Cibola 1

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 1 of 119 in the series Cibola


Today begins a new, daily feature on Via Negativa: the serialization of my book-length poem, Cibola. I have divided it into bite-sized sections, 157 120 of them in all. At six posts per week, it should take at least 29 weeks to present the whole book here. I expect to introduce many minor and perhaps a few major editorial changes as I go along; thus, I have removed the PDF file from my other website.

Briefly, Cibola is a psychological/anthropological drama based on historical events: the “discovery” in 1539 of an apparent Shangri-La somewhere in the mountains of present-day New Mexico by the Franciscan friar Marcos de Niza and the “black conquistador” Esteban, originally from Morocco and probably of Sahelian parentage and culture. Esteban had served as the main interpreter to the Indians for the four survivors of the disastrous expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez to “La Florida,” memorialized by Cabeza de Vaca in his justly famous account – the first truly great work of Euro-American literature. The Marcos-Esteban expedition was a hastily assembled affair sponsored by the viceroy of New Spain, designed to scout out a route for the real conquest, one year later, led by Coronado. Further details about Marcos and Esteban will be provided in notes as the poem unfolds.

Cibola represents about a year and a half of research and writing, ending in May, 2003. I’m not entirely satisfied with the result (though obviously I do feel it has plenty of solid insights and good language, or I wouldn’t be inflicting it on y’all). One of the main problems may be that it’s too dense: its language is closer to lyric poetry than to the lighter, easier flow of narrative verse. So I’m interested in seeing whether a division into shorter segments, spaced out over seven or eight months, doesn’t make it more enjoyable to read.

As always, I welcome any and all critical reactions, via comments or e-mail (bontasaurus, yahoo). Please let me know especially when more explication is needed; I’d like to keep notes to a minimum, but I don’t want lack of comprehension to interfere with appreciation. Although I’ve tried to adhere fairly closely to historical, geographical and anthropological realities as I understood them, my perspective has remained artistic and populist, not scholarly.

Writing this book turned out to be an intensely rewarding and educational experience. When I placed the outsiders’ descriptions of Indians side-by-side with what has been recorded from their own rich and at times psychedelic oral traditions, oddly enough, the Native words generally seemed much truer to life. However, given that modern ethnographies are a very imperfect guide to how people might have lived and thought 500 years ago, I allowed myself a great deal of artistic license in the retelling of certain myths and oral histories, not to mention in imagining what the people who first told them might have been like. And for details of the Marcos-Esteban descubrimiento, to say that the historical record is unclear would be a vast understatement.

One way I tried to keep the critical apparatus to a bare minimum was through the inclusion of passages from other texts, in 21 “Reader” sections preceding every section of original poetry. I think of these as the warp upon which the weft of the work is strung. Too, they place the reader of the poem (in which category I include myself) on a footing with the three, main protagonists: Esteban, Marcos, and the native community of Shiwanna, direct ancestor of modern Zuni pueblo. In most cases, the quotes in a “Reader” section are meant to introduce themes immediately upcoming. The inaugural portion, however, is more like a brief for the poem as a whole.

Reader (1)

Though a person find no gold,
Though he find no silver,
Should he find his freedom,
Then noble will he be.
A man of power is hard to find.
The Epic of Son-Jara (John William Johnson translation)

Your desire, my friend, has been fulfilled.
You have come, you stand upon my land.
Look around and see how poor it is.
It is filled with sickness,
It is littered with potsherds,
It is strewn with cuttings of hair.
The roads of my country are old,
And the houses of my country are about to fall.
My mountains are old and crumbling.
My streams are covered with accumulations.
“Welcome to the Aaduma [Eda Mel] Ceremony” (traditional Akimel O’odham
speech/sermon, translated by Ruth Benedict)

It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real
work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our
real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream
is the one that sings.
“Poetry & Marriage”

Hi, cue

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Sharon of Watermark is soliciting New Year’s haiku for one of her multi-partner poem dances. I stopped by to drop a link to the preceding entry in the comment box, but then, right on cue, felt the urge to drop something more appropriately syllabled. This be it.

To what shall I liken
this New Year’s, warm and brown?
It happens, that’s all.

