Oaxacan Flânerie

This poetry cycle was originally published in the 2014 Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas.

The Streets of Oaxaca de Juárez

Along the banks of the Atoyac
the white spheres of guaje blooms
dip in humble welcome.
Ahead the city sprawls to vibrant life,
accreted in kludgy layers down the millennia,
wending willy-nilly across the valley floor.
Sweep down its narrow streets of stone and tar:
noise roils like a tangible cloud—music and horns
and shouts and the distant boom of mines
yielding only stubbornly the gold and silver
Cortés came to steal. Pungent smells curl round
and envelope: chocolate, chiles,
smoke, mescal, tropical blooms.

But the city of Benito Juárez is not buildings,
sound, aromas—the people smile and hug
and melodically speak of their wares,
their lives, their history. They are Oaxaca.
Artisans who carve many-hued alebrijes
to stave off nightmares, chocolatiers who
crush almonds and cinnamon and sugar
into the dark grains of cacao grounds,
vendors of stone replicas of Zapotec gods
and painted tin crosses and baskets,
jewelry, earthenware, worm salt,
grilled grasshoppers, bright blouses
and skirts and boots and belts….

The food. Divine. The seven mole sauces,
thick and nuanced. Tlayudas, piled high
with beans and meat and cheese.
Aguas frescas and nieves to stave off
the tropical heat. Black beans and tamales
redolent of exotic epazote and pitonia.
Deep draughts from bowls of aguamiel
or thick, brothy tejate, a meal in itself.

The sun sinks down the sky, silhouetting Fortin Hill
and Monte Albán against lurid mauve and pale blue.
If the city was vibrant during the day, the evening
starts it swirling. Down the cobbled streets
to the Zócalo, vast arbored square girded by
arched and spanned colonial structures,
flows a flood of music and dance and spectacle,
writhing and joyous. Zandungas and jarabes,
pirouetting chinas and prancing papier-mâché
calendas. Declaimed poetry, street theater,
human statues amid the throb of pre-Colombian beats.

Into the wee hours the revelry waxes and wanes
till for brief span all is quiescent under mother moon
and four hundred southern stars. Then, like a silent,
holy gift, the sun lifts golden plumes over the mountains,
illuminating the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption,
hewn from what seem living blocks of verdant cantera
for which the city is called la Verde Antequera,
a green that appears to bleed into the water,
threading up into the emerald foothills
of the Sierra Madre del Sur, past mighty Monte Albán,
sustained—the ancients say—by the lingering life-force
of the kind and gentle Zapotec princess Donají,
beheaded near the margins of the Atoyac River
when she sued her people’s enemies for peace.

 

Monte Albán

Beneath the clear, warm skies of southern Mexico,
our bus groans up the twisting single lane,
swerving nauseously close to sheer drops,
outstripping the urban sprawl that clings like lichen.
Then bright, loud Oaxaca falls away at last,
and the road wends soft and sinuous into lush woods.

We disembark, greeted by the calls of flocking vendors
and guides. My wife haggles the price of stone figurines
while I shop for hats to shield against the winter sun.
A short walk, and there before us spread the ruins—
a vast, majestic city erected two millennia ago
on a ridge flattened by Zapotec hands.

Ambling past the ball court where players once
used hips and yokes to fling rubber spheres
through stone rings, we descend into the plaza,
a vast green field lined by palaces and temples.
Awestruck, I whisper of thick throngs that teemed
in these broad, grassy avenues—bustling markets.

Southward sits an altar, partly recessed. We imagine
lying there, awaiting the sacrificial knife, blue-spangled
heavens looming in welcome. Beyond the temple
stands the observatory, cater-cornered jarringly
in violation of the religious regularity of the site,
oriented to the higher science of the stars.

In the shadow of the towering South Platform,
we curve northward, passing the Danzantes,
those contortionists carved into stone whose dance
is in truth the final, frantic throes of death.
We rest on stone benches, beneath the broad boughs
of trees, and look upon the palaces with sober eyes.

Then up the steep steps of the North Platform to stare
down into the Sunken Patio and its obscure altar, place
of hidden rites, climbing higher, mounting the ziggurat
to gaze trembling at the massive expanse of white and
gray stone against emerald, once home to tens of thousands,
master of leagues and leagues of land. Now empty. Silent.

