Cibola 11

This entry is part 11 of 119 in the series Cibola


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.

Cibola 12

This entry is part 12 of 119 in the series Cibola


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.

Cibola 13

This entry is part 13 of 119 in the series Cibola


Beginnings (cont’d)

In the beginning, the spirit dancers
came in person, they say.
In Shiwanna they still remember
how dangerous that was, the way
the women were always going crazy
for their devilishly good looks
& exotic costumes,
their power objects,
their dances, & every year
a few more would follow them
back to their homes under the waters
& drown. Until finally
the elders got fed up & told them–
these ancestors, these
not to come back except
as masks, as human dancers, & then
only at the proper times.

But one day in early March 1539
Marcos de Niza & Esteban de Dorantes
set out from Petetlán on the Rí­o Fuerte
where they leave Marcos’ only
white companion–a lay brother
known as Honoratio–
to convalesce from a sudden
mysterious ailment.
They explore northward along the coast
for the new viceroy
whose order of manumission
& a halt to slaving goes with them
like a parchment flag.

Since they left San Miguel de Culiacán
they’ve passed through a famished land.
In the river valleys the fields sprout weeds,
the irrigation ditches are blocked
with debris, the ghost towns only now
echoing with voices once again
as the news of their arrival spreads.
Armies & epidemics have rendered
some valleys in this northern cusp
of the Spanish realm uninhabitable,
so overpowering is the stench
of rotting flesh. From their brush-
walled huts in the hills, eyes bulging
in hunger-shrunk heads, the survivors
emerge. One last time
they assume their role in the game
of guest-&-host. Strangers, like all
dangerous beings, must be fed.


Petetlán on the Rí­o Fuerte: My primary guide to the route and details of the Marcos/Esteban decubrimiento is the historical anthropologist Daniel T. Reff’s revisionist paper “Anthropological Analysis of Exploration Texts: Cultural Discourse and the Ethnological Import of Fray Marcos de Niza’s Journey to Cibola,” American Anthropologist 93:636-55 (1991). See also his book of the same year, Disease, Depopulation, and Culture Change in Northwestern New Spain, 1518-1764 (University of Utah Press).

Cibola 14

This entry is part 14 of 119 in the series Cibola


Beginnings (cont’d)

But the dark-skinned one is not a stranger here.
Three years have passed since his first visit,
the most famous of four medicine men
who were said to have come straight
from the Sun, His daybreak house.

Eight years among Indians, living in
, had taught them well: Esteban
& his companions knew how to make
an impression. But when they called
themselves by the dread word, here
in the soon-to-be province of Nueva
Galicia, their hosts trembled.
Cristianos had come to mean slavers,
metal-clad horsemen of apocalypse.

How could these four be cross-wielders?
They laid hands on people solely to heal,
refused all offers of payment.

The Black Shaman had sat apart
from the others as a war chief might,
though his words were never few.
Through him flowed power
that the oldest of the four guarded
like an underground lake. Together
they sought to show that the cross
could be used in more ways
than one, putting a stop to soul-
stealing by those who killed
& kidnapped under its protection.
Esteban had talked the elders down
from their mountain redoubts
for a diplomatic parlay, & Cabeza
de Vaca extracted a vow of peace
from the abominable Nuño
de Guzmán. And Guzmán indeed
waited a month or two
before sending his son to resume
their terror campaigns.

But now he’s come back, this man of power.
Bringing hundreds of native sons
& daughters, just released
from captivity in far-off Mexico.
And with him also this time
a holy man, a priest, whose headship
& hesitant way of talking
attract many who distrust
the other’s charisma.


the dark-skinned one: Esteban is described by Cabeza de Vaca as “negro alárabe, natural de Azamor.” The latest word on his origin and likely ethnicity (Sahelian rather than Berber) may be found on pages 414-422 of Volume 2 of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca: His Account, His Life, and the Expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez, by Rolena Adolfo and Patrick Charles Pautz (University of Nebraska Press, 1999). They make a good case for interpreting “negro alárabe” as “an Arabic-speaking Black.” (For the purposes of this poem, I assume a Malian ancestry, which is highly plausible given the nature of the trans-Saharan slave trade in Morocco at that time.)

But would Indians necessarily have thought of Esteban as “black”? What would it mean if they did? For indigenous peoples of this region – Mesoamerica and the greater Southwest – red (or sometimes white) and black were sacred colors representing complementary, dual principles of the cosmos. My contention here and throughout the poem is that, since Esteban had become so acculturated and so adept a shaman, the color of his skin would have been seen as similar to, or symbolic of, the black dye or stain that many Indians applied to themselves when seeking power from the more dangerous, disorderly, male principle of the cosmos.

Cibola 15

This entry is part 15 of 119 in the series Cibola


Beginnings (conclusion)

Every day a new feast: venison,
bread made from mesquite flour,
wild tepary beans. Roadside shelters
are strewn with a riot of blossoms
from the freshly watered desert,
no less miraculous for being
an annual event. Stick figures
balloon with sudden blessing,
a haze of green. Marcos preaches
honey from the rock, oil from
the flint-hard ground, & the ragged
survivors kneel at the foot of
the cross. The strongest medicine
always belongs to the enemy.
Marcos & his Indian oblates
can’t perform enough masses.

