Odd Sundays at Molly’s
20 November 2005
Thank you all for being here today.
I am here to introduce you to At the Edge of Obsidian, the second book to be published from my Oaxacan trilogy. The first book, Sun and Moon, which some of you already know, appeared in 2000. I began writing the second, At the Edge of Obsidian in 2001 and it has taken me four years to complete. The third book in the trilogy, tentatively entitled Obsidian 22, is under final revision and will probably be published in 2006.
Why obsidian? I have been asked this question on many occasions. Quite simply, obsidian is the black volcanic stone from which the Aztecs made their sacrificial knives. It is a symbol of violent death and all of us stand at the edge of obsidian, for all of us are faced ultimately by a similar fate, whether it be violent at the hands of the priests at the top of an Aztec temple, violent by bomb blast at the hands of terrorists in the street, surgical at the hands of a doctor in the hospital ward, or peaceful, in the quiet of our own homes. For me death, personal death, is the last great adventure. At the Edge of Obsidian reflects then on that death which is ever–present, especially on the streets of Oaxaca, where the dead walk at night and are welcomed into people’s homes and fed annually on the day of the dead.
In fact, At the Edge of Obsidian is dedicated to absent friends and I would like to introduce some of them to you. First, María del Carmen Paz Méndez who passed away in Oaxaca just last year. She was a good friend, and several people in this room knew her personally. There are other names I would like to recall: Evelyn Sweezey worked in the Registrar’s Office at St. Thomas and was in charge of High School Relations; Fenton Burke was in the English Department at STU; Jurgen Doerr taught History at St. Thomas; Richard Costello was a St. Thomas Anthropology professor. These were all good friends of mine and their memory lies strong within me. To them should be added the name of Oscar Brown, from the STU Philosophy Department, who died just last week. All of them left early, perishing before their time; yet, when the time comes to perish, that is always the time, your time, my time, and nobody else’s. I would like to remember these people now and I would like you to take just a moment to reflect on the loved ones, in your own lives, who have moved on.
Death is not sad, except for the survivors. It must not be passed over. We must look death in the face and accept it for what it is. Nor must we rewrite history and pretend these things have not happened. But history has been rewritten, can be rewritten, and unfortunately will continue to be rewritten.
He told me to read,
and plucked my left eye from its orbit;
he slashed the glowing globe of the other.
Knowledge leaked out: loose threads dangling,
the reverse side of a tapestry.
He told me to speak,
and squeezed dry dust between my teeth.
I spouted a diet of Catechism and Confession.
He emptied my mind of poetry and history.
He destroyed the myths of my people.
He filled me with fantasies from a far off land.
I live in a desert where people die of thirst,
yet he talked to me of men walking on water.
On all sides, as stubborn as stucco,
the prison walls listened, and learned.
I counted the years with feeble scratches:
one, four, two, three;
for an hour, each day, the sun shone on my face;
for an hour, at night, the moon kept me company.
Broken worlds lay shattered inside me.
Dust gathered in my people's dictionary.
My heart was a weathered stone
withering within my chest.
It longed for the witch doctor's magic,
for the healing slash of wind and rain.
The Inquisitor told me to write out our history:
I wrote how his church had come to save us.
It’s easy, really, to rewrite history. Most of us do it all the time, exaggerating our abilities here, disguising our failures over there. You get up one morning, and the world has changed. Just think of that egg you sacrificed for breakfast: was it really a breakfast egg or did you rewrite history?
Yesterday, I sacrificed a chicken.
Unborn, it lay within its calcium cocoon, dormant,
a volcano sleeping deep beneath thick snow.
Tap, tap tap: the silver spoon bounces off the ovoid head.
Suddenly, there is a crack, and a spurt of orange blood.
Today, I tap with my silver spoon on the grateful
grapefruit’s papal skull to see
if the fruit is actually dead.
Silence. There is no movement
within the honeyed comb of pith and cell.
High in the church tower, a hammer blow
falls on an echoing anvil.
The cracked bell lurches into speech.
