Apocalypse and/or poiesis

A review of '2000 Years of Mayan Literature'

2000 Years of Mayan Literature

2000 Years of Mayan Literature

by Dennis Tedlock

University of California Press 2010, 465 pages, $29.95, ISBN 9780520232211

This is an account of loss. Dennis Tedlock’s exegetic anthology of two thousand years of Mayan literature, a book a lifetime in the making, slips too snugly onto the shelf. I think of Legge and Müller’s fifty-volume Sacred Books of the East. A project of similar magnitude would be in order for Mesoamerica. What survived of Mayan literature is, however, scant. What survived of Mayan literature is, for this reason, staggeringly significant. Tedlock’s dedication and diligence has provided these remains with the gravity they merit. It is an epic work reconstructed from a circumscribed set of battered manuscripts, objects and stele. Two thousand years are compressed into a book whose guiding principle is to articulate a narrative or connectivity between its fragments. The Mayans, in their obsession with identifying semi-isomorphic relationships between the fragmented happenings of earth and the supreme mechanics of celestial movement, would have been gratified by such a book. What is more, an anthology can do a great amount with an incomprehensive set of materials if its focus is on a certain process of cultural enrichment and harvesting. Focusing on the way in which the Mayans understood and subsequently wrote about their sense of time passing and things happening, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature is more than an anthology, it is a study of the indigenous Mayan dialectic as a poetics. In this respect, it is one of few works on the Maya germane to a study of poetry today.

The dialectic of the Maya is based on a parallelizing view of time and activity. History does not synthesize, people do not hybridize, but instead live in overlap and nonclosure. There is a tremendously energetic primordial fragmentation that coincides with our unresolved moment in the universe. This is expressed in Mesoamerican philosophy by the poetic concept of “burnt water.” Time spheres, albeit fluid, cannot be synthesized but must exist as converging antinomy. Heriberto Yépez, in his book on Charles Olson and Mesoamerica, calls this the “encontronazo vivo,”[1] or the “living smash.” Tedlock is not the first to attempt to represent this dialectical smash in anthology form. The immanence of energy in nonchronological juxtaposition was the principle underpinning the ethnopoetics anthologies of the 1970s, Technicians of the Sacred and America A Prophecy. But, whereas Quasha and Rothenberg’s anthology wanted to open cognitive “lines of recovery and discovery” by mapping the poetries of the Americas as simultaneous,[2] Tedlock’s anthology restricts itself to a collection of Mayan texts and contexts, and (for the most part) articulates the Mayan dialectic by focusing on parallelizing structures within the works themselves. “Overlapping strands” and non-sequent “jump cuts,” key elements in Mayan poetics, speak for a worldview where an image cannot have an isomorphic relationship to the emotion-thought complex inspiring it but, nonetheless, must reflect that complex.[3] Reflection is accomplished by aggregating divergent likenesses within the poem. “It shines, / it shimmers / in the blackness, / in the night.”[4] This is Ezra Pound looking into an obsidian mirror.

The obsidian mirror reflects but distorts, transforms as it transmits. In its deity aspect it was known as Tezcatlipoca to the Aztecs and Obsidian Scepter to the Maya. As a scepter, it is also emblematic of the power wielded by poets. Tedlock delivers this poetic value in a form recognizable to readers of contemporary poetry by a nimble use of lineation. Guided by Luis Enrique Sam Colop’s experimental transcription of the K’iche’ story of human origins, the Popol Vuh, (i.e. instead of his own translation of the same text in 1996) Tedlock emphasizes the parallelizing method of the early eighteenth century Mayan poem by implementing a complementary technique:

All alone, the Maker,
Resplendent Plumed Serpent,
Begetters are in the water.
Light glitters in the place where they stay,
covered in quetzal feathers,
in blue-green.
Thus the name, Plumed Serpent.
They are great sages,
they are great thinkers in their very being.
And of course there is the sky,
and there is also the Heart of Sky.
This is the name of the icon, as it is spoken.[5]

Using line and (dis-)placement to emphasize the redoubling transformation of the Maker to the Makers, of one to a multiplicity, the translation’s mitotic structure reflects the poem’s spiritual credo: that creation is a dialogical process. And, as I will soon discuss, for the Maya there is dialog before creation. This, of course, differentiates their story of creation from the Judeo-Christian story of creation. This difference is also marked by the suggestive use of the word “icon” over “image.” Where the Spanish Christians destroyed heretical icons while glorifying canonical images, this poem rehabilitates the imagistic force of the “icons” of the Maya, of their mirrors and their scepters.

