Cibola 21

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This entry is part 21 of 119 in the series Cibola


Esteban (1) (cont’d)

He studied Aztec medicine
at Motolinia’s school
across the lake in Texcoco,
learning plants–each one filling
a page with its name alone.
The spellings, he found, were archaic
even to native speakers, translations
told him nothing. In half a year
he just made it past the threshold–
& quit in disgust.

Once deciphered, their skeins
of dead metaphors turned out
to be cunning traps, snares set
for the heart-breath of a patient.
Of a piece with the half-
demolished temples, the deposed
aristocrats nourishing
dreams of reconquest, priests
deprived of their diets of blood
whispering bloody apocalypse.
The peaks ringing the Valley of Mexico’s
beggared bowl reminded him
of nothing so much as
an old man’s ragged teeth.

If mountains didn’t exist,
people would conjure them up:
the need is too great.

Gods give blessings, people feed the gods–
when, at what place
was that ever enough? At Sinai
the universe convulsed into
a singular
No: the strongest,
the most unknowable of words.

And behold, this flame became a tongue,
said to Moses: Don’t use my name
with this, you bastard,
you murdering slave.


Motolinia’s school: Toribio de Benevente Motolinia was one of the first twelve Franciscans to arrive in Mexico. The religious school he established in Texcoco included instruction in the Nahuatl language almost solely for missionary purposes.

skeins of dead metaphors: Esteban is conflating names with spells – a not unreasonable association, given how many spells take the form of an elaborate naming/praising/summoning of the being whose power is invoked. Many Nahuatl incantations were collected and translated by Ruiz de Alarcón in the early 17th century, and have been re-translated into English by J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hartig (Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions That Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain, 1639, University of Oklahoma Press, 1984).

Don’t use my name with this, you bastard, you murdering slave: Combining the sense of Exodus 3:14 with the import of Exodus 4:24, where God’s mysterious attempt to kill Moses as he re-entered Egypt has been most plausibly explained as a response to the bloodguilt incurred by the act of manslaughter that precipitated Moses’ original flight from Egypt.

Cibola 22

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This entry is part 22 of 119 in the series Cibola


Esteban (1) (conclusion)

But the Franciscans & their ilk persist
in praying to an idol, a stern-yet-loving
Father Superior. They style themselves
apostles reincarnate, preaching holy poverty
to the dispossessed. Just like
his step-father the slave trader
piously calling himself a slave
of God
. A man who could tear
a child from his mother’s breast,
could keep for a wife
a woman worth
one camel-load of salt.

He spits.
The sand shifts, uncovers the shadow
of a claw, a whip-like tail.
In a land this full of heat & mirage
how much life, how much of reality
moves underground!

Then again–he answers himself–
how much of reality could anyone take
if part of it weren’t concealed?

This is the voice he hears
most often now: Rationem,
a ceaseless shadow-play of judgements.
Evenly pitched, like the drip from
a water clock. Though at times
he feels a pounding at
his temples, as if
from some belligerent emissary
of the Spaniard’s Lord, disinclined
to try & bend his ear. He pictures

nothing so substantial as
a creature with wings, coming
down to perch
on his right shoulder.

Or maybe the left, he mutters
with a shrug. A jinn can take
any shape.
These mountains move.


apostles reincarnate: The first missionaries admitted to New Spain, a year after the conquest of Tenochtitlan, were twelve friars, selected for their alleged resemblance in humility and poverty to Christ’s twelve apostles.

Rationem: The Latin word seems more suggestive here than the English “reason.”

A jinn: The jinni in Islamic belief are not fallen angels, but anthropomorphic beings created before humanity “from a smokeless flame of fire” (Qur’an 15:27, 55:15). According to the hadith (sayings of the Prophet), every human being has a companion jinn who acts as a tempter, but jinni can be tamed and even converted to Islam. Among Islamicized West Africans (including the descendents of former slaves in Morocco), non-Muslim gods and ancestral spirits are typically “converted” into jinni in order to continue invoking their powers, for good or ill.

These mountains move: Cf. Matthew 17:20, 1 Corinthians 13:2.

Cibola 23

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 23 of 119 in the series Cibola


Reader (3)

Yo envié á Fra. Márcos de Niza, sacerdote, fraile, presbí­tero y religioso y en
toda virtud y religion tal, que . . . fué aprobado y habido por idoneo y suficiente
para hacer esta jornada y descubrimiento, así­ por la suficiencia arriba dicha de
su persona, como por ser doctor, no solamente en la teologí­a, pero aun en la
cosmografí­a, en el arte de la mar . . .

( I sent Brother Mark of Nice, priest, friar, elder and avowed religious, and
in all virtues and religion [being] such, that . . . he was approved and judged
competent and capable to undertake this journey and [mission of] discovery,
both for the aforesaid sufficiency of his person, as well as for being learned, not
only in theology, but also in cosmography, in the art of the sea . . . )

FRA. ANTONIO DE CIUDAD-RODRIGO, Minister Provincial for New Spain of the Order of St. Francis (Certification attached to Marcos de Niza’s


I council, admonish, and beg my brothers that, when they travel about the
world, they should not be quarrelsome, dispute with others, or criticize others,
but rather should be gentle, peaceful and unassuming, courteous and humble,
speaking respectfully to all as is fitting. They must not ride on horseback unless
forced to do so by obvious necessity or illness. Whatever house they enter, they
are first to say, “Peace to this house.” According to the holy gospel they can eat
whatever food is set before them.

