The following “Song-Poems” are taken from the Cantares Mexicanos,
a late 16th-century collection – transcribed by a Franciscan monk,
Bernardino de Sahagún – of Náhuatl-language (Aztec) poetry known as
“flower and song” (” xóchitl in cuícatl “): stylized, symbolic poem forms
composed and performed by nobles – including kings. These song-poems
were carriers of sacred ritual energy.
To the God of War: Huitzilopochtli
Huitzilopochtli, the Warrior,
He who acts on high
Follows his own path.
Oh marvellous dweller among clouds,
Oh dweller in the region of the frozen wings.
He causes the walls of fire to fall down
Where the feathers are gathered.
Thus he wages war
And subdues the Peoples.
Eager for war, the Flaming One descends,
He rages where the whirling dust arises.
Come to our aid !
There is War, there is burning.
Those Pipitlan are our enemies…
Huitzilopochtli – Aztec god of War, from the Náhuatl words for
“hummingbird of the left-side/south-side” – the hummingbird being
known for its aggression, daring, and persistence
Pipitlan – a People to the south of Tenochtitlan (capital of the
Aztec Empire, site of present-day Mexico City)
Heart, have no fright.
There on the battlefield
I cannot wait to die
by the blade of sharp obsidian.
Our hearts want nothing but a war death.
You who are in the struggle:
I am anxious for a death
from sharp obsidian.
Our hearts want nothing but a war death.
Sacred crazy flowers,
flowers of bonfires,
our only ornament,
How do they fall? How do they fall?
These hearts, ripe fruit for harvest**.
Look at them,
These fall, the hearts — oh our arrows
These fall, the hearts — oh our arrows.
(**These hearts, ripe fruit for harvest – a reference to the
human hearts that must be offered to Tonatiuh – the Sun god –
to ensure he will make his daily journey across the sky;
Tlaloc, the Rain god, also required human hearts – and
Waging War was the surest method to get them…)
Where are you going? Where are you going?
To war, to the sacred water.
There our mother, Flying Obsidian,
dyes men, on the battlefield.
The dust rises
on the pool of flame,
the heart of the god of sun is wounded.
Oh Mactlacueye, oh Macuil Malinalli!
War is like a flower.
You are going to hold it in your hands.
Mactlacueye – volcano north of the present-day city of Puebla;
locally known as La Malinche
Macuil Malinalli – a friend of Aztec King Nezahualpilli (1465-1515)
One day we must go
One day we must go,
one night we will descend into the region of mystery.
Only here we come to know ourselves;
only in passing are we on earth.
In peace and pleasure let us spend our lives;
come, let us enjoy ourselves.
Let not the angry do so; the earth is vast indeed.
If only one lived forever;
If only one were not to die !
. . .
The Aztec Empire was a brief one, lasting 150 years.
Like the Romans (who borrowed heavily from the Greeks),
so too the Aztecs built upon a previous culture (the Toltecs),
and – also like the Romans – the Aztecs were well-organized expansionists,
constructing a Tribute-State that taxed neighbouring peoples and
waged wars here and there to keep those peoples in check.
But Aztec Gods needed vast quantities of blood to keep the
fragile Cosmos oiled, and the Spanish, arriving in 1519, under Hernán Cortés,
were rapidly able to make alliances with peoples who had lost
much blood — thousands of lives every year — to the Aztec system.
In 1521, after a major slaughter at the temple-city of Tenochtitlan
– and the murder of King Moctezuma Xocoyotzin – the Empire fell.
But the Aztecs – they called themselves Mexicas –
have lived on…They numbered in the millions at the time of
The Conquest and they exist today in the bloodstreams of the
80% of Mexicans who are Mestizo (Spanish + Indigenous).
English translations from the Náhuatl and/or from the Spanish:
John Bierhorst, Edward Kissam, Michael Schmidt
Top Image: a drawing of Huitzilopochtli by Ueuehualli_2009
“My heart is the most tormented country of all / È il mio cuore Il paese più straziato” – Giuseppe UngarettiPosted: November 11, 2011
Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970, Italian poet, World War I soldier in the trenches)
I am a creature
Like this stone of San Michele *
as thoroughly dried
as deprived of spirit
Like this stone
is my weeping that can’t
pays for death
* Saint Michael – Leader of “The Army of God”; Angel of Death
. . .
Sono una creatura
Come questa pietra
Del S. Michele
Come questa pietra
È il mio pianto
Che non si vede
(Valloncello di Cima Quattro, il 5 agosto 1916)
. . .
San Martino del Carso
Of these houses
but fragments of memory
Of all who
would talk with me not
But in my heart
no one’s cross is missing
My heart is
the most tormented country of all
. . .
