Prose on Uxmal
Donald WellmanAugust 13, 2006
From profound sources I have been led to believe that there is a resonance between aesthetic integrity and morality. Machines without souls or randomized constructions without the handprints of a creator haunt the modernistic landscape. Circumstantial evidence in support of coherence underwrites this credo, prizing alienation, morbidly, dispensing panaceas. Thrones de los Cantares! Hateful bigotry! The case of Ezra Pound argues against transcendent order. But at least he held to a prelapsarian faith in the power of goddesses. Nostalgia that produces fascism!
Lacking palpable metaphysical certainties, assume that serendipity generates coherences. The desire arises to subscribe to an epistemological poetics as do Charles Olson or Robert Creeley. Envisagement as discovery. Reading, in an active sense, constructs a world, becomes accountable for the facts and mechanics of seeing, embraces the apparatus, eye or pen. The glyph as fact of observation compelled Olson’s imagination when he explored Mayan culture. He observed the freedom with which teeth are displayed when smiling. So, for instance, “It is so very beautiful how animals human eyes are when the flesh is not worn so close it chokes” (“Human Universe” 57). He also remarks on a persistent deadness after 400 years of colonialism. “They are fucking unhappy. ... those sons of bitches, those ‘scholars’ –how they’ve cut that story out, to make the Mayan palatable to their fucking selves, foundations, & tourists” (“The Mayan Letters” 79-80). Quick to perceive the commodification of culture and yet clued to the solidity of forms cut in limestone. Wave patterns that mime scales, mouths that are flutes. “The fish is speech. Or see / what, cut / in stone / starts. ...” (“The Mayan Letters” 101). It is here that I find my poetics, adding also the knowledge that identity shifts as discourse (always an outside) warps the frame of local experience.
As prime function the Mayan calendar maps space, so Olson posits. The illiterate shaman addresses her book: Maria Sabina enacts a knowledge rooted in observation. Herman Melville is an architect of systems where evil attains its full, obsessional force. Susan Howe works gloss against gloss in “Melville’s Marginalia.” The Cantos too are fundamentally gloss, observations and notes, emendations, a diseased mind editing the cultural dictionary. Praise Leibniz, Voltaire and Webster (Thrones CIV 763). Seeing is all the weapon allowed in these negotiations. Reduce the cosmos to a vocabulary of squiggles, vortices, and zigzags. Adolfo Best-Maugard taught this method to hundreds of thousands of Mexican school children in the 1920s. In this manner, the Mexican muralists aspired to build a national consciousness.
One evening in July, seeking to understand the meaning of Mexico as a magical elsewhere for Beat authors like Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg, I was lead to translate Octavio Paz’s “En Uxmal.” I also re-read relevant correspondence between Creeley and Olson on Mayan archeology. “En Uxmal” inscribes an archaic non-linear coherence, a property that Latin American magical realism shares with Beat, anti-modernist social values. According to Daniel Belgad, both the Beats and Paz envisage Mexico as “the potential site of an alternative modernity” (31). Belgad addresses a synchronicity shared by these poets. He distinguishes between representations of Mexico as liminal or magical and the harsh facts of Mexican cultural history, a debate that is central to the rough feelings that arose when David Alfaro Siquieros accused Diego Rivera of indulging in “bourgeois mysticism” (see my poem Tepotzotlán” in the Oaxaca collection or the selection from that volume on line at There.
Presumptions about the sacred and profound mark Paz’s response more deeply than do physical facts; nonetheless, it is true, as Paz asserts, that in the “unblinking light ... the columns dance without moving” The second story friezes, balanced upon undecorated receding walls, create a perception of movement. Multiple figures of Chac weave over a ground of stonework patterned in imitation of reed mats and woven thatch. Reflecting an invasive influence, out of kilter with the rest, on the west side of the quadrangle, a superimposed cornice, heavily encrusted with twin serpent figures of Quetzalcoatl, Xul (or Mexican) style, submerges the clean-lines of the Puuc vocabulary. My poem cites both quotidian and magical realities. Not positioning myself in flight from consumerist or late-capitalist cultural facts, vision becomes enmeshed by past and present aspects of an unfolding reality. Facets in an overlay, not in polar opposition, perceptions constitutive of where we are.
