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October 8, 2011 / johnoliversimon

Primera vez en México

Esquina República de Uruguay e Isabel la Católica. Foreground: the former Augustinian convent and Biblioteca Nacional, and statue of Alexander von Humboldt, who slept on this block in 1806; background, the Hotel Monte Carlo.

I fell in love with the Spanish language when I was forty years old.

I took French for six years in high school and college and hated it. Jeanne Case, my French teacher at the Putney School, used to tell me, “Jean, you arre ‘aving mecca-nickel di-fickle-tees.” I memorized endless lists of verb tenses concerning unlikley situations in the past or future (this is stupid!) and with exception of Villon, Rimbaud and Appollinaire I hated the French poets.

Finally, at twenty-four, after I backpacked around Europe and the Middle East for six months, and my gender mistakes (C’est la change, monsieur, c’est feminin) sufficed the French to affect total incomprehension, I decided I was bad at languages. Plus ça change.

I got interested in Spanish around 1980 out of some geopolitical notion of continental solidarity. The Sandinistas had triumphed in Nicaragua, poets were coming back from there with glowing faces talking of workshops, the talleres, that were just like California Poets In The Schools but with adults, most of them recently illiterate. Meanwhile the Republicans were beginning to sponsor the Contra terrorists.

For years I had styled myself a poet of place in California, a watershed poet, writing about lichen and coyote-scat, following in the bootprints of John Muir, Gary Snyder and my mountain-climbing grandfather Oliver Kehrlein.

The terrain I was stomping made it increasingly obvious that the Spanishlanguage haunted the political meaning of earth not too far below the Anglo surface of North America.

Sure, the California Indians lived here first, Olema, Petaluma. I already had written more than my share of feather in my snakeskin headband, bearshit in gleaming  in the trail poems. Spanish was scattered in names like desert varnish along my highways: Anza-Borrego, Aguas Calientes, Los Angeles, Ventura, San Joaquín, San Rafael, Corte Madera, Santa Rosa.

And this next part feels artistically embarrassing to admit, but I was plotting a science-fiction novel set both in Mexico and an alternate California in a timestream wherein Hernán Cortés took an arrow in the eye on his way out of Tenochtitlán on the Noche Triste and the Americas were never conquered by Europe. I had some good California scenes; San Francisco is Puerto Buenu, a tough harbor town with Ohlone suburbs. I figured I ought to do some research at the scene of the crime.

Later I spent a couple of years taking that meshugganah novel through interminable drafts, increasingly encrusted with local color, language and grudges to settle. All my women characters were smoking cigarillos: mirages of sexual triggers. I  tangled myself impossibly in paradoxical time-travel intrigues. A few people bravely read it and liked it. But after all it seems I am not a novelist. I still want to write it just one more time. Sigh.

So I self-studied for a few months out of a book by Charles Berlitz (later spent two full years in the Vista College classroom of the incomparable maestra Carlota Babilón) and flew to Mexico City for the first time in April 1982. I got a room in the Hotel Monte Carlo a couple of blocks from the Zócalo on the Calle República de Uruguay because D.H. Lawrence stayed there in 1924 when he was thinking about writing The Feathered Serpent.  That same afternoon I headed out to the Museo Nacional. Here’s my first jetlag-stunned uncomprehending ride on the Metro, emerging into the teeming daylight of Chapultepec:


more than I can take in

crush of people

train windows open

rushing through darkness

sweet little girl

clutching her blind mother’s hand

pyramids of chewing-gum

cunningly arranged

Indian woman in blue rebozo

taps rhythmically with a peso

on black iron railing

my Spanish withers


Rhapsodic were my inscriptions wandering in through the monumental, comprehensive Museo Nacional de Antropología. Paleoindian, Olmec, Teotihuacán, Toltec, Aztec, Maya, Nayarit and Sonora masks and gods and weapons and trade goods…


I can’t sing

my tongue is stone


limbs bound like reeds of years

snake’s coils disappearing,

spiralled down


Mictantecuhtli stole a bone

and then she couldn’t find it


That first night in the Monte Carlo I dreamed that I had better cease and desist writing poems to my third ex-wife and tacking them up on the doors of my father’s modest Connecticut summer cottage, because it’s making my girlfriend, or whoever I’m supposed to be in love with, nervous…

Later I lived entire summers in the Monte Carlo. One summer I managed not to speak any English for about six weeks until interviewed about my California Poets In The Schools projects by a reporter from the English-language Mexico City News. After ninety minutes of English my jaw ached…

Years after that I stood in front of the Stone of the Sun to teach a poetry lesson to Mexico City sixth-graders about their experience in the 1985 earthquake, in which maybe 55,000 people died (who’s counting?) and a tumbling shoddily-built parking garage fell and dealt a codazo to the Monte Carlo, once a convent attached to the Augustinian church on the corner, and braced on colonial foundations, remained standing and opened for business again after a year of renovations. I got to peek upstairs at my old room cracked and shaken.

