A Very Short History of Mexico

After reading my recent entries on the Conquistadors, my mother-in-law, author of The Dog on the Roof: A Casa Colonial Mystery, sent me an interesting short history of Mexico, providing further background to the poem that I'll finish up this weekend, after I finish fitting my thougts together.:

December 13, 2002

Dear Loren,

What the hell is a “just” war? In my book, there ain’t no such animal. But wow—what a rouser MacLeish is with that poem.

As a practical matter, which side was good guys or bad guys is hard to decide. The Aztecs had a cruel and savage religion that gave them license to kill horribly. They met their match in the Spaniards, but neither side was “the good guys” in my estimation—at least not in that initial altercation. Very shortly, however, the Spaniards became the bad guys to all the rest of Mexico. And to me. But then, you know how I feel about proselytizing in any form

I think you need a thumb-nail history of the peoples of Mexico, and I’m just the one to give it to you. I told this story to all my tour groups, and my version was accepted by an anthropologist from UC Berkeley who went to Oaxaca and stayed at Casa Colonial. I won’t be able to recall all the dates—I’ve been away from it far too long—but here are the bones of the thing.

The Olmecs were the earliest recorded people in the Oaxaca area. They went back to somewhere between 8,000 and 1,000 B.C. Not too much detail is known about them. However, there are “Olmecoid” figures carved in stone at Monte Albán, the massive ruins just outside the city of Oaxaca. After the Olmecs came the Toltecs, the Zapotecs, and the Mixtecs. The Aztecs were the johnnys-come-lately—didn’t even show up until the 1300’s.

The Toltec king was named Quétzalcoatl. He was a mortal man, but was also god-like—sort of like King Arthur. He offered a gentle religion and encouraged. the arts, metalurgy, engineering, farming and other benign and productive activities. He had a whole bunch of stringent rules for himself, one of which was sexual abstinence. One time during a religious fiesta, a minor goddess fed him mushrooms and seduced him. When he awoke in the morning, he was overcome with remorse and decided that he was no longer fit to rule, so he took some of his cohorts, got into a boat, and sailed away into the morning sun. But before he left, he told his people that he would return some day in a ship as big as a house, and he gave them a list of dates upon which he might be expected.

Much later, the Aztecs came across the bridge from Asia. They wandered down the west coast of North America for fifteen hundred years or so because their god told them they had to keep going until they found an eagle with a snake in its beak sitting on a cactus—and them eagles on cactuses is scarce! At one point, a bunch of Aztecs broke away from the main group, stayed behind, and became the Ute Indians in the area that is now Utah. Anthropologists say that the Ute language and the Aztec language are almost identical. The rest of the Aztecs kept on going, and after many more years they finally found their eagle sitting on a cactus with a snake in its beak. It was on a small island in the middle of a huge swamp, but that was where their god had told them to build a town, so they moved right in. They raised their first crops in dirt piled on rafts floating in the swamp—and that was the origin of the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco.

The Aztecs were crude nomads who didn’t know how to do anything except make war, so their king sent his armies to attack the peaceful Zapotecs to the south. The Zapotecs had a highly organized society and were the remarkable engineers who had built Monte Albán and various other cultural and religious centers throughout the Valley of Oaxaca. Instead of killing the Zapotecs, the Aztecs enslaved them, took them back to the island, and put them to work draining swamps and building a city. Only 250 years later, when Cortez arrived, he found an elaborate system of canals and causeways, and the marvelous shining city of Tenochtitlán.

The Aztecs probably could have overcome the Spaniards easily except for two things.
1. All the other peoples of Mexico hated the Aztecs with a passion. As is often the case, religion was at the bottom of it all, for the Aztec religion demanded human sacrifice and plenty of it! They had a belief that unless they tore the still-beating heart out of a human being and offered it to the sun god at least once a day, the sun might stop in it’s tracks and burn up the world. There was another charming custom where a priest would skin a living person, put the skin on his own body, over his own skin, and wear it until it rotted and fell off. Must have smelled just lovely! This was supposed to signify the emerging beauty of spring. Right? Anyway, sacrificial victims and various tributes were obtained from neighboring places, and this tended to make enemies, not friends.

