Locating Poetry/Cantos primeros


Alfred Arteaga

University of California, Berkeley

Copyright (c) 1997 by Alfred Arteaga, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the notification of the editors.

  1. Four poems, the cantos primeros, open my book Cantos . Francisco X. Alarcón says that they address the cardinal points, that they turn to the four directions and begin. Francisco begins his poetry readings that way: he asks the audience to stand, to face the four directions and call out "Tahui" in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. This gesture, his performative and mine textual, and a similar sensibility in our poetry explain my work, his work, and the greater trajectory of xicano poetics.
  2. Those four cantos primeros share with Francisco's Snake Poems reliance on the trope sampling . And it is a trope in our hands, much in the way metaphor, irony or allegory can be in the hands of others. In our chronotope, present day California, formerly mestizo Mexico and formerly Indian Aztlán before that, we sample. We fashion poetry from the cultural fragments that surround us, from the bits of privilege denied us, from the lost roots and live foliage.
  3. In Snake Poems Francisco turned to the work of his tocayo, to the words of another who shared his name. Francisco sampled Hernando Ruíz de Alarcón, the Spanish priest of the Inquisition who transcribed and translated spells, myths, and sayings from the indigeneous Mexicans. Snake Poems springs from the 1629 text, Tratado de las supersticiones y costumbres gentilicas que hoy viven entre los indios naturales desta Nueva España , translating parts, paraphrasing others, and transfiguring much more. And even though the source is a colonial text in the service of the empire and even though testimony was taken at times under torture, Snake Poems emerges, nonetheless, as a radical reworking.
  4. Cantos opens with the cantos primeros "Primero. Arrival," "Segundo. Textos vivos," "Tercero. E1 viaje," and "Quarto. Xronotop Xicano." The first three are replete with samples, and the four together comprise a spatial orientation. And beyond this, the cantos primeros begin the trajectory of the book by providing it a temporal orientation. Cantos and Snake Poems espouse a poetics that samples colonial spilt blood in the present (here and now) flow of words.
  5. So what is taken? What are the fragments that find presence and color time in Cantos? The first canto, "Arrival," traces movement along two axes of conquest: the East/West of the European colonization and the North/South of Anglo American. Broken words, samples, are taken from the move of "discovery" and empire, from the Old World to the New, and are taken from the manifest destiny of the US conquest of half of Mexico. Voices are sampled that emerge and inform my voice in California at the end of the millennium.
  6. "Textos vivos" self consciously draws attention to its act: the cantos are living texts, a textualized gathering of breath, of words uttered in and across time. Toward this end it founds its sense on an indigenous Mexican trope: for the Aztecs red and black were metonyms for the inks of writing and therefore signified textual knowledge. "E1 viaje" locates itself after and in elaboration to both "Textos vivos" and "Arrival." Immediately following "Textos vivos," "El viaje" continues the trope of color / meaning by sampling the Spanish colonial terminology of miscegenation that textualized racial hierarchy. "El viaje" continues the underlying sense of movement in "Arrival." "El viaje" is "the trip" and emphasizes the movement of Anglo America into Mexico as conqueror as well as tourist.
  7. The last of the cantos primeros, "Xronotop Xicano," is different. While the other three were conscious of others outside, of history and the old world, that is, while they played in the present poem with the live and the dead presences in different spaces and times, "Xronotop Xicano" focuses on the here and now. It is a Chicano poem, full of the interlingual conflict that arises and contextualizes the borderlands between Anglo and Latin Americas, between the moment I breathe in today and the past of the dead. The point of "Xronotop Xicano" is this: in the live speech act we articulate a lot that bears trace of other thens and theres but we articulate them live, they are the bits we exhale and fashion into speech and the thought we imagine.
  8. Cantos arises in the present California of multiple conquests: it is former Mexico; it is former Native America. It is also a response to this while it is an affirmation of being in this chronotope. It samples the voice of many; they are cited in the book, because by doing so, it makes a place and a moment of stubborn resistance and defiance. It is.

