Poems

from THE POPOL VUH translated by Michael Bazzett

Translator’s Note: The Popol Vuh, the creation epic of the Maya, is one of the great indigenous myths of the Americas. It’s astonishing story where the world is born of divine conversation, where hero twins reckon with death itself, where humanity is the product of divine revision, and our ultimate purpose as “true people” is to recall with gratitude and exactness the names of those who made us.

The following sections are excerpted near the end of the mythic arc, after the fourth (and successful) attempt at creating humanity: four people are created, one for each corner of the sky, each side of the cosmos, each point on the compass. These are the “mother-fathers” of their respective K’iche’ lineages, the true people the gods have wished: “They spoke and they conversed. / They looked and they listened. / They walked and they grasped things, / and they held them in their hands.” Their vision is vast from the first moment of consciousness, beginning with a state akin to nirvana, as they take in the entire world in one transcendent glance. It is an interpenetrating sort of vision: their sight is “completed / by the world around them” and “their knowledge was completed / by everything beneath the sky.” It is a marvelous beginning for humanity. A little too good, perhaps. And thus their eyes are “lightly clouded” by Heart of Sky, imbuing the origins of humanity with both a glimpse of divine transcendence and a pang of loss.

 

The Vision of the First Men

It is said these men were
simply framed and shaped:

they had no mother,
they had no father.

They were merely lone men.
No woman gave them birth.

Nor were they borne
by the Framer and the Shaper,

by She who has borne children,
and He who has planted them.

It was simply the pure spirit
and glinting spark of insight

of the Framer and the Shaper,
of Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent,

of She who has borne children,
and He who has planted them,

that framed and gave them shape.
They looked like true people,

and true people they became.
They spoke and they conversed.

They looked and they listened.
The walked and they grasped things,
and they held them in their hands.

They were excellent people,
well-made and handsome.

They appeared with manly faces
and began to breathe,
and so they became,

and they looked around them,
their vision coming all at once:

their sight was completed
by the world around them,

their knowledge was completed
by everything beneath the sky.

When they gazed about them,
the looked intently and deeply
into the womb of the sky and earth.

It took less than a moment to take it in.
In that brief time, they saw everything.

They had not yet taken a step,
when they already knew the world:

everything beneath the sky
was seen from where they looked,
and their knowledge was crowded full.

Their vision passed beyond the trees,
beyond the rocks and lakes and seas,
beyond the mountains and the valleys.

They were truly honored people,
Balam Quitze and Balam Acab,
Mahucutah and Iqui Balam.

 

Gratitude of the First Men

Then the four were asked
by the Framer and the Shaper:

“What is this, your being?

Can you feel it?
Do you know it?

Do you not look and listen?
Do you not speak and walk?

Look, then, and see
the roots of the sky.

Are the mountains not clear?
And the green valleys you see?

Try it, then,” they were told.

So their vision of everything
rooted beneath the sky
was made complete,

and they gave thanks
to the Framer and Shaper:

“Truly, we thank you,
two times and three times,

that we were given form,
that we were given mouths,
that we were given faces,

so now we speak and we listen,
now we ponder and we move.

Well we know what we
learned and saw, far and near.

We saw the great and the small:
all there is in sky and earth.

So we give you thanks
that we were created,
that we were framed and shaped.

We took form because of you,
our grandmother and our grandfather,”

they said when they gave thanks
for their framing and their shaping.

Their knowledge of everything
they saw was perfect

as they looked into the four corners
and along the four sides
of everything within the sky and earth.

But this did not sound good
to the Framer and the Shaper.

“It’s not good, what they said,
the ones that we have wrought:

Rain over‘We have learned everything,
Rain overgreat and small,’ they say.”

 

The Displeasure of the Gods

 

So they took their knowledge back,

She who has borne children,
and He who has planted them.

“Now what will we do with them
so their vision merely reaches

nearby, so they will simply see
a little of the face of the earth?

It’s not good what they say.
They were merely called

to be framed and shaped,
not to be mistaken for gods.

And yet if they do not multiply,
if they do not increase,

when shall it be sown?
When will dawn come?

If they do not prosper,
how can this come to be?

So we will simply undo them
a little. That is what is wanted,

because it is not good
what we discovered.

Their deeds could rival ours.
Their knowledge reaches far.
They could grasp everything.”

So they spoke, Heart of Sky:

Rain overHurricane,
Rain overNewborn Thunderbolt,
Rain overand Sudden Lightning,

Rain overSovereign and Quetzal Serpent,

Rain overShe who has borne children,
Rain overand He who has planted them,

Rain overXpiyacoc and Xmucane,
Rain overthe Framer and the Shaper, as they are called.

Then they remade the essence
of the people framed and shaped.

Their eyes were lightly clouded,
by Heart of Sky.

Like breath upon a mirror
or wind upon the water,
their eyes were veiled.

Their great vision was blunted.
Now they could only see nearby.

Things were only clear to them
right where they stood.

So their knowledge was lost,
the wisdom of those first four people.

It was lost there at its beginning,
at the very root of its planting.

This was the framing and the shaping
of our first grandfathers and fathers
by Heart of Sky and Heart of Earth.

 


 

Michael Bazzett is the author of You Must Remember This, which received the 2014 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry, and The Interrogation. His translation of The Popol Vuh, the first verse version in English, has just been published by Milkweed Editions. His poems have appeared in numerous publications, including PloughsharesThe Sun, and Best New Poets. He is a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow and lives in Minneapolis.