2. Montezuma, the Aztec king, was a devotee of astrology and a student of Toltec history. When he heard that strangers had arrived on his shores, he went up to the roof of the palace to consult the stars and decide what to do. His decision was complicated by the fact that Cortez had arrived in “a ship as big as a house” on one of the dates given by Quétzalcoatl for his possible return. On top of that, Quétzalcoatl had had fair skin and a light brown beard—an oddity in Mexico. Cortez was also fair and had a light brown beard. So was Cortez an enemy, or was he Quétzalcoatl? While Montezuma paced the roof of the palace and shilly-shallied, Cortez picked up a passle of anti-Aztec allies and attacked. According to accounts I have read, in addition to MacLeish’s, it was a truly fearsome battle.

After that, there was a whole lot of deception and deceit on the part of Cortez. Both sides did horrible things, and the Spaniards, who had self-righteously subdued the “cruel and Godless pagans,” now commited atrocities in the name of God, king, and Catholicism. And there was gold involved. A lot of it. We can’t forget that.

I have often wondered what the peace-loving Zapotecs thought when they saw those fearsome Spanish priests stalk up and down, black robes flapping, while carrying on high an image of a man being tortured to death.

Humankind is amazing.

Hoping you are the same--Love, Mary

A Glorious Victory

As I've considered and reconsidered “Conquistador,” I've realized that one of my problems with the poem is that I, like Dorothea, am unconvinced that Cortes’ conquest of the Aztecs was a “noble” victory as depicted in Diáz’s account and, consequently, in MacLeish’s poem. I generally tend to identify with the native people, particularly when, as in Cortes’ case, the victors seem to have been driven more by a desire for gold than by any noble cause. While reviewing the background of Cortes’ victory I found another very different perspective of the war at “The Aztec Account of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico”, an account that one would surely need to consider to gain a true understanding of the Conquistadors. Luckily, resolving this complex question isn’t vital in order to understanding MacLeish’s poem and his philosophy.

That said, in order for the poem to work MacLeish needs to establish how glorious the victory was and that Bernal Diaz’s was an important member of that victory. An important step in doing so was to show Cortes’ genius in battle. Next he needed to show, just as Diaz had attempted to do, that it was a “just war.” Otherwise, one could easily argue that Diaz’s final misery was God’s just reward for his evil acts. Finally, easiest of all, MacLeish needed to show how truly magnificent this victory was, as a small force of Spaniards defeated hordes of evil enemies in scenes reminiscent of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Cortes isn’t the central character in the poem, but he is shown repeatedly as a heroic leader. First, he is shown to be determined leader:

"Did we come to the gate of a ground like this to return from it?
"If he had no writ of Velasquez's hand let him find one!
"Let him establish a king's town for the birds

"Taking his writ from the Emperor Charles and the spiders
"And damned to Velasquez's deed!"

Although he had no orders allowing him to invade Mexico and he was order to withdraw by the governor of Cuba, Cortes never wavered in his determination to explore and conquer Mexico.

Cortes used guile and military genius to defeat a superior enemy. When the emissaries from Montezuma came in an attempt to win Cortes to their side, or at least to prevent his further advance, Cortes pretended to thank the emperor and expressed a desire to meet him personally:

"Now does he send you from his endless thousands
"These and this treasure: in Tenochtitlán
"Armies- are harvested like summer's flowers":

So did he speak and he pointed with raised hand
Westward out of the sun: and Cortés was silent
And he looked long at his feet at the furrowed sand:

And his voice when he spoke was a grave voice without guile in it-
"Say that we thank him well: say also
"We would behold this Emperor": and he smiled:

Later, in the final victory after having been initially driven out by superior numbers, Cortes planned a siege that defeated the Aztecs:

And we marched against them there in the next spring:
And we did the thing that time by the books and the science:
And we burned the back towns and we cut the mulberries:
And their dykes were down and the pipes of their fountains dry:

And we laid them a Christian siege with the sun and the vultures:
And they kept us ninety and three days till they died of it:
And the whole action well conceived and conducted:

Finally, Cortes was an inspirational leader who wouldn’t allow his troops to give into defeat when they seemed hopelessly outnumbered:

And Cortes was wild with the night's work -
"Had we brought the
"'Whore of death to our beds and our house to serve us?
"How should we profit by these deeds? And we thought our

"Ills were done! And the wheel of our luck turned!
"And the toss was tamed to our hands!