Rooster crows his thick rich cocoa rico:
blackened torsos and fire-roasted beans.
Squeezed orange, racked by the inquisitioner,
its pale yellow robe spent and exhausted;
wasted disc of a worn-out, decadent moon.
What lantern throws wasted life across a tabloid sky?
Naturaleza muerta: the orange expiring on the table,
its carcass still sticky, its life blood a sacrifice:
thick, rich, golden liquid, as fierce and sweet
as sunshine on a branch.
Tabled motion: my hand reaches out.
Arthritic fingers clasp, but cannot hold
the iced fruit juice.
Grasshoppers fried in garlic no longer make me squirm.
The tequila’s wrinkled worm tickles my fancy.
Mescal is often necessary at this time of day.
Change is everywhere and our world is changing around us; sometimes it changes so fast we can hardly grasp it. We can hardly hang on to the roundabout as it swirls us around. How can we hold onto our personal worlds? Well, here’s one way which I strongly recommend. It's called Crazy Glue.
Yesterday, I got lost in the mirror. I know how to swim, but I would have drowned, except the light was too shallow and my feet touched bottom when I let the wheels down. I swam on and in looking for a deserted island on which to build idle sand castle dreams. Two people said they saw my reflection swimming like a goldfish in the silver of that secret space. They said I stared back out at them with circles of longing ringing my eyes; but I laughed when they said they had seen me, for when I looked in the mirror this morning to shave, I just wasn't there. My razor dragged itself over an empty space and its sharpened blade scraped white music from the margin of a cd rom that spun on edge like dust rings round a vanished planet. Now there is a black hole where my passport photo used to thrive. Someone plucked me from the circle and cut me out in the dance last night. And now I'm looking for a scrap book into which I can stick myself with crazy glue that can never, never, never, come undone.
It’s strange how the lies of time can come unstuck around us. We write, we perform, but we can never be sure that what we see in the mirror is what others see when they look in. As Robert Burns once wrote: “Ah would some power the giftie gie us / to see ourselves as others see us.” But can we even trust our memories of what we did, exactly, of what we said, exactly? More, can we even know whether what we think we said was what our nieghbour thinks she heard us say? How accurate are our memories?
Last summer’s leaves are locked in ice.
Sun-warmed at the edges,
they outline themselves:
fragile patterns frilled against thin snow.
I have forgotten how to walk in the woods.
I have forgotten how the dead
leaves separate from the trees and tumble
earthwards in their longing to be free.
Silence of frost:
excrescence of icicles
thrusting crystal tongues upwards,
speaking fragmented words
from earth’s deep bowels.
Frail old men, huddle in wool blankets.
Each face: a note book seamed with memories.
This brisk sun wrinkles their haunted visages,
tattoos them like their ancestors:
Ocho Venado / Eight Deer, painted on a restaurant wall
(but in their ignorance, they have drawn Nine Wind)!
Cuáthemoc a hero on a hunded peso bill
(but have they forgotten how Hernando Cortés
tortured Cuáthemoc, holding his feet to the fire,
in his greed for gold, then hanged him from a tree?)
Códice characters lift up from the pages
of their pre-Columbian chronicles and their cartoon
figures twisted into this fiction of modern life.
Fresh ink prints on the snow of an unturned page.
In the end of summer oven, old men remember their youth;
crab apple faces hasten to autumnal crispness,
each limb bursting, unwieldy, back into blossom,
flower by unyielding flower.
But perhaps it is better, less cruel, perhaps, if we lose our tongues and refuse to tell the difference. “Human kind cannot face too much reality,” as T. S. Eliot wrote. And words? Well – as for words: “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still.” (T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, 149-53). Perhaps they wander like the dreams at which we clasp when the morning rings its alarm bells and we tumble from our beds to climb onto the daily tumbril as it rumbles through the streets and carries us to our daily work, ce bourreau sans merci:
The alarm clock shuffles
its pack of sleeping hours:
a clicking of claws,
needles knitting outwards
towards dawn’s guillotine;
a knife edge
sharpened on this keening wind
sets my blood tingling in my toes.