Rule of 1223 (translation by David Burr)


Hay que andar los caminos
por lí­neas de poder
pues cuentan los destinos
que el mundo es una red

(We must walk the roads
by lines of power
for destinations reveal
that the world is a net)

“Eclipse Mexicano” (translation by John Oliver Simon)

Cibola 24

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This entry is part 24 of 119 in the series Cibola


Marcos (1)

At midday, looking down from the hills,
you’d barely be able to spot a solitary
figure walking the desert road,
especially one with a robe the color
of mud. But at sunrise, his shadow
marks him like a gnomon. It stretches
far to the west, ripples through clumps
of ironwood & tree cacti, spans
canyons. Someone with keen vision
might even be able to read, in its slight
hesitations and headlong plunges,
something of the cast
of this stranger’s mind.
                                       Or so
Marcos thinks, suddenly self-conscious.

But this new routine works better
than he would’ve thought. His request
to be left alone after breaking camp
for a kind of walking prayer–
balancing matins with the need
to make progress before the heat
forces a halt–has increased
his stature among the Indians
still further. Not a bad shield
against whatever perils might lie
ahead, he muses.
Though in the long run
I’m in far greater danger
from the loss of humility: how
to imitate St. Francis when
the simple villagers crowd in
to finger my habit, eyes shining
with something akin to faith–except
for their perfect ignorance of Christ?

(to be continued)

Cibola 25

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 25 of 119 in the series Cibola


Marcos (1) (cont’d)

The friar’s memories are already
an old man’s memories, farsighted,
graceful in flight for all their ugliness,
returning on weather-tested pinions
to circle some distant spot,
the same carrion

that back in the dripping
forest of the Nicarao would’ve
melted from the bones inside
a week. Here in the parched North
he feels closer

to the high tablelands of Peru, where
a carcass could lie out
for years–the sun coming
day after day to curl around it–
& lose nothing but the coins on its eyes
to some marauding packrat.

he’ll write in his official account,
but this morning the so-called desert
seems too full for words. He knows
he has only to shut his eyes for more
than six seconds (he counts down

like a professional dreamer descending
the rungs of sleep) to see
again the blood-soaked bodies
stacked like kindling, hear
the hair-raising wails, the laughter
of all those so-called Christians–
Gil Gonzalez’s men–lacking
only pitchforks to make them
spitting images of the devils
in some carnival troupe,
such glee they took
tossing babies onto bayonets,
with such nonchalance
slicing off a hand, a nose, a nursing
& blood conjoined in
a single fountain–

just to test the temper of the blade, they said,

& waxing indignant if the friar persisted
with his mild reproachful queries.
They’d kill us all, these curséd devils,
if we didn’t put the fear of God in them.


back in the dripping forest of the Nicarao: Most of what I’ve written here about the friar’s early career is speculation; there is disagreement about whether his first sojourn in the Americas was in what is now Nicaragua, or Guatemala. It is known that he traveled from the latter location to Peru, where he described some of the horrors of the conquest, in similar terms to what I’ve written here, in a letter published by Las Casas in his Short History of the Destruction of the Indies. Marcos’s broad experience as a traveler in the New World was one of the main factors cited by the Minister Provincial in his selection for a scouting expedition to the Seven Cities (see Reader (3)).

Despoblados: “Unpopulated areas,” i.e. deserts (desiertos).

Gil Gonzalez: The conquistator D’Avila.

Cibola 26

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This entry is part 26 of 119 in the series Cibola


Marcos (1) (cont’d)

But today it’s another,
an older ghost that dogs him:
his first convert in the Indies,
the one he baptized Francisco, trailing
a half-pace behind, right foot dragging–
that queer, quick shuffle. Marcos
fights the urge to turn & look.

It comforts him a little to observe
that the anger, the blasphemous
promptings he used to choke back
so often in this man’s company
no longer play hob with his digestion.
Perhaps one day by the grace of God
he’d achieve that firmness
that comes to some with age. How
he’d admired the farmers
in his childhood parish in Provence
who grew to resemble the granite
they spent their lives unearthing,

year by year patiently picking
at their fields, the way
pox victims with untied hands
keep raking their bloody skin.
Whole churches rose on stones
that stopped the plow.

Cibola 27

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 27 of 119 in the series Cibola


Marcos (1) (cont’d)

He prays.

Breathe into me, Holy Spirit,
that all my thoughts may be holy.

Move in me, Holy Spirit,
that my work, too, may be holy.

Attract my heart, Holy Spirit,
that I may love only what is holy.

Strengthen me, Holy Spirit,
that I may defend all that is holy.

Protect me, Holy Spirit,
that I may always be holy.

Holy. Sanctus. Such a gentle
coolness in that word!
A sweetness–
so testified our Seraphic Father,
whom God had taught through lepers
to love this pestilent world.
As in the famous riddle, impossible
to solve without inspiration:
Out of the eater came something to eat;
out of the strong came something sweet.

Though at the moment Marcos identifies
less with Samson than with
the dead lion, his braincage abuzz,

recalling how that other Francisco–
this one, nipping at his heels–used
to grin. Sycophantic, he’d thought
at first, & later as the sickness
culled by twos and threes the entire
rest of his flock, the two of them
reduced to digging communal graves
& saying masses for seven souls at a time,
he watched Francisco’s smile harden,
turn brittle. Just shy of a smirk–
more like the canine-baring grimace
of a shepherd’s dog facing down
some famished predator.


Breathe into me . . . holy. Throughout the poem, I reproduce the modern, Vatican-approved English versions of Marcos’ prayers, rather than attempting my own translations (or simply reproducing the Latin).

our Seraphic Father: St. Francis. His experience in a leper colony was pivotal to his conversion.

the famous riddle: See Judges 14:14 and preceding. (The answer was, “the corpse of a lion taken over by honeybees for a hive.”)

the dead lion: Cf. Ecclesiastes 9:4.

Cibola 28

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
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.

Cibola 29

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
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.

Cibola 30

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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.