All that day and into dark we fought:
And we lay in the straw in the rank blood and Cortés was
Hoarse with the shouting - "… for a man was wronged and a

"Fool to suffer the Sure Aid but to best it and
"Fight as he might: and he prayed all of us pardon

"And grace if he spoke our hurt: but we were men:

Heroic or not, it’s hard to deny that Cortes was a remarkable leader.

Of course it matters little how heroic your leaders are if you are fighting an unjust war. Such leaders may become infamous, but they can never truly be heroic. The poem does not provide a formal argument over the justification of the war, but MacLeish uses several passages from Diáz, to support the idea that it was a just war, if not a holy one. One of the earliest passages in the poems cites the Spaniards’ reaction to the priests’ sacrifices:

New-spilled blood in the air: many among us
Seeing the priests with their small and arrogant faces:

Seeing the dead boys' breasts and the idols hung with
Dried shells of the hearts like the husks of cicadas
And their human eyeballs and their painted tongues

Cried out to the Holy Mother of God for it:

Diáz notes that in their earliest meetings that Indians who were oppressed by the Aztecs hated them:

"Montezúma the king's land! Of our people
"Clear to the sea's edge was the river corn:
"And they came from the west with their hard eyes and their eagles:

"Once we were short of spears: once were the fords deep:
"Now they take what they will in the whole land:
"They rut in our daughters' beds: it is evil fortune:

"We have no name of a man now: our ancestors -
"They that planted the orchards: they were Totónacs:
"I that speak this was a free-born man:

"Beware of the land Colúa you that go to it!"

Several epithets identify the Aztecs as a force of evil (perhaps Bush could increase his appeal to intellectuals simply by borrowing epithets from MacLeish’s poem):
“The falsifiers of things seen!/ The defamers of/ Sunlight under the name of our sky!/ and we slew them” and one that seems uniquely MacLeishean, “And they would have destroyed us in that place: the debasers of/ Leaves! of the shape of wild geese on the waters!”

The Tenth Book which begins with the description of a virtual Paradise, and ends with a sacrifice of a young boy by the Aztec priests, the apparent price of maintaining this heathen paradise offers the most convincing argument that the Spaniards saw the Aztec priests as ministers of the Devil. The book begins:

O halcyon! 0 sea-conceiving bird!
The bright surf breaking on thy silver beaches


We were like those that in their lands they say
The steers of the sun went up through the wave-lit orchards
Shaking the water drops and those gold naked

Girls before them at their dripping horns!

Despite their feeling that this is paradise, the Spaniards were unwilling to pay the price for continuing to live here:

And they passed with their cries at dawn and their deep

And we saw them go by the stone courts and the cages:
And all clean and with coarse lime and the temple
Steep in the reach of the sky
and the boy was slain!

No matter how hypocritical or greedy the Conquistadors may have been, it is difficult to justify the sacrifices that the Aztecs demanded of the other tribes they had conquered.

Finally, the battle scenes depicted in the poem would be a movie director’s delight. It was a real High Noon where, for those still capable of such illusions, the “good guys defeated the bad guys:”

And they came like dogs with their arms down: and their

Painted and black and with death's eyes and their breasts
Quilted with cotton and their naked arms:
And the hard hammer of sun on the gold: and their crests like a

Squall of rain across the whitening barley -
We that were mortal and feared death - and the roll of the
Drums like the thud in the ear of a man's heart and the

Arrows raking us: rattle of metal: the goad
Stuck in the fat of the hand: and we standing there
Taking the sting of it. .
No! we were good soldiers –

And in a later battle:

They fell by scores and they came again by their hundreds:
And the blood of our veins was run in the earth with our victories:
Day after day we fought and we always won!
And we sent them word they were well wealed: and to think of it:

And they came again with their crow's cry and their feathers:
And they fought us back in the brake: and our bellies sickened:

And we saw soon how our bodies were near death
And how we should take that battle with our lives
And pass them by with our bare bones into Mexico –

No matter what we might personally believe, Diaz seemed convinced that with the Grace of God that the Conquistador’s were able to defeat the forces of evil:

And the plumes sawed in the sun like maize: and we feared them and
Fought blind and with God's grace we came out of it:
And we lay beyond the mountains for that year.

In many ways Cortes' victory seems like the kind of victory that only happens in fantasies. Little wonder that he and his men may have felt that they were blessed by God.