Bright jungle parrot,
its querulous caged voice glimpsed
darkly through dawn’s looking glass.
Tochtli was caught by the ears
then thrown against the second sun
sizzling in the sky.
His sharp teeth burrowed,
burying themselves deep in the fire’s red light.
The second sun turned into the moon;
now we can see tochtli’s face,
simmering in its dwindling pool.
Old myths, like languages,
grow legs and wander away.
They gather in quiet corners,
in village squares
where the night wind weaves
dry leaves in endless figures of eight.
The old man dreams:
run down tunnels,
escaping the hunter’s hands.
When old dreams vanish,
they back themselves into a cul-de-sac:
a wilderness of harsh black scars.
Dream words: scalpels carving
red slashes on white-washed walls,
trenchant shadows, twisted dancers,
old warrior kings
bent into pipe wire shapes.
Suddenly, beneath the balcony,
the handy man
tumble-dries a tv ad
in the washing machine
of his song sparrow throat.
And I am awake.
“Don’t make such a song and dance!” my father used to say. But can we live without song? Can we survive without dance? Is music really the food of love? And why must we be tortured and burned before we are offered as a sacrifice to the gods?
The sky is a sharp blue blade,
poised between buildings.
Wide-open butterfly eyes.
Scorched circles of admirers
burning holes in the crowd’s
dark climacteric face.
A heart of fire burns in an iron barrel.
Who will be chosen?
A street musician stands in the shade
playing a bamboo danse macabre.
Iraq is watching its own dance of death right now; and so is Afghanistan. London and New York have seen the carnival masks parading in the streets and the world has been turned upside down. Madrid, and Beirut, Bagdad and Falluja, and now Paris: burn, baby, burn! Are we all then born to burn? Are we all trapped, kicking, in the poacher’s snare?
There are striations in my heart, so deep, a lizard could lie there, unseen, and wait for tomorrow's sun. Timeless, the worm at the apple's core waiting for its world to end. Seculae seculorum: the centuries rushing headlong. Matins: wide-eyed this owl hooting in the face of day. Somewhere, I remember a table spread for two. Breakfast. An open door. "Where are you going, dear?" Something bright has fled the world. The sun unfurls shadows. The blood whirls stars around the body. "It has gone." she said. "The magic. I no longer tremble at your touch." The silver birch wades at dawn's bright edge. Somewhere, tight lips, a blaze of anger, a challenge spat in the wind's taut face. High-pitched the rabbit's grief in its silver snare. The midnight moon deep in a trance. If only I could kick away this death's head, this sow's bladder, this full moon drifting high in a cloudless sky.
Or are we going to drown? It may be that we were born to drown and our world will end in not in Aztec fire, but in the melt water from the Himalayan glacial lakes or in New Orleans water.
Cupped hands cannot embrace you.
Do you remember when the earth
was without form, and darkness lay
on the face of the deep?
You yearned then to be released,
to flow from the darkness,
to flower in the sunlight.
Images and symbols:
flags flying within my skull.
The shrunken head pond
ringed like a bath tub;
fields scorched and dry.
The land’s parched throat
longing for liquid:
water, born free,
yet everywhere in chains.
This mirage of palm trees,
green, against burning sand.
This hot sun dragging
its blood red tongue
across a powder blue sky.
Panting for water, I lick my lips
like a great big thirsty dog.
Words begin with the “Let me be!” of light --
and it divides from darkness.
Then comes the world,
the inner waters in which male
and female forms are borne;
when the waters break,
the life sustaining substance drains away,
throwing us from dark to light.
The mid-day sun rides the sky
rolling its dark ball-turret rays:
blood red wine over and under
this double-barreled cloud.
Thirsty, thirstier, thirstiest. And how do we quench that thirst? That thirst which dries our throats and clutches at our stomachs and makes us shiver in the mid-day sun, out on the street, like a mad dog?
When I go out to buy mescal, they offer me no worms.
“Three, for five pesos!” the old lady says. Dark is her shop.
