An Electronic Journal of Poetry & Poetics

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ISSN 1081-3500 | Copyright © Mudlark 1998

Editor: William Slaughter | E-mail:



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Mudlark No. 9 (1998)

The Road to Ocosingo

by Andrew Schelling

For Joanne Kyger
back roads, markets, distant peaks

Sections of The Road to Ocosingo have been published by apex of the M, Mandorla, Quarter After Eight, Sulfur, in a folded book by longhouse, and will appear in The Poet's Calendar for The Millennium from Sun and Moon Press. A paper edition of THE ROAD TO OCOSINGO is available from SmokeProof Press, late spring 1998.

The author gives thanks to Elsa Cross, David Huerta, Jorge Hernandez, and Ambar Past for providing hospitality along the way; and to Tedi López Mills for clearing up errors in an earlier version.


In August 1995 I traveled to Mexico with poet Anne Waldman, novelist Rikki Ducornet, and psychoanalyst Jonathan Cohen. We met in Mexico City, a high altitude cosmopolis ringed by mountains, currently the planet's most populous city. The poets Elsa Cross and David Huerta had scheduled a reading and reception for us at Casa del Poeta. Following a few days among friends we went south into Chiapas State. Chiapas held three interconnected interests–cities and pyramids of classic Maya antiquity; contemporary Tzeltal and Tzotzil speaking villages in misty pine forest highlands; and somewhere, out there in the Lacandon threading jungle paths as they elude the Mexican military, the EZLN–Zapatista army with its eloquent shadowy elders whose communiques sound like a blend of MesoAmerican shamanism, 20th century poetics, and post-Marxist pragmatism.

Those who go by night said, And we see that this way of governing that we name is no longer the way for the many, we see that it is the few who now command, and they command without obeying...

The journey was a brief one. We hoped to dig into Juana de Asbaje's poems, gaze upon skeletal eyes of Palenque ruler Pacal, and meet a few knowledgable contemporaries. A modest and unremarkable attempt to learn what we could of the temper of Mexico in the EZLN climate. To see what we might find out firsthand, not simply from hearsay. To keep eyes and ears open, take notes like spies, and carry a few books for the work. This despite word the Zapatistas were disburdening literature from their own rucksacks. "Because you're loaded with books doesn't mean someone else offers to carry your ammunition," a subcomandante had recently confided.

This is a journal of the trip, in mongrel mix of prose and verse. Its sense of form is much indebted to Japanese haibun, good style for jotting notes in a rucksack. I kept the writing deliberately loose. Haibun is always stricter, more keenly regimented in how it balances prose and terse lyric.

Matsuo Basho is the poet who brought haibun to its keenest development, particularly in his travel journals. As we wandered Basho trailed without mention behind. Oku no Hosomichi, his best known work (1690), recounts a journey by foot into Japan's northern hinterlands. In his day the province of Oku was an unpredictable and slightly scary back country, geographically and culturally distant from Edo, the capital, and a site of potential unrest. Just as in post-NAFTA North America it is Chiapas first–then Guerrero, Oaxaca, and other Mexican states–that emerge as shakiest members of an economic policy crafted in Washington.

In English Basho's title is "The Back Road to Oku." On the back road to Ocosingo I heard the place names echo.

Boulder, Colorado
December 1997



1 August 1995

First discovery must be a result of NAFTA, 6 pesos to the dollar on the imperialist exchange rate. The local economy crashes, and a few cents left in the pocket.

Long taxi ride in from the airport, a quick shower, and down to the bar for beer with lime, and cacahuates– peanuts. How orient yourself in a city 10 million people reside in? 2240 metres altitude–a high plateau–and after slight rain the air tastes good, not yet the noxious stuff Mexican friends warned of. So read up on the Mexica–

(meh-SHEE-kah) or Aztec

      and find them grim, weird, as their art had suggested–their seat of cleric power Tenochtitlan (partly excavated from under the modern City's zocolo). In 1487 priests consecrated new temple to Huitzilopochtli, the ceremony stretched to four days. Sacrificial victims taken during war & raiding campaigns were arrayed in four columns, each row of prisoners extending three miles out through the maize fields. 20,000 human hearts, still pumping, torn out to favor the gods over four grisly days. What drug inspired them? Finally the priests, whipped with the effort, called it quits....

     So we go down after dark to the zocolo to see the old ruins. Luckily a loose flyer touches us with tender simplicity–

     Sor Juana
       y la cultura barroca

     Entrada Gratis

concerning lovely poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz who as a child cut her hair short & vowed to keep it that way–until she had taught herself many scholarly things. "For I am but ignorant and tremble...."

Off a massive colonial stone building flutters the banner for another exhibit–Torture Instruments of European Origin. With a picture of some grim machine.

9:00 p.m.

For a long shot of tequila
     served with tiny tumbler of
     red fluid
     a little blood
tomato & orange juice
     just a dash of something
     to spice it

At Café de Tacuba a crowd eating late. Floral tiles–yellow, blue & white on the floor. Brass lamps from high darkwood rafters, noisy white walls soar with tall paintings of Mexican heroes. Sor Juana in her white nun's habit, big medallion over her breasts, looks across the crowded room as we eat.

