The native is shorn of the coarse,
then cloaked in a brocade ellipsis. She figures
this a better vocation
than the other thing, the desert chingadera.
They tell her, you're no good for rancheros, and
for the volcano veneration shill melted into fetters,
but she gets banished for her valor.
Her first translation:
"This speech fills our gaps with Civilization, with
my misprision. It sets wild into new fluencies."
Her sisters surround her and she asks,
They boil the goat's tongue and then what is it?
She tells them she plans to inter our dialect
into theirs, our divinity. She wants mongrel dictions
to add to her arsenal. She wants to be lord.
In these days of rancorous politics, of cancerous fish and wizened tree frogs, of torture and drone strikes and surveillance, of congressmen fiddling while the ozone thins, poetry sometimes seems a luxury without much of a future. As the poet Chuck Calabreze once wrote, “I’m writing for the ages. It’d be good if we had some.” On the other hand, poets have committed many heartfelt but unbearable stanzas in support of this or that revolution. In “Drone Poetics,” Las Cruces poet Carmen Giménez Smith challenged herself to write politically engaged poetry: “While the government watches us, more and more poets and writers are watching back, documenting the injustices that stain our present moment…I should be doing that.”
Giménez Smith writes cohesive books of poetry, and her new book, Milk & Filth coheres around politics of both the interpersonal and the international kind. In the opening section, “Gender Fables,” Giménez Smith looks at a number of women, real and fictional, who were victims of trauma and whose own actions sometimes caused further trauma. “The female body,” she says in a recent interview on Letras Latinas blog, “is a loci of many wars, cultural and political, so I wanted to reach into the legacy behind these ‘traumas,’ traumas which really concern borders that are often breached or violated through the female body.”
In the poem “Malinché” Giménez Smith writes her way head-on into one of the most controversial figures in Mexican history. La Malinche was the daughter of an Aztec cacique, born in 1502 and originally named Malinalli. When her father died and her mother remarried and gave birth to a son, her mother gave Malinalli to traders so that her son might receive her inheritance. The traders sold Malinalli to a Mayan cacique of coastal Tabasco province in the Yucatan.
In 1519 Hernán Cortés arrived and quickly conquered Tabasco. As was the custom, the defeated cacique gave Cortés twenty “maidens,” including Malinalli. Because of her fluency in Mayan dialects and Nahuatl and—very soon—Castilian Spanish, Malinalli, “Marina” in Spanish, quickly became a crucial player in Cortés’ conquest. The Aztecs called her “La Malinche” because she was always beside Cortés, who they called “Malinche.” After the conquest, Cortés wrote, “After God we owe this conquest of New Spain to Doña Marina.”
Partisanship colors the historical accounts of La Malinche’s actions, but it’s clear that La Malinche used her language skills to convince the Mayans that Cortés would free them from subjugation to the Aztec empire. She also convinced tribal leaders that Cortés’ arrival had been predicted, and the conquest was, therefore, inevitable. She uncovered and warned Cortés of an Aztec plot and used her influence on the natives to convince them to convert to Catholicism. Given this complicated legacy of abandonment leading to collusion and power, Mexicans have called La Malinche everything from heroine to traitor to prototypical feminist.
In her Giménez Smith reduces this epic tale to 15 lines. As usual in a Giménez Smith poem, language is foregrounded, suggestive, and rich in sound and texture. Political poems often fail from intentionality and didacticism; choosing words because of how their sound disrupts intention. The poet Richard Hugo had a practice: “When I made a sound I felt was strong… I’d make a similar sound three to eight syllables later.” Hugo thus let sound lead him toward the poem’s true subject.
In her wonderful “Twenty-Two Poem Hacks,” Giménez Smith quotes Robert Frost: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Some of the surprise in her own poems arises because she lets sound divert and lead her. You can tell that sound is an engine of “[Malinché]” right away, when the sound of “shorn” leads to “coarse” and “cloked” leads to “brocade,” when “thing” leads to the surprising “chingadera.” Then we get the gloriously-sounded “shill melted into fetters.” Then “translation” leads to “Civilization” to the surprising, but totally apt “misprision,” a word that means “wrong performance of duty” or “seditious conduct.”
The final stanza is surprising in a number of ways. We suddenly have an “our”—an allegiance that was always implied but never stated. And when La Malinche’s master plan is revealed, the word “inter,” “to bury,” does much of the tonal work, as does the suggested equivalence of “dialect” and “divinity.” Finally, language, which is both joiner and divider, becomes, for La Malinche, an “arsenal,” a source of personal power. The poem reveals the distrust behind the old Italian saying, “traduttore, traditore”: “translator, traitor.”
Jon Davis is the poet laureate for the City of Santa Fe. He teaches creative writing at the Institute for American Indian Arts. Last month’s poem, “Horse Face,” was reprinted by permission of Arthur Sze and Copper Canyon Press. This month’s poem is from Milk & Filth, University of Arizona