9 September 2019: what's inside the bones

9 September 2019

That itch, when you can’t find the book you’re looking for—the one that would solve everything—unbearable! But then rational realization that that one book is in the focal point of attention, imbuing it with an aura it doesn’t really deserve. Anything in the limelight is in the limelight.

But maybe the thing that feels important is that it is illuminated. I try to write in this blog when a manuscript feels illuminated to me. It feels important to write about something while it is glowing and I can see it. I realize that this privileges an ocular sensibility about which I am at best ambivalent.

What’s glowing now is Asja Bakić’s Mars, translated by Jennifer Zoble, and published by the Feminist Press at CUNY. I read it on the Peter Pan bus back to Northampton from a reading in NYC. But when I was at my friend Katie’s apartment talking about it, she thought I was loaning it to her, and I couldn’t bear to correct her, since I always feel excited about the prospect of someone reading the same book as me—the possibility that we could talk about it (and the world would feel that much less lonely)—so I lent it to her.


So instead I’m here, talking about a book, no less luminous, but which instead of reading in one go, I have meted out piece by piece. María Vásquez Valdez’s Kawsay: La Llama de la Selva / Kawsay: The Flame of the Jungle, translated by Margaret Randall, has been at my bedside the past few weeks. A standing item on my daily to do list (along with, if you’re interested morning pages, movement, meditation, and music) is to work on my Spanish. Facing-page translations like this one are great for study: I can start with the Spanish and slide my eyes to the right for help with unknown words and difficult constructions.

I bought Kawsay a while back, for at least two reasons: the aforementioned desire to practice my Spanish (I have big dreams about joining the ranks of the translators someday) and my interest in, and growing involvement with, the Operating System, which I understand as an applied utopian organization including a press. 

Could it be that I’ve written all this without talking about the text yet? Bear with me just a little long in my long approach. I’m writing at a time when many fires are raging in the Amazon. “It's estimated that nearly 50,000 Amazon blazes have ignited this month alone, 89 per cent more than in August 2018 on a scale not seen since 2010.”[1] This is a threat on multiple levels: to the well-being of the planet, to the safety and livelihood of indigenous peoples living there, and to an irreplaceably biodiverse region’s flora and fauna. It stresses me out. I don’t know what to do about it other than raise awareness and money, but I’m also nervous because I know that NGOs can do more harm than good. I haven’t figured out how to take my own small actions but, in the meantime, of which there seems to be less and less, it has been interesting (that neutral mask of a word) to me to read Kawsay.

Kawsay is an account—no, that’s not right—better to say an expression of María Vásquez’s experience visiting a Shipibo shaman in the Peruvian Amazon. As if in anticipation of my squirminess, Margaret Randall in her “Translator’s Note” writes:

This is not the superficial ‘new age’ adventure of someone momentarily embracing whatever esoteric fad comes along, but the profound engagement of a woman who has traveled the world and is familiar with the ritualistic practices of diverse cultures. (107)

Randall goes on to frame the project of this book (both the process of its inspiration and composition and its manifestation as a book through the Operating System) as part of the broader range of strategies necessary to overcoming the neo-fascism that seems to loom over every aspect of contemporary life.

I want to talk around the book more, and maybe I will at some time, using it as a starting point to think through my early autodidact days, assembling a matrix of poetic knowledge by using anthologies as a shortcut. Encountering the Rothenberg and Joris “Poems for the Millennium” anthologies and the subsequent series of single author titles, like a selection of work by Gertrude Stein or María Sabina. Encountering Rothenberg’s earlier Shaking the Pumpkin anthology. Untangling the relationship of “New American Poetry” with indigenous writing and other cultural productions. But today is not that time!