                Eco soy, la más rica
                pastora de estos valles;
                bella decir pudieras
                mis infelicidades.



10:00 p.m.

Chicken in molé sauce
    flaming red peppers and roasted chocolate
    it was the
    17th century

    –twelve year old Moghul princess from Delhi
seized off Malabar coastline
by pirates
perfume of mango & coconut
spicing the offshore wind
    –& sold in Manila
the open market.
Her new owners
transport her to Acapulco in chains
–tossed by waves in the ship's hold
her terror–
where a savagely pious couple from Puebla puts down
some money
    & presses the strange girl
into religious training.

Known as Caterina de San Juan
    la China Poblana becomes a renowned mystic
      fearsome austerities
      miracles & healings attend her
In her adobe quarters she lifts
color'd threads
out of her visions
& embroiders on cotton blouses, shawls & skirts
    what she sees–

flashing ruby, bright magenta, parakeet yellow,
turquoise, gold & silver, pine green & charcoal

flowers & birds rise through the
courtyard animals

The style spreads through New Spain
& becomes "typico"
    –costume of the Mexican peasant–
a sort of 19th century chic
says the guidebook.

While Caterina leans over
her fabric
nuns at Santa Rosa convent
–under patronage of the Bishop of Puebla
    (Sor Juana's shrewd adversary)
devise on the
occasion of a visit from New Spain's viceroy
an unknown dish.
Caterina's hand is involved
    visions back there in the kitchen–
chiles & spices, roasted & separately ground on stone platters
    chipotle, peanuts, almonds, aniseed, garlic
then steep'd in oily chocolate brought up
      from the South–
A dark pungent sauce
wild it seems
    back there on the palate a hint
something distant & sweet–
In Mexico there's been
nothing like it
it is the way food has been cook'd for centuries
      in India


2 August · Early a.m.

All night poisonous dreams–modern torture instruments–Wake while it's still dark & search through the guidebook which says of Tuxtla, capital of Chiapas State, one must not miss "probably Mexico's best zoo."

Ocelot, jaguar, puma, tapir, red macaw, boa constrictor, & the monkey-eating harpy eagle.

But it's set on grounds next to Cerro Hueco Prison–federales interrogate captured EZLN warriors–within–


11:00 p.m.

Jorge Hernandez fetches us for drive out to a distant restaurant. Conversation about Mexican politics as we wheel through the streets. Jorge's a historian. Patiently he lays out for us the major events since Zapata and Pancho Villa. A careful driver, tall, distinguished black rim glasses and smooth clothes, up north I'd spot him for a cop. Better English vocabulary than most of my countrymen. He hates to get dressed he tells me, or go out of the house. Days on end bent over historical documents in his pajamas. Then dresses to set forth and harangue some newspaper editor. Jorge writes fiction, and is translating three of Rikki's stories.

A year ago Colosio's people asked Jorge to become a speechwriter for the Presidential campaign. He delayed a week–had to attend an academic conference in San Diego. That's why he missed Tijuana where a "lone gunman" pushed through the crowd & shot Colosio three times in the head. "I've been to cockfights. Someone pulls out a pistol & shoots in the air–too much tequila, or too much excitement. Yes! six or seven guns going off in a moment! Bang bang bang bang. This is Mexico. Everyone's a pistolero."

A long cool look. "There were forty-three guns in the crowd that day. And nobody else pulled a pistol? Come on. This is Mexico."

On the way back from dinner we see a 24 hour flower market. Jorge begins a ballad, low, scarcely audible. "I haven't bought flowers for my sweetheart in over a week. Nor a guitarist." And gives us the lowdown on choosing a mariachi to woo your beloved. There they are, smoking cigarettes along the edge of the park in sequin'd suits.


2 August · Hotel Maria Cristina

Sound of a t.v. draws us to the news
uniform'd men unload
plastic body bags from a military helicopter–

Cantares Mexicano
Thumbing through
Miguel León-Portilla's book,
account of a
Nahuatl manuscript housed in the National Library
Poets are there referred to as
    "forgers of song"
& declared to inhabit the flower world–world of charm'd verse–

    They shall not wither, my flowers
    They shall not cease, my songs


In 1490 lord Tecayehuatzin, prince of Huexotzinco, convenes a meeting of poets–masters of song–from all over the region. He sets out mats in his orchard, under shady ahuehuete trees. The poets pass tobacco and foaming terracotta mugs of chocolate. Their conversation survives, preserved in a single colorful manuscript inscribed on parchment of beaten bark. Tecayehuatzin asks his guests to speculate on the origins of flowers & song. It is a curious compound metaphor in Nahuatl–León-Portilla explains it as "flowers-and-song"–a single intricate term denoting the luminous sphere of poetry.

Is it possible, inquires Lord T, by the use of flowers & song, to encounter true words on earth? to meet with some restful emotion that endures? or is it human fate to vanish, the brief taste of a good song all you can hope for, and that vanishing too–?

Grizzled poet Ayocuan expells smoke through both nostrils & after a long period of silence declares his belief that flowers & songs are gifts of the gods. Where they originally come from is anyone's guess. And no, it is beyond his power to say whether they survive in the world-after-death.