On the architecture at Uxmal Olson writes “... the famous Uxmal, is altogether otherwise than you’d gather, from the literature I have seen the two famous buildings, for example (the Governor’s Palace and the Nun House), brilliant architecture & engineering as they may be, are aesthetically dead ...the Maya had become state lovers ....” (Olson/Creeley Correspondence, Vol. 5, 1932). For Octavio Paz, in contrast, Uxmal is a living and transparent temple, not the heavy thing that Olson finds it to be. My visit to Uxmal, the subject of a poem in my Diario mexicano, reads the mythology of the serpent against the physical form of the Nuns’ quadrangle when the walls are illuminated, emblazoning the commodified spectacle that Olson feared. For me the imbrication of the sacred and the physical is not in the stone. It is in the perception. Olson hunts back into archaic time on the track of vestigial knowledge. Paz is stunned by experiential transparency. Bryant Knox writes that Uxmal is the model for the central quadrangle at Simon Fraser in Burnaby, British Columbia, designed by Arthur Erickson (35). The visual experience of that structure may be alienating, as Knox suggests. But not viscerally so. To sit briefly in the cells at Uxmal where the women were fattened and pleasured before their sacrifice is to perceive a frightening, but sacred reality. Forms of death and bloodshed as horrible as those that cause us to blench when looking at the corpses produced by modern terrorism, insurgency, counterinsurgency, car bombs and missile strikes. At Uxmal my morality and humanism seeks to justify matters more primal than I can comprehend. Quotidian news footage, even that from Lebanon today, is sanitized, commoditized, necessarily. Memories too horrible for words produce emaciated , drained, terrified beings. Do ruined temples hold curative instruction?
Both my “Uxmal” and my translation of Paz’s “En Uxmal” follow. Honoring the complex realities of indigenous experience, my moral desire is to resist the subjective longing for an elsewhere. Engaging the spiritual space that is alien to me, the poem “Valladolid” maps aspects of Mayan history as it affects contemporary identity.
Selected Works Cited
• Belgad, Daniel. “The Transnational Counterculture.” Reconstructing the Beats. Ed. Jennie Skerl. NY: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2004: 27-40.
• Knox, Bryant. “Following Charles Olson in the Yucatan.” Minutes of the Charles Olson Society 36/37 (Sept 200).Octavio Paz Donald Wellman, trans. EN UXMAL 1 LA PIEDRA DE LOS DÍAS El sol es tiempo; el tiempo, sol de piedra; la piedra, sangre. 2 MEDIODÍA La luz no parpadea, el tiempo se vacía de minutos, se ha detenido un pájaro en el aire. 3 MÁS TARDE Se despeña la luz, despiertan las columnas y, sin moverse, bailan. 4 PLENO SOL La hora es transparente: vemos, si es invisible el pájaro, el color de su canto. 5 RELIEVES La lluvia, pie danzante y largo pelo, el tobillo mordido por el rayo, desciende acompañada de tambores: abre los ojos el maíz, y crece. 6 SERPIENTE LABRADA SOBRE UN MURO El muro al sol respira, vibra, ondula, trozo de cielo vivo y tatuado: el hombre bebe sol, es agua, es tierra. Y sobre tanta vida la serpiente que lleva una cabeza entre las fauces: los dioses beben sangre, comen hombres. IN UXMAL 1 THE STONE OF THE DAYS Sun is time; time, sun of rock; stone, blood. 2 MID-DAY Light unblinking, time emptied of minutes, a bird has been stopped in the air. 3 LATER Light emissions, the columns awaken and, without moving, dance. 4 FULL SUN Time is transparent: if the bird is invisible, we see the color of its song. 5 RELIEFS The rain, dancing foot and long hair, the ankle bitten by the sunbeam, descends with drums: the corn opens its eyes and grows. 6 SERPENT CARVED ON A WALL The wall breathes with sun, hums, undulates, bit of sky, alive and tattooed: man drinks the sun, is water, is earth. And on all this the serpent lives who carries a head in its jaws: the gods drink blood, eat men. Donald Wellman Uxmal Two times to Uxmal, its dovecote and macaw’s roost, impossibly recursive. On the first return, unexpected confidence in my abilities to navigate: jarring topes in the road. Identity papers, passport and the required foleta de migración turística, mislaid, not where I expected to find them on my return to my room, compromised self, panic at the old year’s end. No magical purpose at work here or in the recovery. Near noon, I had been splayed on a high platform for a sun god’s inspection, exposed post-operative on offer. On the lawn of the palace, jewel box of ancient authority, children