Poetry is central to Mayan religious practice. Creative works are works of Creation. Tedlock offers a rich description of what Mayan writers thought about the relationship between creators and Creation but curbs his language where he might have been more explicit about analogous Western philosophies: the Creators begin with a word (i.e. language) and use their spirit familiars (i.e. genius) to make use of a power called puz or “the power to cut something open with a sharp instrument and reveal what is inside” (i.e. analysis) in order to bring forth new life.[6] This process makes the act of creation less of a fiat and more of a quomodo. And the Mayan Gods, like any creators, indeed deliberate before creating, asking, “How should the sowing be, / and the dawning?”[7] In other words, Quomodo Lux? This process is somewhat akin to Blakean emanationism, where real, holy selves give forth to emanations whom, through poetic analysis and creation (“outward Ceremony”[8]), can be confronted and passed through to return to the eternal vale. (For another take on the relationship between William Blake and the American Indian, see Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 Dead Man.) The parallels between creators and the Creators afford Mayan poets certain substantiated lexical liberties. They bundle words to form larger concepts (“mountain-valley” for the human body[9]), much like the kennings of Old Norse and Old English poetry (i.e. hron-rad, or “whale-road,” for sea), yet the Mayans used the constructions with subjectivizing implications. They wrote as Gods write. In this respect, they have a nigher parallel in the seventh canto of Vicente Huidobro’s creationist epic, Altazor, where the poet acts as a God in the act of creation, giving birth to words; words whose incomprehensibility confirms their living, material density (“Lunatando / Sensorida”[10]). That is, if they cannot be abstracted to meaning, they must be raw, living things. The Maya, not quite harbingers of creacionismo, nonetheless attributed a power to creativity that was akin to that of the Gods. The power likewise induced a cosmic anxiety. Before creating, the Mayan gods “talked, then they thought, / then they worried.” Puz is also an act of sacrifice. And anybody who knows the rigor of analysis required to write will know the power, anxiety and sacrifice of the act.

Tedlock’s analysis of the texts is structured as an escalating primer in Mayan writing and thought. Beginning with a chapter, “Learning to Read,” he provides a rangy gloss on a variety of “texts,” including calendars, graffiti, jewelry, manuscripts, pottery, oral performance, ornaments, and stele, touching on multiple dimensions of the Mayan episteme, such as agriculture, architecture, art, astronomy, calendric systems, cosmovision, civic organization, historiography, glyph morphology, linguistics, medicine, meteorology, philosophy, poetics, and religion. His method is dialogical. Each chapter builds on, responds to, and modifies the content of that preceding it.

 At the archaeological site of Palenque, in Chiapas, there is an underground aqueduct that runs beneath the temples of the Sixth Sky, the Sun-Eyed Shield, and the Tree of Yellow Corn. Dedicating a chapter to each of the sculpted tablets in the sanctuaries of these temples, Tedlock bears out the narrative which flows, like the water beneath, across that plaza in Palenque. This story tells of the generations of Cormorant or Lady of the Split Place, the celestial mother of the K’inich Janaab’ Pakal or Sun-Eyed Corn Tassel Shield, the father of the Egret Lord, Sun-Eyed Snake Jaguar. But, because this is a story stretched out across the space of the plaza, it depends on where you stand in that plaza to determine whether the actions of the Gods bear upon their descendents or whether the actions of the descendents bear upon their Gods. Tedlock frequently refers to this as the “thread [that] runs through both sides of the narrative,” or the “threads of different lengths and compositions [used] to weave [these] tapestries of time,” or “the weaving and unraveling of a textile,”[11] echoing Cecilia Vicuña, for whom “unspun wool is cosmic energy, pure potential.”[12]

The structure of these three chapters as a fabric that modifies itself, weaving the reader back to Cormorant to see her in light of the actions of her children, is a tapestried model of the book’s method. It moves forward while compelling the reader to return and read more deeply. In the first of this chapter triad, we learn that Sun-Eyed Snake Jaguar dedicated these temples on (July 21, 690 CE), when his spirit familiar, the constellation centipede (Scorpius), was being crossed by Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the moon, respectively, the guardian spirits of Cormorant’s triplets and of Cormorant herself. A prime opportunity for Sun-Eyed Snake Jaguar to write his story, in the cosmos he could descry confirmation of an ominous text he had received from his ancestors and which his inscription would mirror: a paper stained by the blotted blood of previous rulers, proof of textual embodiment reaching into the time of the Gods. (It was believed that Cormorant had a run a cord through her tongue, whose stains on the paper would offer semantic content for generations to come.) What Sun-Eyed Snake Jaguar writes is therefore already written. What unfolds in the following chapters is the story that has already been told and retold by the sky, by the bloodstains, by the stele, and by Tedlock. Literally a text extending from blood to cosmos and back.