    Will I have to go like the flowers that perish?
    Will my name mean nothing on earth?

Others in the company–the pragmatists–insist we inhabit a perishable world, there exists no evidence that anything survives past our lifetimes. Only flowers & song, they suggest, can dispel our innate sadness.

Lord Xayacamach of Tlaxcala likens flowers & song to magic mushrooms gathered in the mountains. A reliable technique to intoxicate the heart, to forget human grief in a fabulous hallucinatory world that tastes more real than everyday life. But ah, when the mushrooms wear off, when the fantastic world fades and the contours of daily existence emerge once again–one returns to oneself, empty, restless, disconsolate.

Lord T. finally closes the refined philosophical gathering. He thanks his guests, passes out small gifts of appreciation, and as the final comment falls to him asserts that flowers & song–if they cannot bring true words to earth or resolve the troubling question of what survives into the next world–at least make possible the reunion of cherished friends. And perhaps that's enough. Everyone shares a last quiet cup of chocolate as crepuscular shadows lengthen beneath the ahuehuete trees.

Another day in the flower world has passed.



3 August

Drove out this morning in Elsa's car.
Small poet with smart black hair & immense hazel-gray eyes–she looks at you like any moment something unexpectedly brilliant will get said. Here the Aztec ruins dwarf us, great rippling feathered serpents twist along the Quetzelcoatl banisters. Elsa teaches Asian philosophy at the University, wears black sneakers & a vast loose-fitting black shirt. Walking the ancient boulevard out to the pyramids she & I compare thoughts on subtle points in Bhagavad-Gita–just two old brahmins by the Ganges–

Temple of Butterflies
    is the monumental
show your ticket and mount the high steep stairs
battered summit
peer through brown industrial haze at far mountains
    & try to memorize the landscape–
important for the next life.

It's mariposa in Spanish "perching one"
    says Elsa
French papillon
different root in Italian also–I recall–
Germans call it
so where did "butterfly" come from?
Them Indo-European rambling people, hard storm out of Caucasus
horses & cattle driving the dust–
splitting up, some go east across Indus
    some west to Dublin, others south to the sea
and butterly emerges only–later–?
not known
back in the homeland. Birch. Oak.
Proto-Indo-European Trees.

This one pulses burnt orange wings
on grey stone
rufus & ivory eye-patterns rippling.
Looks like a monarch from California
    thousands arc in migration, high over the planet
    to collect in a single tree
    near Añno Nuevo

1200 species of mariposa
found in Chiapas. Enter into the notebook:
    Get a good field guide–



Casa del Poeta · Alvaro Obregon 73, Colonia Roma

David Huerta & a few others seem to know Rafael Guillén, former faculty of the National University who the gov't has identified as Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN.

"I looked at his dissertation when the government published his name." She–who was it?–had her hand on my arm–"he quotes from himself in the early communiques." Now in newspaper photos familiar eyes animate the black ski mask–grey curls of his beard in High Times snapshots.

"...and you know his sex network in the jungle–?"

    –sex network?

"Yes. Women in bungalows. Everywhere. He is a great sex symbol."

If he's on Internet everyday & carries cellular phones through the Lacandon, how come the government hasn't caught up to him? A search party came on his tobacco pipe, still smoking from hasty departure (photo in the paper up north). What are USA military advisors doing down there? What sort of advising? Things could get clear if we had answer to that one.

"We do not know who the military are" says David over coffee. (Next morning.)"I mean, we know who the generals are. We know who the soldiers are–mostly conscripts from villages. But the mid-level officers–all the ones above sergeant–we do not know who they are. They're the important ones." I take him to mean the new military–the guys who go to the Academy–their loyalty might not stick with old-boy Narco-Democrat order.

    villagers herded onto a bus
it is doused with gasoline &
set aflame. Other side of the line
    they won't let journalists cross–

a few witnesses in from the jungle.



4 August · Tuxtla de Gutiérrez to San Cristóbal de las Casas

The airport's a military base. Black & olive helicopter gunships out at the runway. Everyone's relaxed though, and after negotiations we get a swift little Nissan car and head towards the mountains. Dusk, dramatic pine hills uplifted like camel humps. Mist rising from tiny creeks make the forests vague and enticing. Feathery pines. Splendid flowers, whose names I don't know, spill down torn-up embankments onto the road. We notice red dirt eroding in sludge rivulets along the twisty road as we rise. Little homesites everywhere cut from the hillside, stacks of firewood–and rain washes the soil out.

Men wear pink flowery shirts and turn away from our headlights.

At San Cristóbal
the road in from Tuxtla patrolled by big grey trucks

the Pemex Station particularly guarded
where Zapatistas gave the gov't a particular slap–
    taking over Mexican oil
    even if it's just a few pumps


August 4 · San Cristóbal de Las Casas

Entered the city named for 16th century priest Bartolomé de Las Casas. Bartolomé spent forty years trying to impede conquistador atrocities through the region, then returned to Seville & a published book, 1552, alerting Spanish authorities to gruesome unchristian acts. "I would write a very big book, but this will have to wait till another time. God willing." Hence Brevissima Relacion, the quick account, into print without clearance from Inquisition authorities–

We twist through wet cobbled streets, get lodging where the old town gives out. Na-Bolom (old Maya: jaguar) is a former convent. Cool arcades with deep rooms set around a courtyard. Hans & Trudi Blum, German archaeologists, bought the building decades ago. Now it's an institute for culture research & ecology. Various Maya and student gringo activists run it. Library, dining hall, artifact rooms, office, & planning center. Wild potted plants in the corridors. Old photos and up-to-date maps of Lacondon rainforest cover the walls. Out back under dripping pines they rent a few cabins.


