Javier Taboada: Two Poems from 'El Niño de Varas' (The Whipping Boy)

Translation from Spanish by Scott Ezell & the author


[EDITOR’S NOTE. In his new gathering, The Whipping Boy (El niño de varas), Javier Taboada fuses all his resources as a poet (investigative poetry, translations, total transcriptions, news excerpts, etc.), in the great tradition of his avant-garde & modernist predecessors, at once broadly international & markedly American (both north and south). In the process he uses the procedures of extreme collage to create a narrative, brilliant & foreboding by turns, of the modern & ancient ways-of-the-scapegoat as an instrument of political, social, & religious overreach & cruelty. His is a world, in short, in which present & past come together to stand as images of our own time & of the real dangers that we face & will continue to face as we try to move forward & evolve. (J.R.)]


1/ Pharmakós event



Choose 10 bums.

Feed them and keep them clean.

Place them at 10 points in the city.

Force them to beg for one year.

Collect the money

            put it in a common treasury.



Gather the 10 in case of these calamities:

a) fire

b) drought

c) famine

d) foreign attack

e) plague


selection and dress

Select the ugliest. Name him pharmakós.

Dress him in special clothes.

Give him a backpack with cheese

            bread barley and dried figs.

Wreathe his head with garlands

            a headwrap or a conical cap.

Flog his testicles 7 times

            with fig tree branches.

Give masks to the other 9 and undress them. 



The pharmakós and the 9 will set off from a public square 

            directly to a river

            lake or stream.


                        no wells no ponds

If there is no water,

            go to a road or train tracks.

The 9 will escort the pharmakós.

Spectators may line both sides of the path

                        and cast stones            curse    spit

                                    or beat the pharmakós.

If they do (and as a sign of repentance)

            they should scratch their faces

                        or rip out their hair.

The 9 may beat and intimidate the spectators

                        without consequence

            while theprocession lasts.



After crossing the city:

1. If there is a water flow

            the 9 will beat the pharmakós

                        and try to drown him

2. If there is no water flow

            the 9 will beat the pharmakós

            tie him to the first tree they find

                        and try to burn him

If the pharmakós survives

                        he may never return to the city

If the pharmakós survives and reaches another town

                        he’ll be greatly honored

                        and considered a god.

Give the common funds to his relatives.

Elect a new member for the following year.



2/ Pit of Bones, cranium 17


the perimortem fracture

entrance vector

                       or exit wound

the shape      a bat

            (rorschach’s fifth card)                      

            two blows

half an inch apart

from bregma / or fontanelle     each                              

            and both

                        at oblique angles:                                               


                                                the chopper’s                                                       (fig. 1)               



           a beam             repeated

                                      high-energy concentration      the first maybe
                                                                lower than the second
                                                                              ­(consider adrenaline)

              an opening towards light

the thunder
                           and its four pebbles

the spirit dwells in the forehead
                                                                 he knew it?

                        te cavero le budella

            he maybe said     or thought(in his tongue)
                                    looking for a glance
                                                between the curled fire

maybe he mumbled the name
            (and with it the cause of death)

maybe he rehearsed his moves

maybe he rehearsed     lying down     

                           his gestures
            and dreamed his tone of voice
                          his scream between each blow

maybe he considered an hour

             the waning shadow

                          of the second sun
             the old sun bending on the mountains


maybe he planned a hoax


it’s certain he was right-handed  


and pre-Neanderthal cranium 17
a young individual (male or female)

whose third molar attests
            to recent passage
            into adulthood

                                                                                                                                            (fig. 2)

and they were face to face                                                                      

430 thousand years ago

                                                        “the earliest clear case of deliberate, lethal
interpersonal aggression in the hominid fossil record”


Sala N, Arsuaga JL, Pantoja-Pérez A, Pablos A, Martínez I, Quam RM, et al. (2015) Lethal Interpersonal Violence in the Middle Pleistocene. PLoS ONE 10 (5).                


                  maybe he
                               dragged the body to the pit


                  maybe he misjudged the weight
                               and had to ask for help


and maybe
maybe just that noise 

             its slight delay
                                                       (what is the speed of a body
                                                                     in free fall?)
              made him feel something akin to joy



. . . . . . .




Pit of Bones, cranium 17 is about the discovery of “the earliest case of lethal interpersonal violence” in the hominid fossil records. I’m trying to recreate/elucidate the cause for that murder (its motivations, planning, corpse disposal), since there are no evident “ritual” tracks in the cranium. Maybe the murderer just wanted to get rid of someone annoying, or just different.


Pharmakós event is a reconstruction of the “scapegoat” ritual (called pharmakón, with its double meaning: illness and remedy) in ancient Greece. The old polis need of purge leads us to a present in which a certain ethnic, religious or political group (always marginal) is thought to be a threat to the safety of the city.


Javier Taboada (Mexico City, 1982). MA in Classics. Poet and translator. Among others, he has translated the full works of Alcaeus of Mytilene (Poemas y Fragmentos, 2010), Jerome Rothenberg’s Testigo & Milagros (A Further Witness & A Poem of Miracles, 2017), and Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and other stories (upcoming, 2018). He is the author of Apothecary Poems (Poemas de Botica, 2014) and Nacencia (2017).