By the end of March they’re traveling
through lands no Christian before them
has reached–& despite the no-doubt
terrible rumors, they still find
a welcome. It may be
that the story of the Four
has taken wing. And these two
with their sharply divergent looks
& ways are a new marvel,
go together as day follows night.


honey from the rock, oil from the flint-hard ground: Deuteronomy 32:13

Marcos and his Indian oblates: For the purpose of the poem, I imagine Marcos traveling in the company of two Indian oblates, donados given to the Franciscan order at an early age to be trained as friars (which there was still, in 1539, every reason to believe would soon be possible for Indians). In fact, one contemporary source does refer consistently to Marcos as one of three priests on the journey to Cibola, so my supposition is not entirely unwarranted.

Cibola 16

This entry is part 16 of 119 in the series Cibola


Reader (2)

Tied in sacks they brought us, in the camel bags,
And they sold us in the wool market.
May God pardon them.

(translated by Paul Bowles)


Who of the desert has not spent his day riding at a mountain and never even
reaching its base? This is a land of illusions and thin air. The vision is so
cleared at times that the truth itself is deceptive.

The Desert: Further Studies in Natural Appearances


Where one mountain sits on top of another
we turn the basket upside down
and sing a holy song.

We are in great peace.
We are in great peace.

It is not true
but it will confuse our enemies,
and none can sing the dead back again.

“Navajo Song”


The mountains move and fly away.

AL-QUR’AN 52:10
(translation by Ahmed Ali)

Cibola 17

This entry is part 17 of 119 in the series Cibola


Esteban (1)

At dawn the long-limbed shadow
that all night had blocked a northern
slice of stars

takes on color, changing minute
by minute from black to indigo,
from indigo to ochre,
from ochre to flaming red.
Takes on a kind
of substance, part earth,
part sky: a middle term
without which either side remains
irreducibly apart.

Even in the heat of noon–he muses,
watching the camp come to life–
these desert mountains remain
in a semi-liquid state.
More than mere mirage
or bank of cloud: something
none of the languages he’s learned
can quite encompass.
A substance perhaps closest
to quicksilver, which the alchemists
personify as Mercury,
messenger of the gods.

Or like molten glass:
not much of a stretch, considering
how the mountains resolve
into frozen layers of sand
at one’s approach. He recalls
the view from the slave
quarters in Azemmour,
how the distant hills
hung in the southeast
like the shadow of a smile
on the lips of a not-yet lover.
If mountains didn’t exist,
Esteban starts to murmur–

& breaks off, a sudden recollection
rising into view. When
had his mother ever
mentioned mountains? In all
the boundless lands south
of the Sea of Sand–where mountainous
islands made fortresses, bandit
lairs for the Blue People–
nowhere in that vast savanna
can he remember hearing
the tiniest
rumor of sierras. Tales
of mighty trees, yes–
some fat enough, if hollow, to house
an entire flock of goats, others
with crowns that shaded villages,
tasted the clouds.
But the biggest of trees can’t give refuge
to a persecuted people.

(To be continued)

none of the languages he’s learned: Cabeza de Vaca makes it clear that Esteban had served as the main translator for the Four, though evidently they were all fluent in Native American sign language. This, combined with the obvious fact that Esteban probably grew up trilingual in the Portuguese colony of Azemmour and would have learned Castillian after being sold to the Spanish, influenced my portrayal of him as proficient in many languages.

Sea of Sand: The literal meaning of “Sahara” in Arabic.

the Blue People: The desert-dwelling, nomadic Tuareg, so called because of their distinctive, deep blue robes.

some fat enough, if hollow: This is no exaggeration – some baobab trees do grow that big!

others with crowns that shaded villages: This is a reference to the kapok tree, revered as a representation or hypostasis of the mythic world-tree in parts of both Africa and Mesoamerica, where the species is known as ceiba.

Cibola 18

This entry is part 18 of 119 in the series Cibola


Esteban (1) (cont’d)

Men repair straps, tighten tumplines.
The women bend to their grinding
of the day’s cornmeal,
casting a hurried handful on
the sun’s road. Esteban stirs
the dead ashes with his finger:
thirteen days since Marcos
sent me on ahead: this must already be
the 37th day of Lent.
Maundy Thursday.

An unbidden vision of the viceroy
in all his robes & ruffles making
a show of doffing his hat,
cradling the foot of one
symbolic beggar in
his soft white hands,
scattering a few drops of rosewater
on the already scrubbed
& perfumed skin,
while an obsequious Minister
Provincial of the Order
of Friars Minor
crouches at his side.
Holding up a gilded bowl
to guard the carpet.

His face must show it:
the women nearest him
have paused at their metates, eyes
large with concern.
“It’s nothing,” he says,
making the sign for memories.
Then smiling he chants
the hymn for Holy Thursday:
Pange, lingua, gloriosi corporis
mysterium . . .