played at jaguar and diviner. From my perch I examined the bedrooms where girls feted before sacrifice. Fields and shrub forests in the distance, remarkably green toward the north coast. Do they burn the earth to destroy the thorn bushes, potentilla fruticosa, morning glory, red darts from a fennel where I had wandered into uncharted ruins? Descending the ninety-nine stairs, a small incautious boy tottered on the brink of a well. I called out, “¡Cuidado!” Happily, he did not fall. I acquired a guidebook to Mayan ruins with reprints of drawings by Catherwood and daguerreotypes by Charnay. Also a puppet, with an arm long sleeve, wearing typical yucateca costume. And a jipi. No great awakening in these details, only that my tourism seemed almost joyous, setting aside, for reasons of conscience, my status: consumer without identity in an impoverished land. At night, on the second return, error led me into Muná, known for workshops that specialize in reproductions. Museum security had recovered my papers from the floor of a stall where I had urinated, dislodging the passport from a waistband when extracting bills. With my papers restored, I was able to view the sound and light show, son et lumière, turning to my left (so often I take the long way around), assuming that on this night, naturally, I might be one of only a few there, gingerly stepping over grates that house flood lights, then turning, about face, to find myself on the opposite side of the quadrangle from the crowded stands on the north wall, “Chac, Chac” stereo prayers to end the drought. Quetzalcoatl, his form wound among the Puuc friezes, illuminated blue, then green. How can I explain that the serpent god has female aspects? Venus, Lucero? On this night, I had intended to meet my scorpion woman, my Shango, Santa Barbara. Endless New Year’s Eve dawning on a desolate balcony overlooking an empty plaza, supping on cream of cilantro soup, desiccated poc-chuk, the white carriages waiting to transport lovers to balls in mansions on Avenida Montejo. Excerpts from Diario mexicano on line at XCP: Streetnotes. Valladolid O, Valladolid of song, my refuge, famous for the inception of the Guerra de castas, purveyor of meats in pibil and honeyed calabaza Cumbias and dancing for all ages, every Sunday, in the jardín Deeply thankful to find access through an arco iris to the carpark. My projection alone that anyone was anxious at all. The revolution now underway occurs in the bellies of Mayan woman, pregnant multitudes, destined to reclaim the land. Children excited about the holidays, candies and incense, diminutive pastores, holding tinfoil crooks, cheered by coronets, triumphant angels, syrupy sweet drinks everywhere available, roast meats prepared on sidewalk grills. In Valladolid, I imagine world peace to be possible, seeing the many brides, horny bastard, I ask myself, is it so wrong that in these circumstances a priest embraces chastity? A transparently suffering, grandmother stepped cautiously over the threshold of the church, her hips bothering her, then a mother with bared breasts entered from the nursery garden. The women carry their bellies high on strong legs. Last year 1.5 million tourists visited the Yucatán whose population is 2 million. Three times as many women as men marry before the age of 18. 1,559 in 2004. Diario de Yucatán, 3 Enero 2005. The Spanish appreciated the proximity of the Yucatán to Cuba. Fisgono, the nosey waiter wants to know what I am writing. Garza, the imperial heron. Whose fantasy is Thalia or Pau, how not violate a child? the schoolgirls parading through the park? Even their mothers are children. Her sister walks with her between the carts and clowns, beggars and men with crinkly eyes. The fountain, a china doll in her misty elegance, a moment to catch the breath on the way home. The grandmother on the portico of San Bernardino does not turn to me or acknowledge my desire to talk. A story teller who wanders from tribe to tribe, I record the births and deaths of inevitably tangled lineages. The news I have has been heard before, an acceptance that originates in the long view of how determinative points intersect on the wheels turning within wheels. A cosmic rhythm sweeps through the dancing throng, some brown, one white with incisive eyes and a beard sculpted by VanDyk. Easily a swordsman in a past life. People of so many shapes and color that my instinct is to protect myself by merging continuously with disparate forms. Who will survive if the earth’s axis receives a knock, jarring it more significantly than did the Indian Ocean terremoto.?