Anne & I set up candles. This is the rainy season, cool at night, lanterns along narrow muddy paths. Our clay hut oozes into the soil. I dismantle wood slat bed to get the enormous spider, violet-brown leg hairs, who ran off one pillow when we opened the door. Set her free among nameless leaves where an orchid pot crumbles to mud. And imagine back of feathery pine bough's mist & drizzle, home's familiar moon. Light the fire, get into bed.

That night in my notebook–

      Arms scarves
      candle shadow ebbing it flickers
      over your breasts

      here's tequila from a cold bottle
      I could live
      many lifetimes under a damp quilt
      listen to armored trucks rattle the streets
      stoke a fire with you

      dark nipples
      I want them for aeons
      pitch-pine twigs crackle
      the roof lets in rain

5 August · 8 p.m.

Anne & I take the road to Tenejapa around sunset. Dramatic little forested mountains tightly interlocked. At a rise–wind forcing a black mist across the weathered, brush-covered summit–near a small settlement–three high slender crosses black against darkening sky. The Maya lift crosses wherever a gate or aperture leads down to the underworld–sacred sites–a cave, a spring, certain hilltops with unique vegetation. Soil turns with some curious mineral complex. The crosses were here when Christians arrived in clanking armor. Peter Warshall's remark, that geologists and Indians agree on the power spots–

    A wrinkle in earth's old layer
    subterranean twist to the limestone
      if you've got eyes you can see it
    here by the road

Sixty years ago Graham Greene passed over this ridge on muleback–anarchist Catholic he noted–

      "The ground sloped up again to where a grove
    of tall black crosses stood at all angles
    like windblown trees against the blackened sky"

      "The great crosses leaned there in their black
    and windy solitude, safe from the pistoleros
    and the politicians..."

Among the crosses long upright pineboughs, feathery & skeletal with a violet cast of sky behind them. Asymmetrical & impenetrable. A dog barks from a hut.

Everyone's a pistolero.


5 August · Midnight

And the Spaniards were allowed to choose, among one hundred and fifty Indian maidens the ones they liked best, paying for each an arroba of wine or oil or vinegar or pigs...

Such was "The Devastation of the Indies," Brevissima Relacion, Bishop Bartolomé prompting other thoughts–

Old karma the night
is terrible
where once were children fed to Spanish dogs
out there party bosses oil american helicoptors now
what use our poetry
dark forest wind has devoured it
rain & dark wind

6 August · Evening

Our Mexico City friends said we must search out Ambar Past, American expatriate poet who lives in a forest hut outside San Cristóbal with her daughter. We track them down at Taller Lenateros, print & papermaking collective at Paniagua 54, where Ambar works and sleeps nights she's in town. Massive colonial door with rust iron rivets swings open, she's come to the door. David Huerta has sent word on ahead, and Ambar's been waiting–

So chatter poetry & politics, catch up with news & drink coffee. There's a kitchen at one end of the big printshop room. Ambar recounts unpublicized local events. Her first winter here a blight came, and no doctors–

"Every child in the village of Magdalenas died. Every child."

We tour the collective's dilapidated adobe rooms to see silkscreen tubs and big platen presses, shelves full of paper, cards, posters, menus. In the back courtyard where the collective grows its food a group of women make paper–




                old paper


                    pine needles
    orange peel

                other trash

–all goes into the mash.
Refuse turned into splendor. Civilization.
It's late in the day so the ladies who blend up paper go home.

7 August

Little Guadalupe image east on the hill. She stands on a black crescent moon & appears, apparition, to kneeling Juan Diego who met her outside Mexico City, 9 December 1531. Tiny white church full of slant sunlight. What old adoration tells me get down on your knees? Incense & liturgy, the human heart momentarily soothed in its torment. Near the altar a few curanderos. Time to retrace our steps down whitewashed stone stairs into town.

Wood smoke hangs in the breezeless air. We eat posole with rough pork in a small shop, back it with tequila and beer. A cold hard mist sits on the distant grey pine hills. Winding along through middle-class streets admiring the old painted Colonial doors we're teased by two girls about eight or nine selling Chamula dolls. Tiny traditional things the length of a finger, in rough black raiment but ski masks conceal terracotta faces, big spooky eyes gazing through.

"Si, Subcomandante Maria. Y Marcos! Three pesos."