Bernál Diáz’s Tragedy

Although at first appearance Archibald MacLeish's "Conquistador" seems merely an accurate recreation of Bernál Diáz’s history, further analysis reveals some subtle conflicts that are not evident at first but that reflect themes developed in other MacLeish poems.

On one level, the poem can be perceived as more sophisticated version of Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days." Diáz is looking back at a glorious heroic event he participated in, but we, the reader, already know that he wil end up living in the land he conquered with an Indian wife who he certainly does not love and with children who he disdains, and a feeling that his efforts have been denigrated because he is merely a commoner. At first these events may seem unrelated, but as we read we discover that the heroic conquest of Mexico contained within it the very seeds of his destruction. The poem might well be called the "Tragedy of Bernál Diáz," commoner.

It is this tension between the heroic victory and the personal failure that gives this poem its power.

Introduction to Archibald MacLeish’s “Conquistador”

The Dedication of Archibald MacLeish’s “Conquistador” is a line from Dante’s Inferno “O brothers, who amid a hundred thousand/ Perils,' I said, 'have come unto the West,” and the poem, if we are to believe the electronic World Book, does describe most of the perils that Bernál Diáz faced while accompanying Cortéz in the conquering of the Aztec Empire.

But the poem obviously attempts to do much more than that. The Prologue to the poem raises the question:

And the way goes on in the worn earth:
and we (others) –
What are the dead to us in our better fortune?
They have left us the roads made and the walls standing:
They have left us the chairs in the rooms:
what is there more of them –

Suggesting that we owe an obligation to those who have preceded us, an obligation the poet feels bound to explore.

One of MacLeish’s aims that seems to coincide with Bernál Diáz’s goal in originally writing is history is to show the conquest from the perspective of one who participated rather than from a latter historian’s viewpoint. In “Bernál Diáz’s Preface to His Book” MacLeish has BD say:

I am an ignorant old sick man: blind with the
Shadow of death on my face and my hands to lead me:
And he not ignorant: not sick -
but I

Fought in those battles! These were my own deeds!
These names he writes of mouthing them out as a man
Names in Herodotus - dead and their wars to read -

These were my friends: these dead my companions:
I: Bernál Diaz: called del Castlilo:
Called in the time of my first fights El Calán:

In fact, according to an article by Rolena Adorno, one of Diáz’s main goals was to refute the histories that were being written by others, histories that some times questioned the morality of the conquest of the Aztecs. Diaz, because he was there, argues that his history is merely the record of his life:

I: poor as I am: I was young in that country:
These words were my life: these letters written

Cold on the page with the split ink and the shunt of the
Stubborn thumb: these marks at my fingers:
These are the shape of my own life

When accused of merely writing his own history in order to protect his fame, MacLeish has Diáz reply:

"The tedious veteran jealous of his fame!"
What is my fame or the fame of these my companions?
Their tombs are the bellies of Indians: theirs are the

Graves in the wild earth: in the Godless sand:
None know the place of their bones: as for mine
Strangers will dig my grave in a stony land:

Even my sons have the strangeness of dark kind in them:
Indian dogs will bark at dusk by my sepulchre:
What is my fame!

In other words, he has no fame, instead he lives in Mexico surrounded by children by an Indian mother who seem strange to him. He expects nothing more than to have “Indian dogs” bark as his “sepulcher,” for he, like most of his compatriots will end up in an unknown grave in a “foreign” land.

Later he remarks:

Where have they written our names? What have they
said of us?
They call the towns for the kings that bear no scars:
They keep the names of the great for time to stare at -
The bishops rich-men generals cocks-at-arms:

Those with the glaze in their eyes and the fine bearing:
The born leaders of men: the resonant voices:

They give them the lands for their tombs: they call it

(And who has heard of Vespucci in this soil
Or down by the lee of the coast or toward the Havana?)
And we that fought here: that with heavy toil

Earthed up the powerful cities of this land -
What are we? When will our fame come?

raising the question of why it is that the “common man,” the man who really does all the fighting is forgotten, while the names of kings or bishops who have done nothing are predominant in the land the comman men died to conquer. When will the common man be recognized for his true contribution to history?

Although Diáz seems resigned to his fate:

We were the lords of it all. .
Now time has taught us:
Death has mastered us most: sorrow and pain
Sickness and evil days are our lives' lot:

It is not a fate that he welcomes or accepts readily, still a warrior at the end of his life.

