Cibola 1

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”

Cibola 2

This entry is part 2 of 119 in the series Cibola


Re-cast in the second person, and slightly expanded, following an e-mailed suggestion from a reader who evidently took what I said yesterday about the Reader’s pivotal role seriously (as well she should). Thanks, Suzanne!


This thing called a fetish embodies
what can never be touched.
Its odd contours–all lump & twist
& rag-end–are best kept out of view.
To see it exposed, you must assume
the burden of its origins, you must
give up some part of what makes you
you. Who now would choose
such displacement? It lives
in a buried season, carboniferous.
It is the solid shadow
we abandoned in the womb.

Cibola 3

This entry is part 3 of 119 in the series Cibola


I’m serializing my book-length poem. See Section 1 for details.

Beginnings (cont’d)

I awake in the dark and shake free
of sheets & blankets, of down-filled
quilt. The rituals of waking–
the long, hot shower, the coffee–give
my mind the chance to keep drifting,
let memory make what it will
of the contours of sleep.
Oddest of all are the dreams in which
one awakes, forgetting all rituals.
And it seems normal to go out naked,
for instance, in the middle of winter.
The snow’s alive, remember?
It ripples, blue flames slip
through the trees like fish.
I feel fur sprouting all along my spine.

Cibola 4

This entry is part 4 of 119 in the series Cibola


Beginnings (cont’d)

Winter is the driest season: a fast for the land.
The last quarter of the year, dressed
like a Sabbath bride. And though
we’ve foresworn the salt cod
of old Europe, most of us, coddle
ourselves with all-beef patties or
expensive wines & huddle around
televisions, the desert still comes.
The wilderness of John & Jesus,
of Moses & Elijah & Mohammed
still comes to the door,
makes the windows rattle with
her stark visions,
her disabling prescriptions.

Come snow, & the low sun
leaves a bit of night in the sky at noon,
teases from the old, old ridges
their longest dawns. This morning
as I stand by the roadside facing west,
still scrutinizing the line of trees
where the year’s fattest moon–the one
that heralds hunger–has just
gone down, the ridge turns vermilion.


“salt cod”: traditional Lenten food for most of Western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. (This church-mandated market for the nearly tasteless but long-storing fish of the north Atlantic, incidentally, led to the “discovery” of Newfoundland by anonymous fishermen out of Bristol, England several years before John Cabot, and thus quite possibly before 1492, according to the geographer Carl Sauer.)

“the year’s fattest moon”: I.e., the moon at perigee when perigee occurs near perihelion. “Extreme values for perigee and apogee distance occur when perigee or apogee passage occurs close to new or full Moon, and long-term extremes are in the months near to Earth’s perihelion passage (closest approach to the Sun, when the Sun’s tidal effects are strongest) in the first few days of January.” These differences are visible both in size and intensity of light. The year I wrote this, 2002, the largest moon was right at the end of February/beginning of March.

“the one that heralds hunger”: The full moon in March was referred to as the Hunger Moon by many Eastern Woodland tribes, since food stocks were at their lowest point of the year then, both for people and for many species of wildlife.

Cibola 5

This entry is part 5 of 119 in the series Cibola


Beginnings (cont’d)

I’ve been to the desert southwest,
I know how it’s pictured, & I swear
this is that light. What so many
sun-starved souls travel the breadth
of the continent for: that blood-
drenched gold. While down below
in the shadow, all around me
the dooryard birds–Carolina
wren, white-throated sparrow,
cardinal, titmouse, chickadee, junco,
goldfinch & mourning dove–
are wagering every note they have.
The pileated woodpecker uses
the whole cove for a resonator,
a fast rattle of dice on the bone of
a locust. As the light spreads,
every bush & tree on the ridgeside
stands distinct, singing in the dawn wind.
I see roots from underground, shining
tips of feathers. The blue down here
is the color of an ordinary horizon,
a thinness, a spreading of rhizomes
under my skin–the globe-encircling
miles of veins–grown feathery
like the feelers of a night-flying moth.
I can hear what shrews
are up to in their tunnels
& the newborn bears in their dens,
blindly sucking the blue milk
of a huge & dreamless sleep.
My breath tastes like the wood smoke
from my chimney, oak & cherry–now
rising, now running along the ground,
blue, blue . . .

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.

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.

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.

Cibola 9

This entry is part 9 of 119 in the series Cibola


Beginnings (cont’d)

And according to a few accounts
in the chronicles of those who entrust
their memories to nihil obstat
& the notary public’s India ink,
way back a half-millennium ago
when the Old World irrupted
in the heart of the New, two men–
one African, one European–
appear as suddenly as rivers fed
by far-off storms,
with their hundreds of Indian guides
surging north from the newly
conquered province of Nueva Galicia.
The Spanish call them Esteban
& Marcos: ciphers, almost,
names evoking the incense
of another desert–olive, terebinth–
& another beginning,
back when Christianity was still
a sectarian group of Jews

& St. Stephen–San Esteban–
played out his role as original martyr
of the Church-to-be: A man full
of faith & power, who did great wonders
& miracles among the people
the circle of scholars authorized by King James).
And they stirred up the people &
the elders & the scribes & came
upon him & caught him
& brought him to the council.
And set up false witnesses, which said
This man ceaseth not to speak
blasphemous words against
this holy place, and the law . . .

And St. Mark: first
among missionaries, traveling
with Saul & Barnabas,
climbing with Luke & Matthew
into the thin air of history.
The very model of a pilgrim,
however sidelined by the bellicose
Santiago. Retaining even now
his rightful patronage among
the Catholic Indians of the Yaqui
River valley, who honor San Marcos
as a messenger, one who is sent ahead
to scout things out.

*     *     *     *

Nueva Galicia: Originally a separately administered colony from Nueva España, it comprised roughly the modern Mexican states of Jalisco and Nayarit and the southern half of Sinaloa, with its capital (after gaining its charter in 1548) at Guadalajara.

“A man full of faith & power…” Acts 6:7 ff.

a messenger, one who is sent ahead to scout things out: This is a direct quote from Felipe S. Molina, Yaqui Indian co-author, with anthropologist Larry Evers, of Yaqui Deer Songs, Maso Bwikam: A Native American Poetry, University of Arizona Press (1987). In that context, he is referring strictly to folk belief about the Christian saint and not making any connection to the historical Marcos de Niza, about whom there is no specific oral tradition among the Yaqui, to my knowledge. Yaquis likely formed a significant part of Esteban’s and Marcos’ respective entourages when they entered Hohokam/Salado territory (modern south-central and southeast Arizona).

Cibola 10

This entry is part 10 of 119 in the series Cibola


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.