Not a haiku

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

This was my New Year’s Day poem for 2000. (Remember Y2K?)

snow fog at dawn
the wingbeats of a maybe crow
fade into the would-be distance

Another sunrise

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I wake around 6:00 and am out on the porch by 6:30, in time for the last 20 minutes of darkness. Most mornings this time of year, the transition from night to day is virtually imperceptible. But this dawn lurches dramatically from dark to light and back again as breaks open and close in the fast-moving clouds. By 6:55 I can see well enough to write between the lines in my pocket notebook. My first page of the New Year, however, will be an almost unreadable mess.

It’s unseasonably warm – 50 degrees (F) – and breezy. By 7:00 o’clock, a large portion of the sky has cleared off, revealing the gibbous moon and one star or planet, maybe Jupiter. A hunter walks up the driveway, headed for his tree stand. (In Pennsylvania, muzzleloader deer season resumed the Monday after Christmas.)

“A little late, aren’t you?” I call out.

He mutters something I don’t catch, then says, “The way I figure it, everyone else probably has a hangover, so I’ll be the first one out here.”

A couple minutes after he heads up into the woods, it occurs to me that I ought to try and watch the sunrise, assuming it will be visible. I tuck a sitting mat under my arm and set off for the crest of the higher of the two ridges, the one to the west, which we call Sapsucker Ridge. Crossing the field, I hear the twitter of waking songbirds, and just as I enter the woods, a white-throated sparrow calls. For once, it doesn’t sound the least bit melancholy. Nor do I hear either of the two popular onomatopoeic interpretations, just the song itself. It stutters a bit at the end, as if the bird still has a bit of sleep stuck in its throat.

I reach the ridgetop by 7:15 and spread the mat at the base of a smallish chestnut oak, some 25 feet away from the mammoth red oak that we refer to simply as the Big Tree. I had thought I might sit against it, but decided I’d rather watch the sunrise through its massive spread of limbs. Who knows how many more years we’ll have it with us? I feel sorry now that I didn’t bring a bottle of champagne to toast the New Year. I would’ve gladly given some to this tree, poured it into the ground around its trunk.

The tree I’m sitting against is a creaker. I look straight up and realize I’ve got company: a dead cherry tree is leaning against it, too. Only one thin branch stands between me and a world of hurt. Fortunately, on this side of the ridge, the wind is erratic, and the rubbing of tree against tree yields only an occasional eeeeeek, or a lower-pitched uk . . . uk . . . uk. A hundred feet to the west, some other creaker is going erk erk erk erk, as regular as a metronome. The whole time I’m sitting there, it doesn’t let up.

Shortly after I get settled in, a crow calls – Here, here – and another answers in the same fashion, like British members of parliament after a stirring speech. Well, what’s not to applaud? As it turns out, I’m very lucky. There’s one, small break in an otherwise solid curtain of cloud above the eastern horizon. From my perspective that break is right in the middle of the Little Juniata Water Gap in Tussey Mountain, some seven miles away as the crow flies. And through that break I’m able to watch the sunrise.

By 7:30 the hole in the clouds has turned deep crimson. At a few seconds before 7:35, the first retina-burning edge of the sun pops into view. It takes only a few minutes to traverse the narrow gap and enter the clouds above. In fact, the leading edge has already disappeared before the bottom of the orb clears the horizon, and at the point where the greatest part is visible, I notice a very thin band of additional cloud bisecting it. I feel as if I’m watching a strip tease through a peephole (not that I’ve ever done such a thing, of course).

Hmm, O.K. – I say to myself – I’m watching the ball rise. By 7:38 the bottom edge is visible above the horizon. Happy New Year!

Less than four minutes later, the sun’s gone and the red is rapidly draining from the aperture through which I was fortunate enough to verify one possible, arbitrary beginning point of another complete circuit of the earth ’round the sun. Is this why the Quiché Maya think of the sun as a mirror, I wonder – because its original radiance has been obscured by the host of calendrical contrivances we read into its (apparent) daily round? The real sun showed its face only once, they say, at the beginning of time. Since then the Day Lords have been ascendant.