    Up north no one told us
      of lady subcomandantes
    the girls giggle

    crude wooden
    guns in the doll fists


8 August · Na-Bolom Institute Library

Flames crackle in the convent's old fireplace.
Anthropology books on the walls.
Scholarly titles flicker, a lamp is lit, rain drums on the
cobbles, potted trees past the window drapes.
We give a reading of poems & stories to a small cluster
    of attentive travelers.
Afterwards someone brings spirits in a big kerosene tin.
It's been stewed with pineapple and
curious rainforest spices. Quickly drunk, I sit and read
Bartolomé de Las Casas, his brief appointment 1544
Bishop of Chiapas–

      "All Spaniards seeking
          absolution must
             & nbsp; free their Indians
      and make restitution"

'til he was yanked back to Spain.


Evergreen Cloud Forest · San Cristóbal

Volcanic peak & vague boulders heave free from the tangle
green tangle clings to the rock
archaic water
drizzles from cloud to big leaf
leaf to underfoot mud
How many billions of years
    cool rain on the planet
this improbable cinder
steaming & whirling on galaxy's arm?
Nameless mosses sweep down from branches in sheafs
mist and cloud
    twist in emerald evergreen crowns
Pale yellow orchids hidden by vines
Could be the elfin woodland
Beard first wrote up (1944)
    buttressed trees
    broad leathery evergreen leaves
the air almost too
green to draw breath


This heart goes
      imagine keeping
counsel with clouds
windswept peaks and high ridges
      Sierra Madre
oh jagged Mother

tangled underfoot offspring
so dense
you need a machete to walk
We gaze down into treetops

A woodcutter machete clacks in the forest
smoke lifts
they're clearing for coffee
clearing for cattle
Orange flames spit from the underbrush
    blue haze hangs in ravines

a bit of white lichen a few tough mosses

after 10,000 years the forests to vanish
earth a bare cinder again

What do we call it?

      cloud evergreen scrub



10 August

Jonathan & Rikki join us along the rear arcade of the Palace. High-up seats, us leaning back against pillars, to study thick unfamiliar foliage–lianas, lush green trees & vines, metallic whining of insects. The heat has me down. I listen from enormous distances as the others speak of cigar-smoking priest on the frieze at Temple of the Foliated Cross. Jonathan has his own cigar sympathetically lit–passes it to Rikki & photographs her smoking it savagely among ruins. Her hair runs in rivulets down the stone arcade. I scramble off my perch–down from the arcade, across the cropped lawn. Broken steps drop to the fast silver thread river–Rio Otolum. Bromeliads watch. Head thrust into clear, forceful, shockingly cold water.

Why did I expect tepid water–out of the steaming jungle? On the bottom mottled rocks & clear sand. Plunged my head in again and the water's force nearly threw me. Return to companions up on their smoking perch at the back of Prince Pacal's harem. A bandana to dry my hair and dislodge little pebbles where they've stuck in the whorl of one ear. At my departure a spider monkey shrieks–

    Temple of Inscriptions
    nine lords of the underworld–Xibalba–

      and when they opened the sealed stone passage
      down to Pacal's tomb
        several skeletons crouched at the portals
        set to serve
          Pacal in death

      clay pots, jewelry
      and supplies for the journey
        to Xibalba

Pacal's jade mosaic death mask was removed to Mexico City where archaeologists recreated his tomb at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. 1985 thieves got in & made off
      with the mask.

Drenched from humidity tourists labor their way in cloud-like formations up the Temple steps. A massive German man slung with cameras sweating profusely. "Aaach!" Grey rock & emerald color'd grass.

Spinescent palms, cycads, low-branched shrubs, lianas
scarlet blossoms
spider monkeys draped in the high blue canopy
the air a singing insect

My love crouches beneath
a clamshell green leaf
    to be photograph'd



Leaning against a tree in the shade
cool leathery leaves grant
relief from a blurring white jungle sun
A modern tourist building squats over there
    coke machine, postcards and chess boards–
What's this line of green lozenges
parades down the bark
past my face?

Leafcutter ants
    (genus Atta )
a cordon of millions
all of 'em women
cutting half-inch square leaf chips over my head
Hold them upright like sails
hurry home to a fungus garden
sunk in a nest underground

Daughter workers
construct a socialist dream
slick trail leak'd from tip of the abdomen
tells the route home
Tropical farm girls, government girls,
architect girls–
an Empire of girls! Find them in Popol Vuh
cutting up leaf
    since the Eocene

& harvest as much in a
day as a cow.



11 August

Small church at the downhill & east end of the square, tucked almost insignificant–back among other blank white buildings. Billboard up above extolls benefits of breastfeeding in colors of the Mexican flag. We enter through arched undecorated wooden doors with black rivets–inside tiled checkerboard floor–& bare smokecolor'd wooden pews, nobody in them. Several Indian women squat in the nave, little children scampering through pine needles that cover the floor in blue-green tufts. Sackloads of pine needles lie among the pews, whorled and heaped up in corners uneven.

Quick little bow
    to black virgin
deep in her recess
    the right hand wall–
who is she
lunar robe cobalt
    & silver

Madre, Madre

toss a nod across to chocolate color'd
padre with tight-curled hair
    who is he
beatific nook
    other side of the church
a few chipped spots on his
    plaster face

18 months ago gunships raked roof & walls of the church. Ocosingo took the worst of the January fighting. Patients yanked from hospital beds & shot in the halls. A local story. Today no discernible damage to ceiling or floors. The children toss pine needles. Like elsewhere in town fresh paint tells the story–Father Trejo's church–

                Pincha Cura–!
–General David Rivera as he called in the HUEYS–
"Fucking Priest! He's got nine rebels hiding in there!"

