Juan Gregorio Regino: 'The Song Begins' (from Mazatec & Spanish)

Translation into English by Jerome Rothenberg 


[Since the late 1970s Juan Gregorio Regino has been a leading figure in the movement – throughout Latin America – aimed at the creation of new literatures using indigenous languages alongside the dominant Spanish.  A Mazatec by birth & upbringing, Regino was a co-founder & president of the Comité Directivo de Escritores en Lenguas Indígenas (Association of Indigenous Writers).  His poetry & other writings have appeared in his own Mazatec & Spanish versions, & in 1996 he received the Netzahualcóyotl Prize for Indigenous Literature.  He has for some years been the General Director of Popular [Indigenous] Cultures for Conaculta (The National Council for Culture and Arts) in Mexico.  The translation that follows will appear later this year in Like A New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry, edited by Zapotec poet Victor Terán & translator David Shook, & published by Phoneme Media (PEN Center USA).  The movement in which this plays a part is groundbreaking & of the greatest importance as well to our own ideas of poetry & poetics. The relation of Regino’s own work to that of the Mazatec shaman poet María Sabina is also to be noted.  An essay/talk by Regino on indigenous literatures can be found here on Poems and Poetics. (J.R.)]


                              Because they are the papers of the judge

It is the Book of your law
                         It is the Book of your government
Because I know how to speak with your eagle
Because the judge knows us
Because the world knows us
Because God knows us
                    - María Sabina


In the light of the candle

in the essence of sweet basil
In the spirit called forth by the incense
my life’s book is laid out.

Open is my thought before the judge

The gears of time stop short
So that Limbo may pull back a pace
So that the sun and moon dress up
Because the images take on a face



What does the smoke of the incense say as it accompanies
the words that initiate their journey to the heavens.
What is the message of the maize your palms propel
that seeks for truth there in the mystery.
In what place, what path
and on what pretext does the guardian of the earth
possess my spirit.
Today reveal it, master
before my person,
before the eyes of God,
before the witnesses



You who know the sacred
who lead us on the pathway sown with songs.
Open the sky to me, show me the world,
start me on the path to wisdom.
Let me drink from the children who spring forth,
teach me to speak and read the language of the Wise Ones,
flood me with the power of the Gods,
inscribe my name there in the Sacred Place.
I am clean, my wings are free.
Dew will cause new words to sprout,
rain will nourish wisdom.
I am star that shines beneath the stone,
sea that dances in the blue of sky,
light that travels in raw weather.
I am sun’s vein, I am song.
I am dance and chant that heals.



The spirit of evil lies in wait,
the song begins.
May the words arise that open up the heavens,
the prayers that cut across the profane world.
So may the candles of white light be lit
and drip envenomed blood.
It is a mortal struggle in the Sacred Place,
it is the ransom for my spirit.
For my life these fresh leaves will go forth,
these knowing words,
these colored feathers,
these songs for this initiation.



Here my basil is at daybreak,
clean like the horizon:
my medicine is fresh,
my medicine is white.

In its leaves the gentle word

that opens up the heavens:
the word that gives us peace,
the word that gives us breath.

My basil will arrive where sins are purged

will fly off clean to where dawn grows bright.
My pleas will reach into the book of records,
will free my soul from poisons that can kill me..



My incense will reach the place
where it communes with life.
It will reach the house of those
who are the guardians of the earth.
It will be heard out in the place of images,
will plead its case there in the bosom of the night.

However many mouths they have,

however many tongues they may possess,
those who have knowledge of the heavens,
those conversing with the codices
and speaking with the Gods.



Here is my spirit,
my oak, my cedar.
Here in my heart the prayer is born
is with it in its journey to the heavens.

From the house of purity,

the table of the dawn.
I am asking for strength.
I am seeking justice.

The sacred book will open,

the darkness will grow bright.
In the house of writings.
In the house of the stelae.



Down to the soles of my feet.
Down to the palms of my hands.
At the apex of my thought.
At the core of my extremities.

My spirit has feet,

my soul has hands,
my veins leave tracks,
pulses of time and the way.

I can talk with the dawn,

can submerge myself in turbid waters of torrential rivers,
barefoot can walk up the incline,
can hurl my song against the wind.



I arrive with God the Father, God the Mother,
I have crossed seven winds,
seven levels of the heavens.
I have defied seven faces of the World Below.

Because I have eyes for looking at the night,

light enough to plumb the mystery.
Because I am a messenger who guarantees his word,
a singer who can track the soul.

In the house of purity

I come to put my calling to the test,
come to awaken secrets.
I come to seek the word,
the fresh and clean path.

I am a bird that prophesies the sacred,

morning star that opens the horizon,
cicada that whispers to the moon,
mist that cures the mountain.



Here the fiesta ends,
the road is closed, the song is over.
Lucidity is lingering in the copal,
kernels of corn close up their pages,
standing guard over the journey’s secrets.

A mystery is disappearing,

new ways emerging, ways to fathom life.
The birds trace paths, the earth is fasting.
The moon confides her troubles to the sun
and dawn shakes loose on the horizon..

Here the fiesta ends,

the song rests in the morning’s arms.
The children who spring forth open the world’s heart,
nature is sending signals.


Originally published in María Sabina Selections, Poets for the Millennium series, University of California Press, 2003.