The plainsong–or his half-serious
version of it–brings him
back to the present.
This cloudless dawn, worth more
than any reverie. These mountains.
Sing, my tongue, the glorious
body’s mystery . . .


the foot of one symbolic beggar: Mutual foot-washing was a prominent part of the traditional celebration of Maundy Thursday, and Western European rulers used to participate in the manner described.

Minister Provincial of the Order of Friars Minor: The head of the Franciscan order for New Spain, the position that Marcos de Niza would subsequently assume, after his return from “Cibola.”

Cibola 19

This entry is part 19 of 119 in the series Cibola


Esteban (1) (cont’d)

Single-file they set out
through the scrub: no choice
but to keep to the narrow road
in this wilderness where everything
wears a thorn. Only up
in the hills can they range
more widely, rambling
through the open woods
that match the image he carries in his head
based on his mother’s stories
of the African savanna.
Outlaws & sorcerers, wild beasts
& other famished beings
make their homes in the bush:
that’s why the people keep
to their towns, risking slave raids
by impoverished kings.
As far
as he can figure, the highest
points of earth throughout
his mother’s country
must have been the termite mounds.
That’s where the strongest prayers
were aimed, it seemed–
where the oracles most often preached
the saving blood of roosters.
If mountains didn’t exist . . .

Shouts from the vanguard:
some sharp-eyed hunter
has shot a quail where she sat
motionless on her eggs
in the middle of a thicket:
prelude, he knows, to another
morning of killing, too casual
to call a hunt. These men know
how to fish for rabbits in their burrows
with sharpened sticks,
can run down any deer
so careless as to have left
its tracks in the road.
This he remembers from before,
this traveling light & trusting
in Whomever: the holy way.

Cibola 20

This entry is part 20 of 119 in the series Cibola


Esteban (1) (cont’d)

He’d met a palmer once who told him
that Mount Zion itself–Jacob’s ladder,
the zero point where three religions
intersect–that holiest
of holy spots, he said,
was nothing but a bump.
A little hiccup of earth, overtopped
by forests of minarets.

These mountains at least
don’t require a steady diet of blood
to keep their power: see
how godlike, how impossibly complete
their shifts from red
to brown
to blue–
like actors changing costume.
No, like sorcerers changing shape
with the turn
of an unmoored phrase–
man into jackal, jackal into termite mound–
or rock, or colorful comb
for some maiden to find & carry
home in her hair.
                            The bread
& butter of marabouts, those stories.
La illaha illa’llah might be the All in-
All, but human ears
still crave a bit of spice.

Though Esteban, having read Avicenna
& Plotinus, Maimonides & Dionysius,
neither believes nor disavows
such wonders.
Three years ago he would’ve
owned himself a mystic,
firm in his faith.
Then Mexico:
tableaus of misery, cruelty,
sickness in every shape
& his New World visions faded.
Though he persisted there
as a curandero, the medicine gourd
& his heart-felt songs & prayers
had little effect. In every corner
of New Spain the Indians kept dying.
He felt again like the child
on the beach at Azemmour
learning his letters, scrawling
the lines of holy script
over & over for the waves
to erase. Let the ocean redeem
your imperfect words
his teacher’s favorite saying–
the one quarter of Creation
that was never cursed.


a palmer: A pilgrim to the Holy Land.

with the turn of an unmoored phrase: One of the distinguishing features of magical speech in West Africa (and elsewhere) is a sense of complete non sequitor. As a performative speech act, a charm or spell should never assume the quality of rote recitation. As with an effective prayer or curse, every syllable must carry the speaker’s full intention.

marabouts: The West African term for dervishes of various orders, who served a variety of social roles: entertainers, diviners, scribes and missionaries for Islam. (Below, I imagine Esteban having had a marabout for a teacher as a child.)

La illaha illa’llah: The pervasive Muslim confession of faith, “There is no God but God.”

having read Avicenna & Plotinus, Maimonides & Dionysius: In other words, having spent equal time studying the rationalists (Avicenna, Maimonides) and the mystics (Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysius).

Mexico: Then only the Valley of Mexico, dominated by Tenochtitlan, which became Mexico City – the capital of New Spain.

New World visions: The use of the term “New World” (Nuevo Mundo) carried a strong teleological flavor at the time, and was controversial. The idealists viewed the Americas as something of a blank slate whose inhabitants dwelt in pre-lapsarian innocence. According to this view, Spain’s divinely ordained mission was to lead the Indians in the construction of a Christian utopia. Cabeza de Vaca was an especially strong exponent of this view, so it’s reasonable to suppose that Esteban shared his enthusiasm, at least for a time.

curandero: A healer. The term is still widely used in Latin America to denote a Native or mestizo healer, though contemporary evangelical Christians and some devout Catholics may scorn curanderos (other than strict faith healers) as practitioners of witchcraft.

medicine gourd: A small gourd rattle, a prominent implement of African and Native American healers alike in the 16th century (and down to the present day). Esteban’s gourd rattle is described in some detail in contemporary sources.

the one quarter of Creation that was never cursed: I.e., by the Biblical Flood. This belief seems to have influenced the ancient use of a fish symbol for the Son of God.