I pick up my sitting-mat and continue my walk, heading southwest along the ridge to the so-called vernal ponds. The largest – less than 25 feet across at its widest point – is still just barely frozen. A pool of melt water has formed on top of the ice, which has sunk down so that only the outermost three to four feet of ice are still above the water. The exposed ring of ice bears a striking pattern of what look like the interlocking footprints of large birds. But it’s the water in the middle that draws my attention.

Again, the sense of an aperture: this time, a window into a world of sharper contrasts and greater mutability than the one we know, that dim reflection frozen in the mind’s eye. The tree trunks are silhouettes against a grayish-white sky, with here and there a patch of pale blue or creamy yellow. The slightest movement of air sets the horizontal branches shivering; electric impulses pass from trunk to trunk. It’s never enough to make them really waver, though. They stand, solid citizens, with their heads downward, roots hidden somewhere beyond the edge, behind the clouds.

At 8:20 I leave the pond and circle around behind the grove of Norway spruce at the top of the field. I’m struck suddenly by how quiet it is, apart from a few train whistles. I stop to admire a small patch of milkweed: straight stalks projecting stiffly at various angles to the ground, gray pods still spilling seed-flecked down. A few of the tufts look as if they’re barely holding on, but it’ll take a stronger breeze than this to lift them free.

Half the sky is now clear. In less than a minute the sun will at last emerge into that clearing – and into this one. The milkweed fluff will glisten like snow, which on other years would lie several inches deep by now. In a few seconds the sun will shine full in my face, all of it, for the first time this year. It’s already happening, before I’ve finished writing about it in my pocket notebook. At how many countless points on the planet is another sunrise just now beginning? Sunroot . . . treeshine . . . whatever might have been here, unsayable, in the always present moment – you know – by the time I get it all down, has been here and gone.

A contribution to the Ecotone wiki topic, New Year and Place.

Brainstorming 2005

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Ideas for the coming year:

  • Go line by line through one of my poetry manuscripts, using each line as the jumping-off point for a new poem.
  • Compile and illustrate a Book of Missing Hours with old Via Negativa posts.
  • Run for office.
  • Use the Internet to rally support for a National Do Nothing Day on some date of no special significance, to change every year and be chosen by lot.
  • Apply to a large foundation, or to the state arts council, for a grant to support Via Negativa.
  • Become a stalker of a celebrity poet, such as Tess Gallagher or Rita Dove.
  • Donate one of my kidneys to a needy Iraqi.
  • Learn to paint by numbers.
  • Run amok.
  • Change my name to Chrysler.
  • Set goals and continually strive to achieve them.
  • Write a letter to somebody using actual pen and paper.
  • Sing along with the CD.
  • Poison pigeons in the park.
  • Start a new religion using nothing but slogans and television advertising jingles from the 1970s.
  • Crawl on my belly like a snake.
  • Make hay while the sun shines.
  • Persist in my delusions.
  • Collect all my fingernails, toenails, shed hair, laundry lint and, if possible, shed skin for an eventual computer-assisted collage portrait of Jesus, or maybe Elvis.
  • Submit something to somebody.
  • Rock and roll.
  • Acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
  • Turn this blog over to its readers.
  • Go on a date.
  • Get a job.

(Ha ha! Just kidding with those last two there.)


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I keep the thermostat turned way down; it’s cold. Reading the Internet isn’t like reading a book. I can always use the wait between one electronic page and the next to rub my hands together, breathe into my fists.

A fly bumbles into the glass on the front of my computer monitor, falls onto the desk. It rights itself, but still doesn’t seem quite right. I absent-mindedly drop a bottle cap over it and go back to reading the headlines: Gov’t, Rebels to Sign. Heart Scares Hit. Tsunami Toll Jumps. Artie Shaw Dies. Crude Oil Surges.

Several hours go by. I find myself staring at the bottle cap – a gold twist-off – with increasing frequency. It hasn’t moved. Finally, curiosity gets the better of me and I pick it up. There’s the fly, rubbing its forelegs together. I quickly replace the cap.