Time for a poem:


Primer Ascenso:

Brillo en la Penumbra


Un murmullo vertido en sombras

parpadea en claves primigenias

para escarbar en la ausencia


He venido apagando días

de tiempo aprisionado

y aliento que alimenta

un engranaje sin sentido


Pero aquí todo tiene

una sabiduría absorta en la vida,

aquí no hay más

que la verdad envuelta en selva,

en la cancion interminable del río,

en el ciclo pautado por el sol,

que es brillo y es penumbra


Aquí todo tiene su lugar,

todo tiene su función

que se desliza

como pieza impostergable


He llegado aquí

buscando a esa maestra

que se esconde en lo recóndito,

a consultar su oráculo

de noche y de silencio,

de vida conectada

en sus principios,

ya sembrada     entre mis huesos


He venido aquí

para atisbar al viento

Escondido entre mis venas

como a un brujo cauteloso

que en mi centro me sustenta


Y todo lo he encontrado

explotando en el viento,

semillas de sol cautivas


Todo lo he encontrado

en una ardiente plenitude

que es cuerpo y es conciencia


Porque en lo profundo todo se mueve,

todo se integra, se despierta,

en lo oscuro todo se enciende y se apaga,

se contiene y también se suelta


Al final el camino empieza,

abre surcus en sí mismo

para florecer respuestas

en tierra nueva


                        germinando. (42-43)


And now for Margaret Randall’s translation:

First Ascent:

Brilliance in the Shadows


A whisper scattered among shadows

blinks a primitive code

to excavate absence


I have been extinguishing days

imprisoned time

and breath that feeds

a meaningless assemblage


But here everything possesses

a wisdom absorbed with life,

here there is nothing more

than truth wrapped in jungle,

in the endless river song,

in the cycle marked by the sun,

both brilliance and shadow


Here everything is in its place,

everything has its purpose

going where it must

impossible to delay


I have come here

searching for that teacher

who hides in the remote place,

I want to consult her oracle

of silence and night,

of life connected

in its beginnings,

already planted             between my bones


I have come here

to glimpse the wind

hiding in my veins

like a prudent healer

sustaining me from my center


And I have found everything

exploding in the wind,

the sun’s captive seeds


I have found everything

in the ardent plenty

that is body and conscience


Because everything moves in the depths,

everything integrates, awakens,

in the dark everything lights up and burns out,

contains itself and also moves free


The path begins at the end,

opens furrows in itself

so it may bloom answers

upon new ground


                        and take root. (42-43)

I’m a sympathetic reader of María Vásquez Valdez. I want to approach “una sabiduría absorta en la vida” (“a wisdom absorbed with life”) and I have come to this life:

buscando a esa maestra

que se esconde en lo recóndito,

a consultar su oráculo

de noche y de silencio,

de vida conectada

en sus principios,

ya sembrada     entre mis huesos (41)

My progress into epic is happening along with a strong desire, rekindled but already present in me, to connect with a feeling of deity or at the very least to experience ecstasy.

I don’t mean like a personal god or whatever. I mean something like the way Venus and Mars are being used at the beginning of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura: as expressions of the inhalation and exhalation of the universe. Sacred materialism. Terrestrial sanctity.

Absence. Silence. Dark. Night. What’s inside the bones. Deity in the negative. Where do you look for a goddess like that—and it has to be a goddess, because what I’m attempting to get at in the book of bella is my pre-transition condition of being double: Zack to the world, and bella a seed, stirring. All of a sudden (though actually it happened over a long period of time), this condition of being was right at my fingertips. When I was no longer still in it, it could easily be summoned to mind; it was that close.

Having become estranged from these past selves, they become other to me. I must access them through a portal. In a way I think of Zack and bella as my ancestors, and so the project of accessing them/communicating with them/inviting them to communicate with me is a spiritual one, more suited to portals than doors.

But accessing my mentality from those days leads me back to my investment in the neopagan occult, leads me to contemplate the relationship between patriarchal oppression and the gender system it upholds, to the other systems it upholds, like a relationship of domination and extraction to the world. I think this must be why Silvia Federici writes about witches and at least some of why Vásquez felt called to interact with the jungle in this way.


