Where Songs Begin

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.

2

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.

3

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.”

4

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.”

5

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.”

6

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:

7

“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.”

—Translated by David Bowles, October 2012

Original Nahuatl text (drawn from John Bierhorst’s paleographic transcription):

3 Comments

  1. Dear David,

    A beautiful piece. So the orginal is not in lines. Was it classified as song, poetry, or prose? I wondered how you made decisions to put it in lines and how you decided where the line breaks would be. Quite an accomplishment, especially after looking at the original text. Did you study the language over time? Thanks for sharing. I’m always interested in the decisions translators make.

    • Thanks, Shirley. The original piece is definitely verse; it is part of a collection of songs, most of which were accompanied by dance, called in Spanish Cantares Mexicanos (Mexican Canticles/Songs). Though Bierhorst has chosen to transcribe the poem as you see in the images I included, you’ll note by the line ordering that the original didn’t run together this way. Even if some pieces in the original codex run the lines together, Náhuatl experts like Ángel María Garibay Kintana and Miguel León-Portilla would be able to determine the likely normal breaks using the norms of Aztec meter. Garibay’s Poesía náhuatl uses divisions similar to what I’ve proposed here. Stanza breaks beyond what the original text indicates are purely my creation and feel natural given shifts in tone or subject matter.

      By the way, though I have studied the rudiments of Náhuatl, I am far from conversant in the language. To craft this poem, I availed myself of the original text, Spanish/English transliterations of the poem, and several Náhuatl dictionaries (along with the small number of existing Spanish/English versions of the piece).

  2. Thanks, Shirley. The original piece is definitely verse; it is part of a collection of songs, most of which were accompanied by dance, called in Spanish Cantares Mexicanos (Mexican Canticles/Songs). Though Bierhorst has chosen to transcribe the poem as you see in the images I included, you’ll note by the line ordering that the original didn’t run together this way. Náhuatl expert Ángel María Garibay’s Poesía náhuatl uses divisions similar to what I’ve proposed here. Stanza breaks beyond what the original text indicates are purely my creation and feel natural given shifts in tone or subject matter.

    By the way, though I have studied Náhuatl, I am far from conversant in the language. To craft this poem, I availed myself of the original text, Spanish/English transliterations of the poem, and several Náhuatl dictionaries/grammars (along with the small number of existing Spanish/English versions of the piece).

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