalm 137 clear to its last couplet. This is, it must be said, one of the great poems of the Bible. Here it is in Mitchell Dahood’s translation:

Beside the river in Babylon,
    there we sat;
    loudly we wept,
When we remembered you, O Zion!
Beside the poplars in her midst
    we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors demanded of us
    words of song,
    and our mockers songs of gladness:
“Sing for us a song of Zion!”
O how could we sing Yahweh’s song
    upon alien soil?
Should I forget you,
    O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue stick to my palate,
    should I remember you not!
If I do not raise you,
    O Jersusalem,
Upon my head in celebration!
Remember Yahweh, O sons of Edom,
    the day of Jerusalem!
You who said, “Strip her, strip her,
    to her foundation!”
O Daughter Babylon, you devastator,
    blest be he who repays you
    the evil you have done us!
Blest be he who seizes and dashes
    your infants against the rock!

The Anchor Bible: Psalms III, Doubleday, 1970

This translation, while not perhaps as memorable as the King James version, and arguably spoiled by over-abundant exclamation marks, does clarify a number of points both minor (that the trees were poplars or aspens, and the instruments were lyres) and major (the parallelism between the rape of a feminized Jerusalem and a longed-for rape of Babylon).

Again, I think it’s well worth analyzing the shock and horror one feels after reading a Psalm that celebrates rape and baby-killing, especially if one’s heart has ever thrilled to other, less graphic calls for righteous warfare. Real war inevitably means that real innocents are slaughtered, and not always inadvertently. Even when the extinction of a people isn’t the explicit aim and soldiers are fairly well disciplined, there will always be those few – and sometimes whole battalions – who will go berserk and kill everything that wears the enemy’s face, in our name.

Three or four years ago I wrote a poem responding to a few of these images from the ancient Middle East. I tried to keep it ambiguous who was actually speaking, whose lament this might be.

Psalm 137

The land no longer ours
grows ever more vertiginous in the telling:
the holy hill steepens with each new song.
Its shadow creeps across fields
& olive groves, penumbra muffling
the clamor of school & clinic,
blotting out the once-busy markets
where we used to embrace like lovers at the end
of each slow dance of commerce.

Layer by layer the volcanic ash of memory
like a veil drawn between us & the present
erases all distinguishing features:
the raised letters on name plates, street signs,
the features carved on tombs & public statues.
Soon it’s impossible to tell whose heroes,
whose dead these stones are for.

And such lava flows of jealousy!
There’s no loss like ours,
no stillness as holy as the absence
of love & laughter. No song
quite like the melismatic wail
of an infant swung around by its ankles,
the frantic ululations of an ambulance,
the screech of an incoming mortar.

The waters of Babylon are profligate;
our tears there made little difference.
The only mountain was a simulacrum of paradise,
spilling with fountains & the seeds
of unknown flowers. But in the land
the Lord showed Abraham, no spring
can overflow without authorization,
& barred from the sea the Jordan hoards its salt.

Surely it was meant for us–
to bathe our wounds . . .

Cibola 7

This entry is part 7 of 119 in the series Cibola


Beginnings (cont’d)

Out of the poverty of imagination–
out of genocidal wars & war games,
munitions dumps, gold fever & hi-
ho-silver vigilante gunslinging, cattle
gangbanging, land thieving, lead mining,
copper mining, uranium mining,
coal stripping, the damming of any
free-flowing stream or river, the looting
of graves, the paving-over of sacred sites
that lacked only walls to include them
beyond doubt among the world’s great
edifices of the spirit–
out of the all-American roadside
huckstering of the dream itself
comes this literal,
this dust-bedeviled desert.
Lucifer on his peak is mute with wonder.

*     *     *      *


“Beginnings” consists of four parts. This concludes the first.

dust-bedeviled: A widespread Native belief holds that dust devils or whirlwinds are sorcerers in disguise.

Lucifer on his peak: Matthew 4:8, Luke 4:5.

The Church of Starbucks

Whatever happened to the coffee house in the church basement? It’s gone corporate, like everything else. The excuse offered here is that churchgoers need to relax. Silly me, I thought that was the point of the long, boring sermon. And I’ve never thought of caffeine as a relaxant. Perhaps they should try handing out marijuana brownies before the service. Or, I don’t know, just try being a little less white…

These days, along with the usual sermons, places of worship are quenching more literal forms of thirst, too.

Those who crave Starbucks can step over to a kiosk at Grace Capital Church in Pembroke, N.H….

“Starbucks has done what churches should have done a long time ago, and that’s to become more people-friendly,” says the Rev. Peter Bonanno, senior pastor of Grace Capital Church. “It’s not so much the coffee as the environment the coffee and the coffee bar create – a relaxed, relational, and fun place. We hope to create an environment that we believe is more biblical than [conventionally] religious.”

Parishioners seem satisfied. The kiosk opened in July, and visitors say the building that houses it “feels more like a Starbucks … than a church,” says Mr. Bonanno. Since July, average Sunday attendance has doubled to 550.

“More biblical.” What do you suppose that means? Do the baristas sacrifice a fatted calf in between serving up double lattes?

Back to the A&P

Last night over the dinner table we were reminiscing about some of the things my mother used to say to me when I was a little kid. Well, say and sing. See, Mom made up lullabies for each of us kids when we were a couple weeks old. They were nothing elaborate, just a few lines of her own lyrics set to a short segment of a familiar tune. I still remember my younger brother’s song. I won’t embarrass him by repeating the words, but the tune was taken from Beethoven’s 6th, and it worked like a charm. Not only did he learn to fall asleep on command, he became a huge classical music fan. Mom claims he could hum most of the themes in all nine Beethoven symphonies before he learned to talk.