Fish supper: fragments from Negombo

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Poverty, simplicity, absence of guile: these are the traits my brother emphasized in his description of the fisherfolk of Negombo, Sri Lanka, whose Tamil dialect he recorded for his dissertation. Going through the dissertation this morning, I imagined I was able to detect these qualities in its examples of usage, which in light of recent events appeared irredeemably fragmentary, flotsam marooned in a black-bound text, translated and explicated in an alien language. I thought perhaps that if I gathered and grouped them roughly by fours, I could create the illusion of coherence, perhaps even conjure the ghost of a folk-song. The final three stanzas, however, are snippets from an actual conversation included as an appendix. “Setting: Ameer and Susila’s house. Susila, her daughter Laksika and her niece Nirosani are preparing a meal for the author a few days before his departure for the United States.”

I see a bird in that big tree.
There are many birds there.
Children always play under that tree.
The bus that goes to Colombo may be late, it seems.

Father wanted to read the newspaper, but it got lost.
Because he went to Kandy yesterday, he has no money.
I can go anywhere in this country by bus.
When I went to Colombo, I couldn’t find work.

Having gone to the store, having gotten fish, I came home.
Many mosquitoes came inside.
Maybe they’ll go to Chilaw tomorrow.
Don’t open your mouth when you chew.

Because it’s raining now, let’s stay at home.
It’s here that I work.
If I don’t have money, I don’t go to Colombo.
I have to go by foot.

I worked yesterday, so I want to take it easy today.
Let’s eat those bananas.
We got fed up with eating fish.
If you eat a lot of fruit, your body will grow.

Do you want anything now?
Let’s go to Negombo.
This is enough. This house is beautiful.
Today it might rain.

Whose dress is this? Whose?
Is it a white man’s?
A white man gives it for money.
He’s very silly.

The white man is going. He’s going on Sunday.
After we go to America, we’ll put our hands together.
We’ll bring the white man to his wife.
We’ll show photos.

Salt and coconut – bring that.
Is the fish just sitting there?
Yes, indeed, it is.
It only takes me a little while to cook it.

UPDATE: Background

Steve writes, “A little more info might help put this all into context. The sentences aside from the oral text given at the end are mostly elicitations, meaning, they were sentences I gave in Sinhala which they then translated. That way, I could test for particular grammatical traits. Elicitations are an artificial but necessary tool of the field linguist. In addition, of course, the field linguist must make use of recorded informal conversations, which will of course disclose many unanticipated grammatical features.”

So, as I guess I kind of figured, the first six stanzas bear only the most tenuous relationship to the real sayings of real people. In effect, they are rearrangements of translations of translations. Perhaps one could make a case for this kind of exercise as a form of circumspection, given the inadequacy of any language to grapple with such total devastation, I don’t know. Something about the extreme ordinariness of these lines appealed to me – perhaps as part of a mental picture I have developed from Steve’s descriptions of his interactions with his informants. Sure, let’s talk about the way we talk – and please stay for supper!

“Regarding Sri Lanka fishermen in general,” Steve continues, “they belong to the Karava caste (in Tamil, karaiyar). The origin of the word would appear to be from Tamil karai, ‘(sea)shore.’ From Colombo south all around the coast, the Karavas are predominantly (though not exclusively) Buddhist and speak Sinhala. North of Chilaw on the west coast, and throughout the Tamil area, they are mostly Hindu and speak Tamil. Between Negombo and Chilaw, however (a stretch of about 40 miles) they are almost all Roman Catholic and bilingual. What’s more, they’ve come to identify themselves as Sinhalese who happen to speak Tamil, and have no interest whatever in the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict elsewhere. In fact, there are many signs and posters around Negombo, in both languages, indicating that conflict is not welcome.

“Within the Karava community are many subcastes, and the group I worked with were at the bottom of the hierarchy. To a great extent, this hierarchy is signalized by the type of fishing vessel used. The upper-crust Karavas use modern boats with deep-sea capabilities, and provide shark and other large fish for the local markets. The middle stratum, at least in the Negombo area (though spottily elsewhere) uses outrigger sailing vessels called oruvas in Sinhala. The poorest of the poor use only teppams, tiny balsa rafts that enable them to sail only a few hundred yards beyond the surf to catch shrimp and very small fish. From what I can ascertain, the wave hit Negombo but seems to have spared some of the coast further north, so the northwest coast may preserve some of the Karava/karaiyar villages, but it’s hard to know for sure.”