I buy two litres of white mescal, cheap and rough, without the second brewing.
Six worms I buy, seis gusanos that lie in the bottom of a two litre
plastic bottle of Coke, sealed with cellophane, and a rubber band.
At the market, I also buy roses.
At home, I put them in a vase, and I watch them watching me.
Red roses: fingernails of brightness,
bloodstains scratching against a white-washed wall.
Misshapen pearls in a ceramic prison, their beauty breaks me down:
decimated words born from mescal.
The eye you see is not an eye because you see it …
twin light brown ovals, floating in a liquid mirror.
The eye you see is not an eye because you see it, it’s an eye because it sees you (Antonio Machado). Some of you, in this room may think you know each other very well, but you are wrong. How can you possibly know the other when you have not been through what the other has been through? How can you share another's life, when that life has not been laid out on a platter for you to share? There are places in other lives, secret and sacred, where no stranger may enter. And if a stranger batters bleakly at the mind’s door, then what does he break down when he breaks that door down? Guantánamo and Abu Graib: the battered bodies, shattered by others, lie scattered on the floor; sometimes they are chained, broken, to iron bars. Someone has been inside their heads in search of their secrets and in finding them, they have turned their bodies inside out.
Filling in gaps in the fence of time until the mind is numb and the world has had its fill of our bare feet on the cobbles, we warm to the deft wool pulled swiftly through the back strap weaving of an insignificant people, too small to be counted, too weak to stand on our own, a people who have been ejected from the square where we have lived for four hundred years, with our fountain, our walls of coloured clothing, and now we have moved elsewhere with our portable tents, our awnings, our tiny tables, and we walk along a long dusty trail with our water bottles, our babies, and we are our own beasts of burden, carrying our belongings in plastic bags, the wool, the cloth, the fabric, made and remade with our traditional, dyes in reds, and yellows, and blacks, our choices across the centuries, and we recount with implicit sorrow in dark brown eyes and we plead that one day there will be a tomorrow when we can all be together, young and old, and can weave our memories into one seamless fabric, with its field and cloth of gold, teaching our ways to the babies not yet born who will follow in our footsteps through this valley of dust, for we are dust ourselves, and shadows, and will one day vanish like the shadows we are, unseen in the dust and the dusk, our names forgotten, the letters which form us as empty now as our places of birth, and you: you who listen to this, you who sift my work and my words between your hands right now, admiring the warp and the woof and the solid weave, you will never, never begin to understand; and listen: they are calling! And you do not hear, you do not understand the words, for you do not even know me by my proper name.
And that is how we proceed in this soulless society, bullying, battering, tearing down the walls of privacy, spurning the cries, the denials, torturing the mind until we grasp the seed of suspiscion we planted at the beginning and then dug through the living flesh to find.
They sit there, silent, patient, as they have always sat, as they will always sit, in the market, in the street, in the square, their eyes alight, their faces on fire, waiting patiently for that one word of wisdom that will turn like a well-greased key in a lock and release them, setting them free like the sun at six o’clock in the tropics, free from daily toil and bondage. Will you ever understand the weight of the pesos, the pesetas, bearing them, grinding them down? A million tons of snowflakes and dust motes attach themselves to the rack and pinions of those wings that want to fly, but cannot, as they drag daily through despondence and dust, giant wings which stop them from walking. When will these people abandon this mortal coil? Will they ever be one with the angels? How many will dance on the head of a pin? Do they in fact have souls? On the cathedral steps, children in white waggle their wings and flex harp or bow while red clad devils wave their three pronged tridents and blow raucous music from clay frog and conch. “¿Me das un peso por un beso?” Four year old eyes are lost in an epicanthic fold of oriental mystique. A long, slow grief fires the ashes and I am a flame burning beneath petal and comal and suddenly, I don’t know how, their grief is my grief and I bleed in vain poinsettias, nochebuenas, tulipanes, flowers of every colour flowering, flowing from each and every open vein.