From the mists of the past, a blood-curdling scream rings out.
I shudder and turn to see my son standing between two plinths,
arms outstretched, head lolling, transfixed against the heavens.
Caught in the moment, I rush to his side. He winks and smiles.
“I’d make a good victim, wouldn’t I?” he quips. I force a laugh,
but I cannot help thinking of all the altars he may not escape.

 

From a Balcony above Santa Cruz Bay

Boats moored along a cobbled wharf,
Flashes of white and cornflower blue
Against a calm, dimpled green
Broken by the glassy wake
Of a tour that’s reached its end,
All ringed by buildings stuccoed pale
And topped with rusty clay,
Palm-wreathed and dappled bright.

To the west, the foothills of the Sierra Sur
Rise, thickly timbered: just a fleeting glimpse
At the shy road that coils silent,
Unobtrusive.

To the south, the bay—
Small strip of sand almost hidden
By vegetation, stippled with bodies
Like blobs of blurry color
That hint at a shape more distance
Will gradually reveal.

Jagging past into the deepening blue
Like a broad and holy path to the bosom
Of Chalchiuhtlicue, foam-flecked goddess
Of the depths, the wind-scoured pier sits
On sturdy cement pylons
Sunk into watery shadows.

Beyond, boats ply with stately calm
Waterways that hug jutting,
Wooded beachheads,
Growing smaller, more indistinct,
Less mechanical, unrecognizable
As they approach the vast Pacific,
Which stretches endlessly,
Shading mystical gray
Before becoming
Sky.

 

Prayer to a Mackerel Plucked from the Sea

Sleek, glistening, dark,
Meat compact beneath crystalline scales,
You are pulled into this boat
As the Pacific rocks us silent.

Forgive the deception, the bright colors
That drew you to the ineluctable bite of pain
Now fading in your mouth
As you start to die.

My children’s eyes are downcast—
They have not learned to face your awful, precious gift.
They do not see the honor in your moribund dance,
Unbearable honor that must be borne.

Behold their tears, salty drops
From that primal sea whence you and I
And all of us emerge at last, my brother,
To feast or be feasted upon.

So I tell them
To intone with me
This prayer
Of thanksgiving:

We take your life
So we may live.
Not out of greed
But so we may feed.
Not because we can
But because we must.

We see you, brother,
And honor your sacrifice
Without guiltless packaging—
We see you for what you are
And accept ourselves as well.

 

Snorkeling at la Entrega

water clear as untrammeled mountain lakes,
warm, embryonic, enfolding head and limbs,
only sound the ebb and flow of waves
(mother’s heartbeat thrumming through the world)
yes, and the raspy spit of even breath.

as the beach recedes, a cooler current—
what a cosmos opens there below!
darting luminescence, scales that gleam,
startling, eldritch hues that twist the mind,
spines and stars and undulating trees.

near the mouth of the bay, the Pacific verge,
caverns await, half submerged like traps.
enter like a pilgrim, humble and slow:
then the everlasting suck and surge—
mighty respiration of the sea.

 

Lunch at la Maguey

There’s a gazebo
of palm fronds and sturdy wood
on nearly white sand.
Waiter takes our mackerels,
promises four whole dishes.

We seize coconuts,
take deep draughts to quench the thirst
of hours on the sea.
Nearby, 80s tunes are sung
in samba-beat Portuguese.

The breeze has dried us
by the time they bring our food—
dark meat basted slow.
We remember our promises
and waste not a single bite.

Sated, we just watch
the turquoise waves lap the shore
like tongues of maguey,
sinking into the silence
of comfort and family.

 

Café Huatulco

In the center of Huatulco, near the bay,
Where picturesque and cobbled streets debouche,
Ensconced in shady trees that mask the quay,
A kiosk nestles, welcoming and hushed.

Come sit at rough-hewn tables and delight
In cups of liquid magic, shaman brew!
Such coffee masters taste and smell and sight—
It reaches deep and fills you, soul and thew.

Ah, whence the bean that gladdens tourists’ hearts?
Plantations in those mountains, green and cool,
That rise above the sea. The breeze imparts
Uncommon taste. Native hands work the soil.

The owners grind it fine and pour your cup,
Then raise their own in honest fellowship.

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