In August 1995 I traveled to Mexico with poet Anne Waldman, novelist Rikki Ducornet, and psychoanalyst Jonathan Cohen. We met in Mexico City, a high altitude cosmopolis ringed by mountains, currently the planet's most populous city. The poets Elsa Cross and David Huerta had scheduled a reading and reception for us at Casa del Poeta. Following a few days among friends we went south into Chiapas State. Chiapas held three interconnected interestscities and pyramids of classic Maya antiquity; contemporary Tzeltal and Tzotzil speaking villages in misty pine forest highlands; and somewhere, out there in the Lacandon threading jungle paths as they elude the Mexican military, the EZLNZapatista army with its eloquent shadowy elders whose communiques sound like a blend of MesoAmerican shamanism, 20th century poetics, and post-Marxist pragmatism.
Those who go by night said, And we see that this way of governing that we name is no longer the way for the many, we see that it is the few who now command, and they command without obeying...
The journey was a brief one. We hoped to dig into Juana de Asbaje's poems, gaze upon skeletal eyes of Palenque ruler Pacal, and meet a few knowledgable contemporaries. A modest and unremarkable attempt to learn what we could of the temper of Mexico in the EZLN climate. To see what we might find out firsthand, not simply from hearsay. To keep eyes and ears open, take notes like spies, and carry a few books for the work. This despite word the Zapatistas were disburdening literature from their own rucksacks. "Because you're loaded with books doesn't mean someone else offers to carry your ammunition," a subcomandante had recently confided.
This is a journal of the trip, in mongrel mix of prose and verse. Its sense of form is much indebted to Japanese haibun, good style for jotting notes in a rucksack. I kept the writing deliberately loose. Haibun is always stricter, more keenly regimented in how it balances prose and terse lyric.
Matsuo Basho is the poet who brought haibun to its keenest development, particularly in his travel journals. As we wandered Basho trailed without mention behind. Oku no Hosomichi, his best known work (1690), recounts a journey by foot into Japan's northern hinterlands. In his day the province of Oku was an unpredictable and slightly scary back country, geographically and culturally distant from Edo, the capital, and a site of potential unrest. Just as in post-NAFTA North America it is Chiapas firstthen Guerrero, Oaxaca, and other Mexican statesthat emerge as shakiest members of an economic policy crafted in Washington.
In English Basho's title is "The Back Road to Oku." On the back road to Ocosingo I heard the place names echo.
Andrew Schelling | Mexico City
Contents | Mudlark No. 9