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!
they buzz their unending dance
in the dusty gutter
chained to broken oars
they ply blunt stumps
shorn of strength and beauty
their once coloured shuttles
weave dark circles
my mouth is a full moon
open in a round pink circle
bone and its marrow
settle in subtle ice
of the demented heart
pumping its frequency
of fragmented messages
through panicked veins
torn from its element of air
this brightness of moths
drowning in the inky depths of the gutter
the seven o’clock news brought to you
from an otherwise deserted street.
Desert, sand, emptiness, hollowness – are there no solid foundations on which to build?
Building on Sand
Everywhere the afternoon gropes steadily to night. Some people have built fires; others read by candlelight. Geese litter the river bank, drifts of snow their whiteness, stained with freshet mud; or is it the black of midnight's swift advance? They walk on thin ice at civilization's edge. Around them, the universe's clock ticks slowly down. Who forced that scream through the needle's eye? Gathering night, the moon on the sea bed magnified by water. Inverted, the Big Dipper, hanging its question mark from the sky's dark eye lid. Ghosts of departed constellations stalk the night. Pale stars scythed by moonlight bob phosphorescent on the flood. The flesh that bonds; the bones that walk; the shoulders and waist on which I hang my clothes. Now they stand alone beneath the moon and listen at the water's edge to the whispering trees. They have caught the words of snowflakes strung at midnight between the stars; moonlight is a liquor running raw within them.
Perhaps it is only late at night, when we are alone with the stars and the constellations, that we can truly be ourselves.
Midnight stretches out a long, thin hand and clasps dream-treasures in its tight-clenched fist. The lone dove of the heart flutters in its trap of barren bone and the world is as small as a pea in a shrunken pod. Or is it a dried and blackened walnut in its wrinkled shell of overheating air? Sunset, last night, was a wet squib failing to fire. Swallows flew their evensong higher and higher, striving for that one last breath lapped from the dying lisp of day. Its last blush rode red on the clouds for no more than a second's lustrous afterglow. When its frail, pale butterfly of color was snared in the camera's net, the photographer ran for chloroform. Color struggled for a moment, then quickly succumbed. The photographer pinned it in his photograph book and it pined away in a lack lustre display of tattered rags and dust. Can night's shadows really weave these illusions from earth's old bones? Rock is like putty, malleable beneath the moonlight. Midnight readjusts her nocturnal robes and pulls bright stars from a top hat of darkness. Winged insects with inhuman faces appear with the planets and clutter the owl's path. Night swallows the swallows and creates more stars. The moon hones its edge like an ice cold blade. A snake wind whistles dead rustling leaves round a tin pan alley dream abandoned in an empty head.
And now the end draws near and the brujo is close to calling it a day. He looks at the auriferous sky, and sees it is sewn with sharp sequins.
Is there a warp, the brujo asks,
a lurch towards meaning,
a leaning towards sun or moon?
When our footsteps were first planted
did they take root and grow
or did they wander, restless,
across the planet’s surface?
A rampant foot stands firm
on that first high rampart:
of each passing cloud.
A rocket streaks upwards.
Instant release from the sender’s
earthbound misery or message
of anguished joy?
Who knocks at heaven’s gate?
The low moon glows: lesser
incandescence of a departed sun.
A satellite glides: its razor edge,
slicing distant pin pricks of light.
The moon rides her orange unicycle
across a thin black line of hill.
Here on the azotea, midnight
slowly covers the sparkling town
with a dark gray cape.
This trique measuring cloth,
this mixtec weaving wool,
this zapotec with her knife:
who will sever the artery
which binds us at obsidian’s
edge so close to the loom?
If their grief is our grief,
do we all then bleed in vain?
flowers of every colour
pour from each opened vein.
And with those words, I will leave you, suddenly, abruptly. Like a light going out. Like people, some of them once friends, Evelyn, Fenton, Jurgen, María del Carmen, Oscar, Richard, who have crossed forbidden boundaries and walked from our lives. Now they are here. And now, like the buffalo that once roamed the western plains, they have gone. Oskana ka asasteki, as they say, in Cree. Good-bye. And thank you.
Back to Creativity