On the wells at the mouth of itza

tuesday, august 10, 1998

Fascinating is the stonework // wyrde has smashed -
the walkways were broken - // the giants' work languishes.
Roofs are ripped open // fallen towers -
teethed in ice // the gate crumbles -
dilapidated roofs // gape - collapse -
wrent by time. // The earth's grasp possesses
the powerful builders - // perished buried -
earth's hard clasp - // a hundred generations
of people have gone.
- Anon., "The Ruin"

Slow black with ruin true refuge four walls over backwards no sound.
- Samuel Beckett, "Lessness"

This poem is a transcription of what I said into a voice recorder over a four-hour period in 1998 walking through Chichenitza (literally "the wells at the mouth of itza"), the Mayan town-in-ruin located on the Yucatan peninsula near the modern city of Merida. I intended to chronicle my direct, immediate confrontation with that Mayan effort, collecting the specific displacements that site might have on my vocabulary.

This work marks a change in my relationship with the dynamic of my making. Namely, when I transcribed this recording sometime later I saw that it worked, according to my care. Though I subsequently lost the tape that would allow me to verify this fact, I did very little editing and certainly did not rearrange temporal sequence. The fact that it worked surprised me: It seemed an opening to the use of improvisational speech as a mode of examining the viability of "spontaneous composition" in a "secondary oral culture," as that term was introduced by Walter J. Ong to describe a post-literate culture whose primary means of communication (TV, radio, and film are based on images and sound rather than writing) remains speech. More pointedly, I could possibly secure a lot of immediately soluble work though this method rather than mere notation. This had not occurred to me. Quantitatively and qualitatively "Street Mete" is that insight's materialization.

(Note: The notion of "spontaneous composition" was introduced to me by Dr. Gerald Morgan of Trinity College, where I studied, regarding the oral composition of Old English poetry: Namely, could Caedmon, as Bede narrates, have composed spontaneously the lines of formulaic verse attributed to him? It has been a concern of mine since that hearing, which became tied to my glancing at Ong's Orality and Literacy in the mid-1980s. Ong of course wrote prior to the advent of email and text messaging, which might have called for a tertiary designation.)

Additionally his poem initiates relative to the rest of the book a bearing tempo load: The experience of walking through a ruin. This certainly informed my experience moving around New York City and its outlying areas (including as far as California); more abstractly, a life, including my own, is something like a ruin in the making - a leaving. Or what we leave of our track is something like a ruin, however scrupulous our acts are. This includes anything we make, including literature, as the native and its tongue continuously evolves, moves on. We may follow tracks - read or perform, even dance them - but the further away we move from their actual living ethos the grosser the pat in any reading becomes: Ventriloquism or perhaps, more ghostly, the assuming of the voices of the dead.

It recalls a story related by Fernando Alrvarado TezozÃmoc, a member of the Aztec royal family, in the Nahuatl language around 1598 in his Crónica Mexicayotl, a poetic chronicle of the Aztec empire. In 1323, at the behest of their Gods (namely priests), the Aztecs asked Achitometl, the leader of Culhuacan people (formerly the Toltec), to give them his virgin daughter, his "jewel" and "quetzal feather," so that she might guard "the mountain in Tizaapan," or become a god. He did and was subsequently brought to her - "to greet the goddess" - in a darkened, incense-filled temple. Achitometl, who had brought "rubber, copal, papers, flowers, and tobacco," make sacrifice to her with "lord's food" -

He tore off the heads of quail before his goddess;
he still did not see the person before whom he
was decapitating the quail.
Then he made an offering of incense and the
incense burner blazed up.
Achitometl saw a man in his daughter's skin.

This analogy to writing and reading is gross but grazes my somewhat hyper touchiness about literacy. But instead of a daughter, a woman, a person slain and flayed to free the skin within which to dance (and for a supper that no longer can be eaten, even in Pound's fosse) we do the world. In writing we dance our experience on and of Earth slain and flayed to be entered but never quite touched. We enter tantalization - the grapes Aesop hung. The past is metaphysics - the future, for that matter. I get the sense in the words "you can't get there from here": The irony of Penelope in the foot-washing scene. Certainly any sense of entrance into the past is shot: Or there are only entrances, thresholds, and never arrivals. We can never catch up.

Touching on this, In a map/graph/portrait Charles Olson made for Ed Dorn, he writes: "(methodology meta + hodos = TAO) PROCESS how-how-how, & what happens takes a certain amount of time to happen, a measurable quantum, say 1/10th of a second. So past, present, & future are c. 1/10th of a second." (Note: hodos in the Greek means "traveling, way." "Methodology" is a post hoc phenomenon, a travel writing or tracing of the steps that happened.) Sensory information in the human nervous system travels at about 200 miles per hour (120 millimeters per second). This means that nerve impulses, slower than the electrical currents through wires, can get from one part of a body to another in a few milliseconds, which allows for responses to stimuli. A 1/10th of a second would be a fast register. But it is where the energy is that we can access, where judgment is instant on recognition. As William Carlos Williams simply notes, "The poet should be forever at the ship's prow." Mimesis dwindles there - or it is as Olson declares: "The descriptive functions generally have to be watched, every second, in projective verse, because of their easiness, and thus the drain on the energy which composition by field allows into a poem. Any slackness takes off attention, that crucial thing, from the job at hand, from the push of the line under hand at the moment, under the reader's eye, in his moment." Rather: "...speed, nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts... the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen." That is where the energy is, and it is unspeakable (monstrous and wondrous, or ungeheimlich) and precognitive. It is unthinkable. We cannot define this energy out of where it is - where each of us is. The energy, mask of violent rupture in the story of Achitometl, is the shock of surrender.

The surrender rendered in "the wells..." sets the key of "Street Mete": It is to our deaths as a mask of immediacies, including not only our breath but also the span of our breach into this embodied continuum we call "life," itself derived from a PIE word meaning "to remain, persevere, continue": Our familiar environments, the faces of our friends and family; and the plot of our cultural precinct in the amplitude of our epoch. These registers play through "the wells..." from the jaguar's face through absence, my own first among them.