The final argument developed in the poem is what Rolena Adorno called the argument that the conquest of the Aztecs was a “just war,” not just a war fought to steal the Indians’ gold:

New-spilled blood in the air: many among us
Seeing the priests with their small and arrogant faces:

Seeing the dead boys' breasts and the idols hung with I
Dried shells of the hearts like the husks of cicadas
And their human eyeballs and their painted tongues

Cried out to the Holy Mother of God for it:

If we are to believe Diáz, the war was also fought to put an end to the ghastly sacrifices that the Aztec Empire demanded of both surrounding tribes and of their own people. Cortéz’s soldiers were so offended by the rituals they witnessed that they felt compelled to destroy the Aztec empire, and the preface ends with:

And none of us all but had his heart foreknown the
Evil to come would have turned from the land then:
But the lives of men are covered and not shown –

Archibald MacLeish’s Early Poems

Reading the entire works of a poet from beginning to end is in some ways like reliving the poet’s life, even a little like growing with him as his insights and philosophy grow. In addition, you gain insights into his poetry because you can follow shifts in his style while simultaneously seeing how his style was influenced by those around him. You can also follow the development of images and symbols that become vital to a fuller understanding of the poet’s work.

“Baccalaureate” is the oldest poem in Archibald MacLeish: Collected Poems 1917-1982:


A year or two, and grey Euripides,
And Horace and a Lydia or so,
And Euclid and the brush of Angelo,
Darwin on man, Vergilius on bees,
The nose and dialogues of Socrates,
Don Quixote, Hudibras and Trinculo,
How worlds are spawned and where the dead gods go, -
All shall be shard of broken memories.

And there shall linger other, magic things, -
The fog that creeps in wanly from the sea,
The rotten harbor smell, the mystery
Of moonlit elms, the flash of pigeon wings,
The sunny Green, the old-world peace that clings
About the college yard, where endlessly
The dead go up and down. These things shall be
Enchantment of our hearts' rememberings.

And these are more than memories of youth
Which earth's four winds of pain shall blow away;
These are youth's symbols of eternal truth,
Symbols of dream and imagery and flame,
Symbols of those same verities that play
Bright through the crumbling gold of a great name.

While I found it only mildly interesting in itself, I found the symbols, the “magic things” that lie at the heart of his poetry quite interesting. Of course, the idea that symbols will live while the ideas of great writers like Socrates and Quixote will disappear could merely be attributed to the fact that MacLeish is a poet and not a philosopher or novelist. On the other hand, the “symbols” he chooses are “experiences” that are “eternal” precisely because they are a part of nature and do not rely on human interpretation. In terms of MacLeish’s poetry itself, the symbolism of “the sunny green” and, in particular, “moonlit elms” become increasingly significant as you read his works.

While I was not particularly impressed by most of MacLeish’s early poems, there are several interesting lines and images to be found in them. The following images appear in from the long poem The Happy Marriage (1924):

Man is immortal for his flesh is earth,
And save he lives forever -- why, he dies:
Woman is mortal, for her flesh will rise
In each new generation of her birth.
She is the tree: we are the feverish
Vain leaves that gild her summer with our own
And fall and rot when summer’s overblown

Now though I’m not sure it’s politically correct today to ascribe the child only to the woman, I found the comparison of woman to the tree and man to the leaves particularly interesting, considering the constant reference to trees and leaves in MacLeish’s poems. Strangely enough, Germanic creation myths also suggest that woman was derived from the elm tree. Of course, in Germanic myth man is also a tree, an ash, and not the leaves of the elm tree. But it is always the poet’s personal adaptation of myths and symbols that is most interesting, not the use of myth per se.

Even this MacLeish poem about death contains references to trees, in particular “elm” trees:


The alley between the elm trees ends
In nothing, abruptly, as a life ends.

Down that straight avenue I stare
At the final blank, the abyss of air.

A nursemaid with a carriage steers
Across the vista, pushes, nears
The brink, goes over, disappears.

Too ignorant, think I, for fears.

There’s a startling contrast between the ancient elms and the nursemaid with the child in the carriage, but even more startling is his perception of the end of the row of elms as the final abyss, death. When we go beyond the trees we encounter the nothingness of death. Of course, this fear is balanced against the irony of the final line, for we surely know that it’s not the nursemaid that’s “too ignorant,” but, rather, the narrator that has been overcome by an “irrational” fear.