Kawsay has an epilogue:

La Soga de los Muertos




Vengo de entre muertos

que caminan

con pies vendados de amnesia,

transitando vidas

de concreto interminable


Muertos que no se encuentran

porque ya se fueron,

o quizá nunca llegaron,

atrapados en una urbe

de espejismos


Pero entre esos muertos la he visto,

con un fulgor de formas incandescentes

y la geométrica estructura de la vida

            más allá de la tempestad


La he sentido abrasándome por dentro,

            fuego que se extiende

con la sencillez do lo imprescindible


Con sabiduría perfecta

dio vida a mi muerte,

para huir de una dentellada sin sentido


Me hizo refulgir desde lo más hondo

curando mi gangrene,

respirando sobre mi asfixia,

devolviendo miembros amputados


Me ha levantado de la fosa común

donde yacen todos los miedos

aferrados a una noche descompuesta


            Me contó los secretitos

de la tierra y del agua

Me contó los secretitos

del fuego y de los vientos


Transfusión de vida

que se esparce en sudor


la soga de los muertos

me ha despojado de todo,

como a un diamante

que estuviera cubierto de carbon

y en el olvido.




Un capullo se disolvió desde su núcleo


Sachamam Amoru

            gran Serpiente

                        despojada de pieles,


una noche eclipse mis atavismos,

y quedé desnuda

            de mí



El camino se llenó

de flores incendiadas,

de aguas pulcras

sumadas a mi boca,

picos blancos

            altos como un suspiro,

lunas cruzadas

de lianas bendecidas

en la selva,

rostros nuevos

como orquídeas desconocidas,

luces que gravitan

a mi paso

con el pulso de guardians,

y al ritmo de icaros

            y silencios.




Un largo camino he andado

hasta llegar a ella,

en la oscuridad,

he percibido su latido,

tras caídas y tropiezas,

cicatrices que ya son humo


El camino me encontró a mi

y me dio a elegir

entre vivir con un trozo de mi cuerpo

            —de mi vida—

a rastras

o comenzar desde un principio

y sin reservas


Porque dando tumbos había tocado,

dando tumbos, rasguñando,

había mirado,

dando tumbos y sin paladear

había comido


Un amor desconocido

pulsa en las orillas,

reverencia honda,

frente que toca la tierra,

labios que besan la distancia


Neonata perlada de líquido amniótico,

luciérnaga que descubrió su luz

                        y su alimento


Hoy amaneció.

And now the translation:

The Rope of the Dead




I come from among the dead

who walk

their feet bound by amnesia,

traveling lives

of endless concrete


Dead who cannot find themselves

because they’re already gone,

or perhaps haven’t yet arrived,

trapped in a metropolis

of mirages


But among those dead I have seen her,

with the brilliance of incandescence

and geometrical structure of life

            beyond the storm


I have felt her embracing me from within,

            a fire that spreads

with the simplicity of that which is needed


With perfect wisdom

she gave life to my death,

to escape needless greed


She made me shine in the depths

cured my gangrene,

breathed life into my suffocation,

returned amputated limbs


She raised me from the common grave

where all fears reside

clinging to unsettled night


            She told me the little secrets

            of earth and of water

            She told me the little secrets

            of the fire and the winds


Transfusion of life


in electrifying sweat,

the rope of the dead

has dispossessed me of everything,

like a diamond


and covered in coal.




My cocoon dissolves from its nucleus out


Sachamama Amoru,

            great Serpent

                        dispossessed of skins,

being delivered again,

a single night eclipsed old habits,

and I was naked


with myself


The path filled

with brilliant flowers,

pure water

for my mouth,

white peaks

            tall as a sigh,

moons crossed

by sacred vines

in the jungle,

new faces

like undiscovered orchids,

lights rotating

as I pass

with the pulse of guardians,

the rhythm of the chants

            and silences.




I have walked long distances

to get to her,

in the darkness

I have felt her heartbeat,

tripping and falling,

scabs that are smoke now


The road found me

and let me choose

between living with a piece of my body

            —of my life—

dragging behind

or starting afresh

and without reserve


Because stumbling I had touched,

stumbling, clawing,

I had seen,

stumbling and without tasting

I had eaten


An unknown love

beat along the shores,

a deep reverence,

forehead pressed to earth,

lips kissing the distance


Pearly newborn of amniotic liquid,

firefly who discovered her light

            and sustenance


Dawned today. (92-97)

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/amazon-fires-rainforest-brazil-jair-bolsonaro-deforestation-dry-season-a9083636.html

Zoe Tuck