Back outside to bright sun, and stand blinking over the morning market–"dark narrow warren of booths"–a few stalls just raising their awnings. Mostly plastic toys, a few clay pots–and candied pastries heap'd up, colors more bright than the toys. Stacks of marine blue cakes catch my eye. Coming & going among the stalls energetic bees–
      which bringeth to mind the "flower world"
Aztec poems of antiquity–

I count out a few coins, the 1000 old-peso is heavy bronze–fits the hand nicely. Poet Sor Juana looks mildly down on the heads side, maybe ruminating a poem. Her baroque philosophic ballad "First Dream" in my thoughts I go over and purchase two Zapatista bandanas from thickset lady chattering Tzeltal to her neighbor. Burnt orange paisely kerchiefs flutter outside her stall like EZLN banners–
    six pesos each.


11 August · Afternoon · Nissan's back seat

Last night dinner when we got in late, the long drive up from Palenque. Twisty road & little dark cook fires telling of huts that dangle on precipices. An enormous jungle insect–mantis or hopper–rode like a hood ornament for hours as we cut and swerved through singing vegetation. Cooler the higher we went, up from wet heat into thinner air. We neared Ocosingo and slowed at a settlement for the blinking lantern. Our insect protector went into the darkness on whirring wings.

Once in town we found a room, then returned to the only eating place that had looked open–overlooking the sloping zocolo from Hotel Central's porch. Inside they'd cut the lights and now we thought the restaurant closed–out of luck–just a card game going on next to the window. But a boy saw us and brought tequila to an outside table. We sat for a quick meal–thin soup and tortillas. Fifty feet off the cement fountain where soldiers had tossed six thin boys on the pavement a year ago January–each with a single bullet in the back of his head. Ranking officer sweating as he led journalists over for photos–I saw them up north. And little threads of blood trailing downhill to the church.

Freshly painted Government Palace dominates the uphill end of the square–powder blue & ivory under the klieg lights. A Disneyland quality to its fanciful ornamented facade. You'd expect the sounds of an F. Scott Fitzgerald party but back of the windows sit uniformed gunmen. Caciques, local bosses, pick their teeth & idle about the doorway with pistols. The bullet holes patched. Zapatistas have gone who knows where. Tonight is quiet enough in town, just a few wooden booths waiting for market to open tomorrow. One last tequila, & back through streets dusted by rain, attractive smell of motor oil in the gutters. Jorge had warned, watch out for coletos here. And the big owners with their squads of gunmen. But a quiet bulb casting yellow off the ribbons of asphalt guides us–to our little posada–the one place in town with a room–four of us in three narrow beds–

nearly insoluble puzzle to which love is the answer–
companionable love–

    Skull crusted with turquoise mosaic chips
cranio humano con incrustaciones
      Monte Albán
    or Pacal's face
      1300 years the jade mask undisturbed
      thick stone sarcophagos at Palenque
      no one touching the lid

    I draw a finger along the ridge of your brow
      down the proud cheek curve
        same lines as the old mask held–
      eyes proud & unreadable through tough
        bone apertures
          homo sapiens

And south past the cattle barons & machineguns
past vaqueros driving their heifers
out past Toni-Na ruins
far-minded revolutionary women step through Lacondonia forests
    cartridge belts crossing their breasts

Through the black mask a
    row of broken teeth


Ocosingo · Bright morning

Deep night after sleeping drugs–
waken to




and Rikki's out the door
urging them on
    two parrots in gilt
cage on nearby

continuous noisy love affair as we pack & depart–
a blur of red and green feather–
life seems ancient
sweet & good
squat potted palm at a
turn in the cement staircase
oh cheap hotel congenial shelter
    streets coming alive under
    long clouds

    the mind meets itself
        wherever on earth

12 August · Notes reclaimed from abandoned books

Among the Maya every individual carries an animal counterpart

    wayhel    or     chanul

"All harm occurring to the wayhel is experienced
by the human body. The death of the body
and that of its wayhel
are simultaneous."

    ua - y(a)

      "animal transformation"

in Yucatec, way means transform by enchantment
in other Mayan languages
    to sleep
      or dream

Peter Furst–
since Olmec civilization arose
pan-MesoAmerican belief
the shaman
    can assume the shape of a dangerous animal

jaguar    coyote    ocelot     owl

In moments of rest they hear another voice, not the one that comes from above, but rather the one that comes with the wind from below, and is born in the heart of the indigenous people of the mountains, a voice that speaks of justice and liberty, a voice that speaks of socialism, a voice that speaks of hope... the only hope in this earthly world. And the very oldest among the old people in the villages tell of a man named Zapata who rose up for his own people and in a voice more like a song than a shout, said LAND AND LIBERTY!

                –Zapatista communique


2:00 p.m.