MacLeish’s poetry from 1917 to 1928 seems largely derivative. His long early poems seem to owe much to T.S.Eliot, even going so far as to borrow an opening line from The Golden Bough. Ezra Pound is also a major influence. Even the much-anthologized “Ars Poetica” seems derivative and atypical, somehow borrowed from the imagist movement that was sweeping the world of poetry.

In fact, it is only in the section serendipitiously named “from New Found Land (1930) that MacLeish seems to have discovered his own voice. It is, to be sure, a melancholic voice that has been echoed in many of his earlier poems, but finally MacLeish seems to have discovered his “own” vision. He effectively combines two of the images from the earlier “Baccalaureate” to create a vision of beauty underlaid by an impending sense of loss:


Yes and when the warm unseasonable weather
Comes at the year's end of the next late year
And the southwest wind that smells of rain and summer
Strips the huge branches of their dying leaves,

And you at dusk along the Friedrichstrasse
Or you in Pans on the windy quay
Shuffle the shallow fallen leaves before you
Thinking the thoughts that like the grey clouds change,

You will not understand why suddenly sweetness
Fills in your heart nor the tears come to your eyes:
You will stand in the June-warm wind and the leaves falling:
When was it so before, you will say, With whom?

You will not remember this at all: you will stand there
Feeling the wind on your throat, the wind in your sleeves,
You will smell the dead leaves in the grass of a garden:
You will close your eyes: With whom, you will say,

Ah where?

Perhaps this philosophical conjunction is merely the natural result of having come of age in the optimistic roaring twenties and suddenly finding yourself in the middle of America’s greatest Depression, but MacLeish seems to make it uniquely his own. It is precisely this inability to understand “why suddenly sweetness/ Fills in your heart nor the tears come to your eyes” that seems to haunt modern man. We have lost our innocence and are too often unable to experience life’s joys directly and fully because of the awareness that sorrow and misery lurks not too far away.

The poem “You, Andrew Marvell” should instantly recall memories of Marvel’s famous “To His Coy Mistress” with its classic statement on carpe diem. MacLeish’s poem, emphasizes how swiftly time flies by, but, unlike Marvell, seems incapable of celebrating the moment with such knowledge:


And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth's noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night:

To feel creep up the curving east
The earthy chill of dusk and slow
Upon those under lands the vast
And ever climbing shadow grow

And strange at Ecbatan the trees
Take leaf by leaf the evening strange
The flooding dark about their knees
The mountains over Persia change

And now at Kermanshah the gate
Dark empty and the withered grass
And through the twilight now the late
Few travelers in the westward pass

And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on

And deepen on Palmyra's street
The wheel rut in the ruined stone
And Lebanon fade out and Crete
High through the clouds and overblown

And over Sicily the air
Still flashing with the landward gulls
And loom and slowly disappear
The sails above the shadowy hulls

And Spain go under and the shore
Of Africa the gilded sand
And evening vanish and no more
The low pale light across that land

Nor now the long light on the sea:

And here face downward in the sun
To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on .

The phrase “the always coming on,” to me, at least, conveys a sense of impending doom although literally, of course, the poem merely describes the night moving from east to west. It’s probably not entirely accidental, though, that the first city described, Ecbatan, is an ancient Persian city long since vanished. Time, after all, can be measured not only by the day but by the century. It is not a peaceful darkness that encompasses Ecbatan, but, rather, a “flood” of darkness that lies about the “knees” of the trees.

The night moves on, passing Palmyra, another ancient city in Syria, where there are “wheel ruts in the ruined stone.” Finally, this dark force swiftly and secretly “comes on,” throwing a long shadow over the narrator. Strangely enough, though, the narrator is lying “face downward in the sun,” suggesting that he has already given in to the night long before the night actually arrives. Perhaps that’s appropriate for a series of poems written in the middle of the Depression.

A Little Blogspiration

One of the great things about blogging is that there is always so much inspiration if you ever happen to run out of ideas, not that I’m in danger of running out of ideas, mind you.

