From my volume of Mesoamerican verse, Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry (Lamar University Press 2013). This poem is the first in a collection of Nahuatl songs known as the “Cantares Mexicanos” or Songs of Mexico written down by indigenous scholars in the 16th century. The original title of the piece is “Cuicapeuhcáyotl” or “song-beginning,” often rendered “the origin of the songs.” The reader should note that the Mexica and other Nahua tribes (now collectively known as the Aztecs) believed noble warriors would be reborn as hummingbirds or butterflies after death, spending eternity in the House of the Sun, a flowery paradise in the East.
Where Songs Begin
Where can I gather the sweet-smelling flowers?
Whom should I ask? Should I pester the hummingbird,
Jade-bright and swift? Or bother the butterflies
That flit like the feathers of fiery gold birds?
They have the lore—they know the places
Where the sweet-smelling flowers bloom beautiful.
Alone I will wander the piney woods,
The peaks where the tzinizcan nests;
I will drift through the florid mangrove swamps
Where the roseate spoonbills wade and fish.
There they bend, heavy with glittering dew:
There they blossom beautiful. Maybe
I will find them there. Show them to me
And I will gather them up in my tilma—
With flowers I will greet the princes,
With flowers I will please the lords.
Yes, this place is where they live:
I hear their flowery song, echoed
By the mountains, call and response.
Ah, the water falls from springs in plumes,
Flowing blue like cotinga wings.
The mockingbird with four hundred songs
Sends forth her calls and answers herself.
The melodies of myriad songbirds thrum
With the rattle of the red-winged blackbird—
Hymns of praise to the Lord of Creation
That flood my soul and fill my throat.
With a mournful groan I call to them.
“O you whom He loves, ignore my intrusion.”
They fall silent. A shimmering hummingbird asks,
“What are you looking for, Singer?”
“Where are some beautiful, sweet-smelling flowers
I can use to please your brothers-at-arms?”
A charm of the small birds chirps at me then:
“Follow us, Singer—we’ll show you the way.
Perhaps with these blossoms you’ll soon entertain
Those lordly warriors destined to join us.”
I am led to a valley, land of plenty,
Land of flowers. They stretch before me,
Heavy with glittering dew—acres and
Acres of precious, sweet-smelling blooms,
Clothed in misty prisms of light.
The hummingbirds sing, “Cut all you want.
Enjoy yourself, Singer! When you return,
Give them to our lordly comrades
Whose deeds delight the Lord of Creation.”
So I fill my tilma with fragrant flowers,
Pleasing the soul, spreading sweet bliss.
“I wish a friend had come with me:
Together we’d carry many more blooms.
But I know now the way. When I return,
I’ll share the news with your comrades and mine—
We’ll come here over and over, forever,
To gather the flowers, to learn every song,
And with them bring joy to our friends on earth:
Princely eagle and jaguar warriors.”
I, the Singer, gather all that I can.
I flower-crown princes, put blooms in their hands.
From my lips the new songs slip:
I lift my voice in praise of those warriors
Before the Lord of the Near and the Nigh.
But what of those He deems unworthy?
Where do they go to gather such blossoms?
Could an unworthy soul, wretched and sinful,
Follow me east to the House of the Sun,
To that flowery land of plenty? Only
The Lord of the Near and the Nigh decides—
He makes us worthy or not of those songs.
And so my heart begins to weep.
I, the Singer, remember my walk
Through Paradise and cry out in despair:
“This earth is not a good place.
Joy lies elsewhere. What use is the earth?
True life exists where we’re shorn of the flesh.
Let me go to that valley. Let my music mingle
With the song of those jade-bright birds.
Let me enjoy the precious flowers
That please the soul, that spread sweet joy,
Leaving me numb with delicious bliss.”