We bump along the white dirt road towards Toni-Na, into a sun that's dissolving night's valley mist. Past campesinos with machetes, straw hats, rubber boots–while army platoon sweeps over nearby pasture hill on maneuver. Get stopt at a little roadblock but passports look good, no problem, on we go. Cowboys chasing strays out of gullies, emerald fields with fibrous agave and little wildflowers, mist trailing midway the mountains. Huts on the hillsides. They used to keep the valley bottoms free for crops. Then came the Spaniards, now it's all cattle–that old Indo-European mystique. Arabian horses, the best–came into Spain with the Moors. Conquistadors brought them to Mexico, and the jungle slowly dies back. Under camouflage net a tank with cannon leveled at the road. Trenches. Sandbags.

          flat ranchland
        whose is it

        colorful unknown birds

      paths EZLN warriors took
        the night NAFTA went into effect

        this is the road

          to Ocosingo

As the car swings through fenced entry to Toni-Na, past Rancho Guadalupe's fortified cattleman gates, a dusty armored truck full of heavily outfitted soldiers rumbles towards us. Pull up by a little bungalow, and turn our foursquare mind towards the ruins.

Folk who built these were rivals of Palenque? One Lord of Palenque at least got sacrificed here under a bloody pink sun. Glyphs on the walls are said to celebrate the event. Rikki & Jonathan lace their high leather boots against "four nostril," lethal snake of the jungle. Barefoot children stand watching, then trail off to play. Anne & I head for the ruins. We pass across a miserable little swamp on wooden walkway–cow carcass off there bloated halfway in murky water–and on to the massive hill of stone that's Toni-Na. One more imperial fortress. Its famous frieze an outsize dancing Death figure

human head swings from one skeletal hand.



Important to climb this pyramid tomb, not certain why, pick my way up the stratified facade, dog nearly ten years dead follows on precarious paws. We rise through the "eight spheres of existence"–it is all enclosed, an ill-favored amber light washes down from rotted brick dome overhead. Dim sense of antiquity, hierarchy, "the impotent dead." A route across grey stone blocks, Zapotec zigzags carved in, like at Mitla–suddenly it's precipitously steep. At the final level I'm thwarted, can't get a grip to pull myself to the summit.

Just below, the shepherd dog's equally caught. Peter Lamborn Wilson–I see him seated reading a scripture under the little thatched summit hut–his maroon Shriner's fez picked up at a rummage sale, its ragged tassle–Muslim scholar holy food staining his khaki shirt, also probably got at a rummage sale. In panic I call to him, he hefts out of his seat, lays aside his vast leather Koran written in Mayan hieroglyphs, reaches a hand forward & pulls me towards...

Have you seen the green water-holes in the rock?



12 August · Loss Poem

Among the ruins of Palenque
a pocket
notebook disappeared
lost in masonry cracks, vanished in jungle
All the Mexican addresses
assiduously gather'd went with it
Other things gone–
    phone numbers from Mexico City
Spanish words I tried memorizing
    notes on Mexica ruins
What about poem written in La Parilla restaurant San Cristóbal
    while Ambar read Jaime Sabines
    & translated his early verse
    about lovers
Gone the breast-like flowers
gone dark narrow thighs
gone the table behind her full of
    drunk Coletos
    who hollered at us on the road

Gone the bibliographic notations
Gone conversation with Elsa full of her sweet low tones
Gone Los Amorosos
    copied by hand
    nearly weeping at a Spanish I hardly decode
These things gone at East Court Palace
Temple of Inscriptions
    gone on the staircase to Pacal's tomb
gone near Temple of the Foliated Cross

    Temple of the Sun disappeared
Jaguar Temple Poem vanished
Gone my account
of the lords of Xibalba
    the Maya underworld simply dissolved–
vanished or never existed–
Gone notes on cigar smoking shaman
monkeys high in the jungle
immense boatlike leaves below a crumbling tower
    still covered with rainforest growth
lianas & bromiads gone
words written to my dear friend vanished

Dangerous orange petals nullified
whining insects departed
and what of the
diaper uselessly tossed against metal memorial cross
    where a swimmer'd gone down
at Agua Azul
What of such things

The furtively jotted notes on Mexican army,
    tanks under camouflage
    machine guns & sandbags
Gone the notes on Ocosingo atrocities
Maya glyphs copied with care
    from Thompson's compendium
    in Na-Bolom
The tree stone
grove of crosses leaning every which way
    high on that dark hill

Gone the colorful shawls
Gone the girls of Zinacantán
Gone the pink masculine tunics
Tracings of fabric in dark wooden rooms
a few vaqueros milling about
    under cloud evergreen scrub
Names of the
children's dolls gone
    tiny wood guns
    gone from Chamula
Gone in the ruins
gone on the stairs
    gone in a place called Palenque
"Palisade" in old
    Spanish due to its walls

Deep in the jungle a little
breast pocket notebook–
    gone on the road to Xibalba


13 August

Tuxtla airport
we hold hands at first daylight
two swaggering pistoleros with girls pass through the
metal detector
guns pushed into their waistbands

guards keep their faces averted

one pistolero's girlfriend eats a wet pineapple round
long red
innocent fingernails