In its textile method of approach, 2000 Years emphasizes the tactile dimension of these texts. For the Maya, writing was an extension of body. Cormorant pours blood from her mouth onto paper (a direct transfer of the oral to the textual) that she passes down to her descendents, who do the same, in order to communicate with each other by reading the auguries of the bloodstained, speaking text. This is semantic density. A similar density is found in the Late Classic Mayan pottery which shows examples of what, as Tedlock notes, is today called concrete poetry. “Abandoning sentence structure in favor of a cosmic diagram,” he writes, “the closed code of writing has been opened to the world.”[13] “Lingering on the threshold between sight and sound,”[14] Mayan writers cannulized semantic weight into the shape of words by using their shapes to inflect and pronounce new meanings for the words. In a way, the very concept of words does not satisfy for thinking about the freedom by which Mayan writers could move between visual, logographic and syllabic content, bringing all these together in a linguistic directionality that was unique in that it was nonlinear. Like cities archaeoastronomically designed to highlight, reflect and comment upon celestial movement, concrete Mayan writing designs its materials to weigh in on its message while the message acquires greater density, mass and meaning by the introduction of design.

The weight of language, one of the most distinct elements of classical Mayan thought, is sadly one that was gradually lost in the period of the Conquista. We can trace its diminishment in the attempted standardization and abstraction of glyphs in the Chilam Balam of Maní (page 249 in 2000 Years). J. H. Prynne, in his “Note on Metal,” has pinned the historical moment at which European languages began to lose weight. This is due to the increased abstraction of value.[15] I see a similar reduction of weight in these post-Conquista glyphs. They no longer follow directly from body. They are more abstract. Tedlock is keen to point this out and, taking into consideration that the book provides a comparative context within Mayan literature, readers are offered the educative opportunity to notice it for themselves.

Nevertheless the Conquista was not the end of Mayan literature. Many important texts were transcribed long after the Europeans had arrived. The single surviving manuscript of the Popol Vuh, for instance, was written in 1701. I suspect that at this point when the Gods worry in creating humans they might have the catastrophe of European contact somewhere in their minds. This is at least the context for the text: Mayans writing about creation after the apocalypse had already occurred. What Norman Brown, who wrote of “apocalyptic syncretism,” might have identified as the secret revelation of these texts: “or where the two waters meet, the water of life and the water of death.”[16] Burnt water. In analyzing the Mayan story of creation, Tedlock consults a K’iche’ daykeeper, Andrés Xiloj Peruch, whose commentary suggests that the creation of the earth is trussed by its unraveling: “It’s just the way it is right now: there are clouds, then the clouds part, piece by piece, and now the sky is clear … Haven’t you seen that when the water passes, a rainstorm, and then it clears, a vapor comes out from among the trees? The clouds come out from among the mountains, among the trees.”[17] The earth is revealed in the dissolution of its elements. It is born in revelation. But to be revealed it must be disintegrated. The earth “arose suddenly, just like a cloud, / just like a mist now forming, / unfolding.”[18] The textile unraveling: life woven into its devastation. That is its poiesis. A Mayan poet is ch'amay, a harvester of mist. The harvest, the great loss. A harvester of mist is likewise a Mayan poet. In the preface to his 1978 Finding the Center: Narrative Poetry of the Zuni Indians, Tedlock wrote that “the reopening of possibilities in our language” will arise from an openness to the traditions of “the same continent where we are now learning, however slowly, how to become natives.”[19] Regardless of whether such naturalization is even possible, the challenge of attending to indigenous experimental literary models and methods as indigenous to this continent continues to be a tremendous and tremendously rewarding challenge for twenty-first century poetry and poetics. The reopening of poetic possibilities continues.



[1] Heriberto Yépez, El Imperio de la N eomemoria (Oaxaca: Almadía, 2007), 187.

[2] Jerome Rothenberg and George Quasha, eds., America A Prophecy (New York: Random House, 1973).

[3] Dennis Tedlock, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 1–3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 315.

[6] Ibid., 309.

[7] Ibid., 317.

[8] William Blake, “The Laocoön,” The Complete Poetry and Prose (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 274.

[9] Tedlock, Two Thousand Years of Mayan Literature, 309.

[10] Vicente Huidobro, Altazor, o el viaje en paracaídas (Madrid: Petròpolis, 2010), 92.

[11] Tedlock, Two Thousand Years of Mayan Literature, 65, 79.

[12] Cecilia Vicuña, El Quipu Menstrual.

[13] Tedlock, Two Thousand Years of Mayan Literature, 119, 116.

[14] Ibid., 113.

[15] J. H. Prynne, “A Note on Metal [1968],” Poems (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1997), 127–131.

[16] Norman O. Brown, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 78, 81.

[17] Tedlock, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature, 309.

[18] Ibid., 317.

[19] Tedlock, Finding the Center: Narrative Poetry of the Zuni Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978), xi. (italics mine)