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January 9, 2011 / johnoliversimon

Caminante 5: Monte Albán







All in a meter of brush: muscular mister
grasshopper leans from a dry stalk, wanting so bad
to mount the tender bliss of my green muchacha.
She will have none of him. One fat gold-black lizard,
tongue abrupt as a tiger, makes chapulines
al estilo oaxaqueño out of these lovers.
It looks like rain above the ruined temples.
Looks like a century of rain, or maybe fire.

Monte Albán, Oaxaca

Overgrown pyramid at Monte Albán


Comentario: the vendedoras in the mercado of Oaxaca sell chapulines, grasshoppers roasted with chile, sorted by size. They aren’t half bad: think texture of shrimp, tasting of dry sunny hillsides instead of salt surf.


Overview: Mexican poetry often dwells in an elegant interior which North Americans have difficulty entering. Walt Whitman gave us a taste for a poetry that includes all reality’s stinks and spices, the dead rat lying among sun-stinking refuse outside the portal of the market, for instance, and the cornocopia of fruits and vegetables within, as our eyes adjust to the shade.

My first Mexican mercado was in Oaxac ain 1982, but it could have been the tianguis in Tlatelolco that Bernal Díaz del Castillo described half a millenium ago, with its “cloth and cotton and twisted thread, and cacahuateros who sold cacao… those who sold cloths of henequen and ropes and the sandals with which they were shod, which are made from the same plant, and sweet cooked roots… those who sold beans and sage and other vegetables and herbs in another part, and those who sold fowls, cocks with wattles, rabbits, hare, deer, mallards, young dogs and other things of that sort in their part of the market; then every sort of pottery made in a thousand different forms from great water jars to little jugs, those also had a place to themselves… But why do I waste so many words in recounting what they sell in that great market? -— for I shall never finish if I tell it all in detail.”

I watched two Indian women bargain over cantaloupes. The sweet–faced vendor, in a gray rebozo with her long black braids tied back with red ribbons, wanted twenty pesos a kilo. The buyer, with a mole on her piratical cheek, offered eight, fingered soft spots. The vendor came down to eighteen, and at fifteen she opened a melon with a quick slice of her machete to reveal the inner star of seeds. The buyer masticated a slice pensively and placed a worn ten-peso bill in the vendor’s calloused hand; closed her fingers around it. No, no, no, twelve at least! twelve it is, and they filled up a sack.

There were baskets of chapulines, which are grasshoppers in Nahuatl, graded by size, roasted chile-red. There were cheap watches from China, lighters, flashlights, plastic sombreros, ocarina flutes, engraved machetes… but I will never finish if I tell it all in detail. I moved slowly through the aisles until I spied a little bookstand. One title caught my eye: La Novísima Poesía Latinoamericana, the newest Latin American poetry, edited by Argentine poet, then exiled in Mexico, Jorge Boccanera: poets from all over the continent born since 1940. I bought the anthology for 140 pesos, about three dollars at that time.

Back home in California, I started translating, haltingly, consulting a little paperback Spanish–English dictionary for nearly every word. Um, let’s see, estaban…

My next trip to Mexico City, April, 1983, I looked up Jorge Boccanera, in exile from his native Argentina. We fell into a grand abrazo, my first Latin American poetry embrace. Boccanera and his co-editor Saúl Ibargoyen wanted some of my father poems from Neither Of Us Can Break the Other’s Hold, poems written for Bunny Simon who of course tiurmed out not fto be my realo father. for their magazine Plural. Jorge and Saúl jobbed the translation out to Mónica Mansour, bilingual from her English-Argentine childhood.

Thus I entered the Latin Ametican poetry world, very much stage left, via Mexico with a tinge of Argentina.

I was exultant when the cover wore off my paperback Columbia dictionary; it felt like an initiation. I carried home an 1108-page Pequeño Larousse, which, stained and mended with duct tape, sits an arm’s reach from my computer keyboard in Berkeley.


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