Lonely and desolate in the morning I found my way to the blue-tiled Cafe Tacuba, situated about where Cortés had or had not taken that alternate arrow in the eye. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1696), the greatest Spanish-language poet of her half-century, gazed amiably down as I devoured arroz con dos huevos for 55 pesos. My depression had gone away.

Later, my steady breakfast cafe in the Centro Histórico was the Esla on Bolívar. Mario Ramírez, waiter, friend and teacher, would shout ¡Avena! to the kitchen when he glimpsed me stumbling toward the door and greet me across the formica counter with two copper samovars, one of potent thick coffee, one of steamed milk. “Estamos envenenado al planeta,” Mario confided. “We are posioning the planet.”

Porque la vida no vale nada, wailed a blind singer by the black cathedral fence. Years later, Becky and I stood in there off the Zócalo as the moon, Coyallxauhqui, eclipsed the sun, Tonatiuh. Night fell at noon and Venus glowed around the ghostly coronaat the head of a sequity of stars as patrol-k;lights spun blue and red and the crowd chanted ¡México, México! as if the astronomical portent were a soccer game in the Copa Mundial.

I made my way through sidestreets to a local bus for Tenochtitlán and the pyramids of Moon and Sun 1500 years old.  Tramping the ruins, I felt oddly disconnected, probably mostly jet-lag:


all this is a surface

clay flutes muy baratos

dry season

I am not close to the heart of the pattern


At close of day, with heavy heart, I stood awaiting a bus to return to the megalopolis. One arrived, I swung aboard, but when I offered to pay everybody laughed with comments far too fast and fluid to catch. They took my money anyway and swung down at a corner, returning with armfuls of six-packs. It was the arqueólogos returning from a day of digging for simple implements representing people’s everyday lives in the middle-class barrios below the imposing pirámides of Teotihuacan.

We began to converse in a lively way over cracked-open cervezas, me fearless in then-execrable Spanish, using the present tense for all possibilities. When we got to the Centro the archeaologists invited me out for cena and más cervezas in the Bar Gallo.

The first Spanish joke I ever got (though it probably had to be explained to me) was when I showed them a photo of my then 13-year-old daughter, and Sergio cried out “¡Suegro!” (father-in-law)

There was a certain anti-Americanism in their politics, which I basically agreed with, the current malignant Alzheimer’s Republican president not being exactly, as I would later learn to say, un santo de mi devoción, and the upshot of our cena was that Sergio and Chucho invited me to return with them that very night to Tenochtitlan.

Why not? ¿Por qué no? From the Gallo in el centro we three hurried by Sergio’s parents’ apartment in Los Doctores where our pace slowed for polite and  leisurely tasas of chocolate a la olla, then sprinted to the Monte Carlo where I gathered my things, thence at midnight por el Metro out the northern line to Indios Verdes, Green Indians, where we barely caught the very last bus for Tenochtitlan, squeezing painfully aboard. I’ve been packed that closely in since on the Metro or in second-class buses in Guatemala, but in my middle-class gringo existence this was the first time my personal space had been so absolutely stripped away, and I understood that if I died right then I would remain pressed upright by my neighbors.

In Sergio and Chucho’s dorm room we sampled some tasty local harvest of the benevolent herb. Then we wandered out in ancient darkness into the city once the most populous, powerful and beautiful in the Americas.

Quetzalcoatl: stick your arm in up to the shoulder and see if you can tell the truth.

I had hurried past the feathered serpent stairway already in the ashen light of noon, surrounded by tourists from Japan and Pensecola. Now, at 3 am, we three mosqueteros ducked under the ribbons holding back the phantom erstwhile daytime crowds. The mouths of the plumed dragons were black cenotes of darkness. “Si te metes el brazo y dices una menteria, te lo va a comer,” Sergio told me. Whatever inanity I whispered must have been some kind of truth.

We clambered up the forbidden stairway between the bird-dragon heads of Quetzalcóatl into starry night. Sitting there under the overarching clouds of the galaxy, we talked largely, if rather brokenly on my part, about poetry and destiny. Stars fell from the sky. “Estrella errante,”  whispered Sergio.

Over the ensuing three decades, my Spanish got a lot better (though there’s always an annoying remnant of that horse-muscled-jaw gringo accent). I’ve travelled largely throughout Latin America. My longest voyage 1995-96 nine months from Mexico to Chile and Argentina culminated in my participation in the Festival Internacioonal de Poesía in Medellín, Colombia and was chronicled in 131 eight-line stanzas in Caminante, which Gary Snyder blurbed “a major poem.”

I’ve published many hundreds of poem-translations from Spanish to English and poets have translated me. Sergio Gómez became perhaps the most respected Mexican archaeologist. Chucho Sánchez became a well-known adviser to Subcomandante Marcos and spokeman for the EZLN, the Zapatistas. Chucho showed up at my book party in San Cristóbal de Las Casas for Son Caminos, my poems translated into Spanish by many of the best poets in Mexico.


That night in Apri 1982 is when I set my foot on the Latin American version of the path, which as Antonio Machado tells us, is made by walking:


Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.


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