Cantos primeros


Primero. Arrival

First, the island.
The cross of truth.
Another island.
A continent.
A line, half water, half metal.
An island of birds, "Ccollanan."
Anisland of birds,
"Ccollanan Pachacutec!"
Sounds above an island, in
the air, trees, "Ccollanan Pachacutec!"
Female sounds. "Ricuy
anceacunac yahuarniy richacaucuta!"
An island of female birds, imagine
the sounds, the air, the trees, at times
the silence, the slither in thorns.
So perfect a shape, right
angles, the globe yields to so
straight a line, look. One
line, zenith to nadir, heaven,
precipitation. The only other,
straighter still than that horizon
we see at sea, perfect: paradise.
That horizontal line, from
old to new, he knew would yield,
yes, so perfect a move, he
knew, yes, so perfect a shape
Trees caught his thoughts.
Birds and onshores brought them
from the boats. She knew those
thoughts, heard those songs.
Could there be one more island?
Birds, sounds, perhaps pearls,
gold? Eden-Guanahaní, perhaps
another? "O my Marina, my new
found island. License my roaving
hands, and let them go, before,
behind, between, above, below."
América, América. Feminine
first name, continent named
for him. América.
Here, Santa Fe. Here, the true
faith. I claim, in the name of
the father. Land of thorns,
in the name of the son.
The edge of this world
and the other, is marked
in water: ocean, river, wave to
her, she waits on the other
side. Aquí, se llama la Juana,
de apellido Juárez, india,
prieta y chaparra, la que le encanta
al gringo, al gachupín.
Island of cactus, genus
Cuauhtémoc. Island of rose,
land of thorns. Pedro de
Alvarado, an eagle, la
región transparente, a
night of smoke. Marina
Nightear, an ocean contained
in one woman, as it was in
the beginning, world
without end, fallen
So feminine a shape. So female
a bay. Another shape: gliding
birds. Another: touching trees.
True name of woman, Vera Cruz,
body of woman. "He named me
Xochitepec, yes so we are all flowers
of the mountain, all a woman's body,
that was one true thing he said in
his life." Above, birds,
leaves, above so woman a form.
Las quince letras: not the seven words:
Contestó Malintzin, "yes
I said yes I will Yes."
En el nombre
de la Virgen de Las Espinas,
ella que en buen ora nasco,
this archeology is born: here
tibia, here ball courts, codices,
teeth. Inside, the caves are
painted. Here is an architecture,
see, toco, toco,
Tla ya timohuica,
totlazo Zuapilli,
maca ammo, Tonantzin,
Mati itlatol ihiyo
Huel ni machicáhuac
no teco qui mati.
En la sangre, en las espinas
de la Virgen de Santa Pe,
these names are written:
América Estados-Unidos, née
México. I name her
Flower of the Mountain,
Amor Silvestre,
Terra Nova,
Cuerpo de Mujer.
The edge of this world
and the other, is marked
in metal: on this side America,
on this side América.
Nights they spill from
San Diego and Los Angeles
threading the steel mesh
como nada, los verdaderos
alambristas, buscando el cuerpo
de mujer, buscando,


Segundo. Textos vivos

Textos vivos

En lo negro that is blackness,
en lo negro, that negritude,
in that night sheet sin
cloud sin moon sky, en lo negro, cielo
in that black sheet stretched
from one hand a un autre
este negro ósculo
oscuro de papel manantial
de mano a mano que ves
esta vez, Je est,
yes, in that yes blank sin
blanco, black held in your now
hand hear hand, aquí, mano vocal,
you see yes, que ves esta vez, negro
que ves, que lees, el negro que lees,
ahora que lees, aquí que lees,
en el negro que lees, ahora y aquí
que lees el pecado sin negro
Entre las manos extiendes la red
from one hand to the other que lees,
desde una mano, one to another,
la red extiende, hoja colorada no
suelta, la red extendida y colorada
from one hand to the other que ves,
l'outre-vie du texte, outre-texte,
que lees, la red que detienes
al momento, that you read
entre estas dos manos
aquel color del filo, aquellas
marcas también, that you
hold from one hand tú que
ves, tú who reads this instant,
that color del filo there you
see, know you see there red, sí you
read en aquellas rojas marcas
extended red, color of solstice
that moment only, red solo, red
color that instant, manos escritas,
extendiendo lo rojo, red color of
manuscript solstice,
tú, tú que lees el estreno
nuevamente rojo, this only solstice,
rojoglífico, color that you read,
from hand, tu mano a esa obra,
rojo you read, aquí, enfrente las
hojas estrechas, no sueltas,
Here it is, the equinox, next to
the hand's skin, beside the other's
too, que ves desocupado
lector, inexplicablemente
despierto, la red negra, la hoja roja:
the black that is silence, letter,
the red that is on, syllable,
negroglífico, rojezcrito, here
it is lying between your hands
alive red alive black, here
it is next to and beside lies
Negrita, Red Man,
de isla y continente
brilliant skins, bright red,
bright black:
hope, splendor, mirror.
Ella, la California, es la serga
de Esplandián, hija
ilegítima de la amada de jaula.
Y él, el bravo Californio, niño perdido,
nuevamente salido y producido,
de aquellas vivas llamas y cenizas,
del ardentísimo y Christianísimo Filipo
que pues en Nueva México quiso ver fénix.
Terra Nova:
hope, splendor, mirror. Bright
back, reflecting, tezcatl,
reflect, nechichauallano,
mirror: A new island of pearls
in the black hands of women; a new
continent of men blood colored::
tlilli in quecholli
tlilli in tlapalli
in ixochiuh in xronotopxopan
xiuhtlacuilolli ya amoxcalitec