On one level, they were lullabies, but on another level, they were like the extended or true versions of our given names. Mine she sang to the tune of “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City,” from the musical Oklahoma: “What are we going to do with David Jeffrey? The naughtiest little boy in all the world!”

So that was me: David-Jeffrey-the-Naughtiest-Little-Boy-in-All-the-World-[Patronymic].*

Mom was really pushing the envelope of the lullaby genre with that one. There’s a kind of ironic distancing there that you wouldn’t find in either of my brother’s lullabies. It’s easy to imagine what might have been going through her head when she made it up: “Okay, you rotten little kid. Since you won’t go to sleep anyway, take this!”

It’s true, though, I was pretty rotten. Not mean rotten – except to my little brother, whom I tormented – but tantrum-throwing rotten. I cried constantly. My parents still recall one time when I screamed for two hours straight at a nursery school. From the moment they plunked my four-year-old butt down in the nether regions of that house of God, I began howling at the top of my lungs. My older brother was allowed to attend services, why couldn’t I? They said they could hear me faintly from upstairs in the sanctuary, all throughout the sermon. It is in such seemingly minor incidents, I think, that one can locate the fertile seeds of what would become life-long obsessions.

I didn’t break the crying habit until I reached puberty. We’ve all heard the pop psychological explanation for such behavior: “Oh, he just wants attention!” But I think I was alert enough to realize that in my case, the opposite was true. If I wanted attention, all I had to do was stop crying for a little while. I can still remember the acute pleasure I derived from making myself and others miserable. Misery was more than company – it was a lifestyle. Hence my mother’s affectionate nickname for me as a child: Eeyore.

Nobody worried much about political correctness back in the early 1970s. Whenever we became especially cantankerous, Mom would threaten, “I’m going to give you back to the Indians!” That always seemed like a fairly attractive alternative, however. So sometimes she would change it and say, “I’m going to take you back to the A&P!”

I was always very well behaved in the supermarket.

* Some things you just don’t want Google to pick up, know what I mean?

Cibola 6

This entry is part 6 of 119 in the series Cibola


UPDATE: revised and augmented on 1/09/05.

Beginnings (cont’d)

When I went to the desert through books
I felt blind. History is a wilderness:
we’ve made of both a moonscape
& planted the flag. Peopled them
with beasts, with demons,
with the ghosts of lost tribes.
Unsettled them with Potemkin villages
complete with fake tombstones
& technicolor cowboys who, with
a wink & a wave, vault into the saddle
of the Great White Father.
The silence from ten,
from twenty million untimely dead
might strike us as appalling if
the din of our monstrous cutlery
were ever to stop. It takes fewer
than a million head of starving cattle
& only three years of drought to turn
the best pastures in New Mexico
& Arizona into a wasteland. That’s why
in the Old West of cartoon fame
carrion birds are always circling
& no saguaro seems complete
without the skull of a cow
resting in its emaciated shade.

Those who had farmed
the baked earth for millennia
& foraged from the desert as if
it were an endless garden
learned about livestock & devils at
the same time: ghost riders came to haunt
every other sacred hill of the O’odham.
For the Diné and the Pueblos,
Coyote the sheep eater now shares
his skin & thieving yellow eyes only
with witches, the eaters of people.

While those who come for love
of the desert sun, seekers of Native artifact
& lawn-green uniformed utopia, thrust
their steel straws in the earth & suck.
In this Land of Enchantment, ah,
that the Indians should have guessed right
about underground lakes! Where once
the wind was gentled in vast ciénagas,
willow-lined marshes teeming
with reedtalk and birdsong, now
even the deep-rooted mesquite trees
offer their sun-bleached bones as souvenirs.


ten, twenty million: Estimates for the aboriginal population of America north of the Rio Grande vary widely.

fewer than a million head of starving cattle: This happened in 1871-3. According to Gary Paul Nabhan (Gathering the Desert), “When the rains finally came in the following years, floods were ‘flashier’ in that there was less ground cover to slow their flows. The downcutting that followed has been extensively studied…It is unlikely that the Sonoran Desert has ever regained the carrying capacity destroyed at that time.”

livestock & devils: A vast number of southwestern toponymns include the words “devil” or “hell.”

Land of Enchantment: New Mexico’s official tourist slogan.

underground lakes: A regular feature of indigenous mytho-geographies of the Southwest. These geographies are accurate in the sense that underground aquifers do exist, are vital to the health of desert ecosystems, and are thus, at least figuratively speaking, the ultimate origin of human civilization in such regions.

ciénagas (Sp.): marshes. In the Sonoran context, the word is retained by English-speaking ecologists to refer to a specific, endangered habitat.

Burying the dead

I’m discontinuing my political blog, dead raccoon in the road. Thanks to everyone who kept up with it and everyone who linked.

Time-wise, there’s no reason why I couldn’t keep it going as an occasional thing, posting whenever the spirit moves me. I imagine it serves a marginally useful social function as a political links blog for a few of my Bloglines-using friends who don’t have the time or patience to keep up with the news otherwise. But it was beginning to feel a bit fraudulent. A blog should be part of a larger conversation, in my view. And I’m afraid I don’t make the effort to keep up with more than four or five political blogs. I can’t, really. I already read 50 blogs, and that – in addition to whatever online news sources I can squeeze in, plus the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, and a handful of magazines – is the absolute limit, at least if I am going to continue to put the kind of energy into Via Negativa that it deserves.

Plus, while it was fun playing Grand Inquisitor for a couple of months, I was rarely too happy with the results. Toxic sarcasm makes for good punk and heavy metal lyrics, but beyond that, it’s, well, toxic.

A third motivating factor is my interest in taking on other projects, for which I never seem to run out of ideas. Stay tuned.