Time, Space and Mayan Ground

by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno


Mary Oppen, in her autobiography Meaning A Life, sums up the eight years the Oppens spent in Mexico like this: "We were in exile in a country we had chosen only because we could enter Mexico without a passport when a passport was refused to us. Our lives then were occupied with earning extra money in order to live a bourgeois life in Mexico…." While I am unsure how fully George Oppen shared his wife's sense of their time in Mexico as being little more than a period of forced exile, it is fairly obvious that unlike Brooklyn, France, San Francisco or even Maine, Mexico did not work itself much into Oppen's poetry. And yet it is also clear that when Oppen did choose to respond to Mexico, he did so with acute insight into the reality of place. Poems such as "Resort," "Coastal Strip," "Primitive," and "The Mayan Ground" all reflect Oppen's sensing and sensitive optic. Of these Mexican-inspired poems "The Mayan Ground" is the most complex and sustained evocation of Mexico as place and subject.

The poem begins with a quotation from the Mayan book of prophecy, The Chilam Balam of Tizimin (in the 1951 Makemson translation): "and whether they are beautiful or not there will be no one to guide them in the days to come.. // We mourned the red cardinal birds and the jeweled ornaments // and the handful of precious stones in our fields…" As is evident even from this snippet, The Chilam Balam is a highly metaphoric chronicle of loss, destruction and despair. Indeed, the prophecies are without exception pessimistic, foretelling the holocaust perpetrated on the Maya by the Spanish. That Oppen chooses to quote The Chilam Balam is significant. Not only does the book of prophecy serve as both a departure point and a guide into the world Oppen is exploring in the poem, the form of The Chilam Balam is also resonant in that it is composed of fragment welded to fragment, of interpolation upon interpolation. In other words, this is a composition method near and dear to Oppen. And just as The Chilam Balam weaves past into present, and both past and present into the future, Oppen similarly manipulates time in his evocation of Mexico in "The Mayan Ground."

The poem begins with the salutative statement: "Poor savages / of ghost and glitter," that addresses both the Maya of The Chilam Balam and the present-day Maya. But Oppen does not linger there; instead he moves to link time and space through direct observation of a tire rolling over the earth (present time) and space (the ground). The image is evocative in that it is a depiction of the machine-powered tire crushing the natural world. The next lines further exploit this notion: "Crumbling at the edges / Which is terror, the unsightly // Silting sand of events."

The next lines speak both to the subject of the rutted ground while also extending the notion of terror and events to include the writing of the poem itself: "Inside that shell, 'the speckled egg' / The poet wrote of that we try to break." The quotation here is from Denise Levertov's "Matins" in which her image of fondling and breaking "the speckled egg" is seen as providing the nourishment a poet receives from writing a poem.

The remainder of the poem is less occupied with literary flights than with Oppen's musing on the Maya of past and present. In these stanzas he flits between the world of the prophecies and the world of the contemporary Maya. In one line he evokes the Maya of The Chilam Balam who "had lost account / Of the unrolling of the universe." In another he muses upon the flesh and blood Maya who "stir in the mornings." The idea here is that in continuity there is change, in loss, retention. That the ancient system of belief has vanished does not mean that a people have vanished. Everyday acts define them:

And only the people
Stir in the mornings
Coming from the houses, and the black hair

Of the women at the pump

Against the dawn
Seems beautiful.

It is a simple observation but not simplistic. The women at the pump are timeless, carrying within them all of their past, their present, and perhaps even the future. This image is truly the essence of Mexico in which the past is never too far from the present, where ancient culture is a constant force in the modern world. Mexico may have only inspired Oppen to write a few poems but when moved to record his insights, he did so with all his unique power, acumen and originality.


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