Tercero. El viaje

El viaje

White, from white Mictlan, south,
to Xopan, to Tenochtitlan,
"Nosotros descendimos hasta
el río impasible, nosotros de piel
roja, buscando la señal: una isla
en las montañas, en las nubes
claras de águilas, la serpiente
despenñada, el nopal antípoda.
A una isla mixtitlan, a la isla mixtitlan,
dimos el nombre
Isla Xochitepec."
From Aztlán, the word made motion,
tentli, yollotl, yolotia,
to eagle, to snake, to cactus,
each black.
Old man, conquistador,
Bavieca, Tizón and Colada,
father of Coyote, Chamizo,
Sambaigo and Combujo,
father of Lobo, of Barquino,
of Mulato, father of Mestizo.
"From Europe's cold black waters
to Tepeyac, Flower of the Mountain,
where sad children shall kneel
before us. In the name of Our Lady
of the Thorns, we shall baptize a
Juan-Diego Oxomoco, a Marina Nightear,
baptize a María Castellano Cortés,
a Rodrigo Río-Bravo."
And west, dark
women and pearls. "Esplandián!
Plus Ultra, Esplandián!"
Old words made blood,
old words made
Many mothers, a father who
loosed dogs one sad night,
feathers from the quetzal, a
bird who now coos in Spanish.
From the high plateau, from a
gulf town, across desert to one
river, half water, half metal. A
mesh of steel and spray, only
threaded by the mad. Railroads
to the madness, highways to the
cities of the mad, and a boat.
"J'ai rêvé le fleuve m'a laissé
descendre où je voulais." In
my dream, a woman approaches
the fence, she offers mezcal,
there is something
dead in the liquid, we
drink from the common bottle,
our skins are the same
color, in the darkness
agave and mesquite
seem one.
Lone star, bear flag,
Sea to shining ore.
To San Antonio, Santa Fe,
Monterey. To Tijuana or Juarez
Saturday night, border
Chapultepec: young girls
descend, unfurl to drunken
gringos, las heroicas, "Viva
el pinche dólar." Chapultepec,
grasshopper hill: a park
devoted to the pleasure of
marines, devoted to
grasshoppers. Three brown
girls of age stroll by, their color
Long live the land
of plenty.
"If I could fly from this
island of clouds, from this
green island of clouds, from
this green island of orange
men lions, not follow
for long months, like cattle or
breaking sea on reef.
All exiles are kings' sons, after all.
Sad Tara. Leaden sea. Bright heavens."
To Canada, America, Churubusco,
Chapultepec. Flight of John Riley.
Harp of Erin, a Shamrock, a green field.
Was it Col. Bennet Riley or was
it Capt. O'Shay? 16 hanged at
San Angel, April 9, 1847. 4 hanged
at Mixcoac, April 10. 30 hanged
at Chapultepec, grasshopper hill,
where the children heroes took
flight, April 13. The rest: 50 lashes,
an iron collar with 3 prongs, 6
inches, 8 pounds each; a head shaving;
a D branded on the cheek.
From green Tara island to
green Tenochtitlan island,
from Erin to Aztlán,
I remember,
Primero, el poder y la palabra. Napole6n
o el poder del pasado, Juárez o
el poder de la raza. Entre las
dos orillas del poder, un puente:
Carlota, que convierte
la historia de ambos poderes
en teatro. Habla la Hapsburg,
"J'aurais voulu montrer aux
enfants ces dorades, ces serpents
emplumés, cette pyramide. Les
mexicains ont bercé mes détrades,
et d'ineffables ventes m'ont ailée
par instants. Ce pays sauvage,
ce bateau perdu."


Quarto. Xronotop Xicano

Xronotop Xicano

Aguila negra, rojo chante.
Tinta y pluma.
Textos vivos,
written people: the vato
with la vida loca on his neck,
the vata with p.v., the ganga with
tears, the shining cross. Varrio
walls: codices; storefront
placazos: varrio names,
desafios, people names.
Written cars, names etched
in glass, "Land of a Thousand
Dances." Placas
and love etched in schools.
Faces of Indians branded
by Spaniards.
Faces of Irishmen branded
by Americans.
Gachupín: he who kicks
with the boot.
Yankee: new man, of the
new world, Yancuic.
Xicano: cantador, namer.

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