And the mind turns to scribes
who called their stelae
tree stones

    spoke of planting
words for their dynasties

    scored name glyphs into ceramic vessels

    & drank cacao over poetry

    all of which vanished
in Bishop Landa's inferno

      a forest of stone

Gun glyph
airport glyph
luggage conveyor belt glyph
daily newspaper running with news items glyph
styrofoam coffee cup glyph
diesel fuel glyph
Elsa Cross poetry glyph
medallion Sor Juana glyph
glyph of first dream
glyph of the divine narcissus
convent and court glyph
vicarious love glyph
flight back to the capital glyph

Take it in like a translator copy it down






Two hour layover. Buy a NY Times & change money. What's going on Norteamerica? Quick final beer before noon, wash down a plate of chilaquiles while rock 'n roll clatters across the airport. Then on the runway flipping the paper. The stream of imperial economy eddies and swirls, all the pages report it. Jerry Garcia a few days ago dead. What does it matter. Unnamed staff writer declares him shrewd businessman. Not a word for the music. Eddies and swirls. The stream of economy. Our plane taxis and lifts. We go north. North like coffee, like fruit, like oil. Air billows beneath and clings to tall buildings. Edge of the city stretches to distant mountains swallowed in smog. Square cement structures, an oceanlike smog. One day will our whole planet be like this? The stream of economy. Twenty million people directly beneath. Consider their songs. Consider the bards who have died. Massive buildings along the edge of a ghost lake, dried up centuries back. A few songs on parchment or paper, then gone from our world. Consider the bards. Consider the vanished lake, the ghost dynasties, pyramids, warfare, resistance. Consider the bards.


          At last my heart knows
          for today a song comes to my ear
          I gaze on a flower
                that cannot wither




Of course you need a good guidebook. Go for Lonely Planet; they are tough and compact survival guides, contain essential collections of cultural information: money, climate, food, customs–and hold up to arduous travel. For Zapatistas, new books & communiqués keep appearing. City Lights' First World, Ha Ha Ha! edited by Elaine Katzenberger has a range of good essays. For historical account of colonization, background to today's issues, the description of Spanish atrocities by 16th century priest Bartolomé de Las Casas is harrowing, controversial and riveting–The Devastation of the Indies, trans. Herma Briffault. To get a sense of early re-discovery of Maya ruins, no one beats John L. Stevens, American adventurer, contemporary of Melville, who located Palenque, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá and others–and first dug them out–Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and the Yucatan.

Studies of the classic Maya and their language is field of high scholarly adventure right now–linguists & archaeologists seem near to understanding all the glyphs. Michael Coe's Breaking the Maya Code is layman's account of investigations by serious heroic scholars, brilliant amateurs, crusty obstructors, colorful scoundrels, and international politicos. An overview of the old literatures you can get from León-Portilla's Pre-Colombian Literatures of Mexico. Also Dennis Tedlock's fine translation of Popol Vuh. Graham Greene's Lawless Roads for sharp-eyed account of San Cristóbal and other Chiapas towns in the thirties. And there's a tough little pamphlet, Introduction to the Flora of Chiapas by Dennis E. Breedlove, published by the California Academy of Sciences, for study of eco-zones and plantlife now desperately endangered along with indigenous peoples, jaguars, rare birds, uncatalogued insects, & other species.

North American readers should know Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Alan S. Trueblood's A Sor Juana Reader, or Samuel Beckett's translations in Mexican Poetry, edited by Octavio Paz. Paz's Sor Juana, or The Traps of Faith provides informative & considered backdrop to the troubled life of North America's first major poet of European extraction.


ANDREW SCHELLING, born 1953, grew up in New England. Early influences were the region's granite mountains and resurgent conifer forests, as well as Asian art collections seen in Cambridge and Boston. Moving west, he spent seventeen years in northern California. Wilderness explorations, companionship with urban-based poets of the San Francisco Bay Area, production of samizdat poetry journals, and travels through Europe, Asia and North America. Southeast Asian language study at The University of California, Berkeley, resulted in ongoing translation projects. In 1991 he moved to Boulder, Colorado to join The Naropa Institute's faculty. He teaches poetry, Sanskrit and wilderness studies. E-mail:


Claw Moraine (1987)
Ktaadn's Lamp (1991)
Dropping the Bow: Poems from Ancient India (1991)
Moon Is A Piece of Tea (1993)
For Love of the Dark One: Songs of Mirabai (1993)
The India Book (1993)
Two Immortals (1994)
Old Growth: Poems & Notebooks 1986-1994 (1995)
Songs of the Sons & Daughters of Buddha
   (with Anne Waldman, 1996)
The Cane Groves of Narmada River (1998)
The Road to Ocosingo (1998)


Brad O'Sullivan at SmokeProof Press has just (late spring 1998) released a handsome paper edition of The Road to Ocosingo by Andrew Schelling. You can order it by writing him at 1929 Seidler Ct., Erie, CO 80516, or by calling him at (303) 828-9093. ISBN 0-9658877-3-1. USA $6.00. 64 pages

Small Press Distribution will soon be carrying the book too. SPD takes orders by phone, (800) 869-7553, and accepts both Visa and Mastercard. Their website at, even while it is under construction, will reward your visit.

William Slaughter, Editor
Department of Language & Literature
University of North Florida
Jacksonville, Florida 32224-2645

Contents | Mudlark No. 9