However, I’m about to go on vacation for a week, so I’m unwilling to start a new project right now. If I were, though, I would be sorely tempted by Jeff’s mentioning that as part of his ongoing project he’s going to be examining Archibald McLeish, who I just happened to encounter in pursuit of my last idea. He’s actually one of the few poets I don’t seem to own an entire book by, so I was forced to look him up in a few anthologies. I was particularly attracted to Part 5 of “ Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller’s City:


The Museum Attendant:

This is The Making of America in Five Panels:

This is Mister Harriman making America:
The Sante Fe is shining on his hair:

This is Commodore Vanderbilt making America:
Observe the carving on the rocking chair:

This is J. P. Morgan making America:
(The Tennessee Coal is behind to the left of the Steel Company:)
Those in mauve are braces he is wearing:

This is Mister Mellon making America:

This is the Bruce is the Barton making America:
This is he in beige with the canary:

You have just beheld the Makers making America.
This is The Making of America in Five Panels:
America lies to the west-southwest of the Switch-Tower:
There is nothing to see of America but land:

The Original Document under the Panel Paint:

"To Thos. Jefferson Esq. his obd't serv't
M. Lewis: captain: detached:

Having in mind your repeated commands in this matter:
And the worst half of it done and the streams mapped:

And we here on the back of this beach beholding the
Other ocean-two years gone and the cold

Breaking with rain for the third spring since St. Louis:
The crows at the fishbones on the frozen dunes:

The first cranes going over from south north:
And the river down by a mark of the pole since the morning:

And time near to return, and a ship (Spanish)
Lying in for the salmon: and fearing chance or the

Drought or the Sioux should deprive you of these discoveries-
Therefore we send by sea in this writing:

Above the

Platte there were long plains and a clay country:
Rim of the sky far off: grass under it:

Dung for the cook fires by the sulphur licks:
After that there were low hills and the sycamores:

And we poled up by the Great Bend in the skiffs:
The honey bees left us after the Osage River:

The wind was west in the evenings and no dew and the
Morning Star larger and whiter than usual-

The winter rattling in the brittle haws:
The second year there was sage and the quail calling:

All that valley is good land by the river:
Three thousand miles and the clay cliffs and

Rue and beargrass by the water banks
And many birds and the brant going over and tracks of

Bear elk wolves marten: the buffalo
Numberless so that the cloud of their dust covers them:

The antelope fording the fall creeks: and the mountains and
Grazing lands and the meadow lands and the ground

Sweet and open and well-drained:

We advise you to
Settle troops at the forks and to issue licenses:

Many men will have living on these lands:
There is wealth in the earth for them all and the wood standing
And wild birds on the water where they sleep:
There is stone in the hills for the towns of a great people

You have just beheld the Makers making America:

They screwed her scrawny and gaunt with their seven-year panics
They bought her back on their mortgages old-whore-cheap:
They fattened their bonds at her breasts till the thin blood ran from them:

Men have forgotten how full clear and deep
The Yellowstone moved on the gravel and grass grew
When the land lay waiting for her westward people!

I could easily spend the day expanding on the poem, but I’ll just let the lines I’ve put in bold serve as my commentary. I may well have to run out and purchase McLeish’s collected poems and take a look at them in the near future.

Though I’m not much interested in war bloggers and sure as hell don’t favor an American invasion of Iraq unless we can come up with better evidence than I’ve read so far, while reading Jonathon’s page today I was tempted to comment on his line that “It is commonly observed by students of military history that civilian enthusiasm for going to war is inversely proportional to the sum of combat experience and eligibility for military service.”

For the moment, this Vietnam veteran will let Stephen Crane’s short poem serve as my rejoinder to those who think it wise to invade Iraq:

There was a crimson clash of war.
Lands turned black and bare;
Women wept;
Babes ran, wondering.
There came one who understood not these things.
He said, "Why is this?"
Whereupon a million strove to answer him.
There was such intricate clamor of tongues,
That still the reason was not.

Finally, after reading Juliet’s Ecologues I was tempted to run out and join in reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead so I, too, can join in on the attack. My dislike of Rand, of course, was inspired far earlier when some of my wife’s conservative friends informed her that Rand was the “fountainhead” of popular conservatism. How ironic that a Czarist refugee should inspire the latest populist version of Christian conservatism.

Well, I'll be blogged! I think I’m finding a common theme here!

Little wonder it always struck me as an exercise in futility when I tried to teach logic to my writing classes. After all, who needs it in the world we live in? There are certainly damn few signs of it to be found in the “popular” media, and fewer signs of it in too many of the “popular” blogs, for that matter.