San Martino sul Carso
Di queste case
Non è rimasto
Brandello di muro
Che mi corrispondevano
Non è rimasto
Ma nel cuore
Nessuna croce manca
È il mio cuore
Il paese più straziato
(Valloncello dell’albero isolato, il 27 agosto 1916)
. . . . .
Adam, a brown old vulture in the rain,
Shivered below his wind-whipped olive-trees;
Huddling sharp chin on scarred and scraggy knees,
He moaned and mumbled to his darkening brain;
“He was the grandest of them all was Cain!
A lion laired in the hills, that none could tire:
Swift as a stag: a stallion of the plain,
Hungry and fierce with deeds of huge desire.”
Grimly he thought of Abel, soft and fair,
A lover with disaster in his face,
And scarlet blossom twisted in bright hair.
“Afraid to fight; was murder more disgrace?
God always hated Cain.” He bowed his head,
The gaunt wild man whose lovely sons were dead.
Parable of the Old Men and the Young
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchéd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son. . . .
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) was an English poet – and a soldier
during “The Great War” (1914-1918) a.k.a. World War I. For him,
it was “The Vainglorious War”.
“Mrs. Thompson, I’ll take your Aileen to The Camp,
and she’ll play for the P.O.W.s.
Are you agreeable to it?”
“Aye, Mr. Nutt – she can play, so take her.”
And the Rev. James Nutt took 11-year-old Aileen
to The Camp – in his little Austin car.
At the barb-wire gate British soldiers let the minister pass
– and the child.
Inside the Nissen hut was a large platform and
an upright piano upon it.
Those foreign fellows had bombed
– blitzed – Belfast
they were now the luckiest of boys
– would have God’s grace in this far-off place.
And the child knew every chord progression for Luther’s hymn:
A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
And the young German prisoners sang strong in their
own tongue: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.
After she’d played the hymns Aileen was
borne aloft the shoulders of a Tommy and
off they were to the NAAFI canteen where she got a
Rock Bun and a beaker of cocoa – her first time of
And, tasting that flavour, she thought to herself:
Those wee Germans know all our same hymns !
You from the guns
and I from tending,
made love at an inn;
in a narrow room
were freed from war,
from fear of our fear,
made of our smooth limbs
our sweet love
each for the other.
In the empty saloon
drank then cool wine
and sang as you
strummed the piano.
When time moved from us
and we must go,
we drew our glasses close
on the bare table,
their shadows one.
Look, we said,
they will stand here
when we have gone,
images of ourselves,
witnesses to our love.
As we left
you smiled at me
lifting the latch,
then the bombs came…
Behind the Screens
I dress your wound
knowing you cannot live.
In ten swift rivers
from my finger-tips
into your pale body
that is so hurt
it is no more
than the keeper
of your being.
Behind these screens,
we two are steeped
in a peace deeper
than life gives,
you with closed eyes
and I moving quietly
as though you could wake,
all my senses aware
that your other self
waiting to begin
life without end.
. . .
Jo Westren, the author of these exquisite poems,
was born in Essex, England, in 1914.
During World War II, she served as a nurse at Colchester Military Hospital.
. . . . .
Where there’s a wall
Where there’s a wall
there’s a way through a
gate or door. There’s even
a ladder perhaps and a
sentinel who sometimes sleeps.
There are secret passwords you
can overhear. There are methods
of torture for extracting clues
to maps of underground passages.
There are zeppelins, helicopters,
rockets, bombs, battering rams,
armies with trumpets whose
all at once blast shatters
Where there’s a wall there are
words to whisper by loose bricks,
wailing prayers to utter, birds
to carry messages taped to their feet.
There are letters to be written —
Faint as in a dream
is the voice that calls
from the belly
of the wall.
Joy Kogawa was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1935.
This poem is from her 1985 collection, Woman in the Woods.
Kogawa and many other Japanese-Canadians were forcibly removed
from their homes during World War II, and sent to to internment camps
for the duration. Many lost their property and businesses, with no
compensation. This ugly racist chapter in Canadian history – the design of
Mackenzie-King’s government – was brought fully to public attention in the 1980s,
partly through the power of Kogawa’s 1981 novel, Obasan.
À propos du Génocide Rwandais de 1994:
Poème par Matthieu Gosztola
Pourquoi une nouvelle journée
renoncer à s’élancer
en parler à voix basse
jusqu’à ce que le sommet
le « n ous » qu’une personne
a sorti de sa volonté
s’expose à la machette
on a diminué de solitude
on apprend à mesurer notre cri
on fait nos peurs moins sillonnantes
dans tous les sens
devant la mort et ses tracas
au premier jour
on n’avait pas les mêmes lois
on a appris à rebrousser chemin dans nos murmures
et à se contenter sans murmurer de ce qui
ne propose plus de cachette
pardon ………… espérer.
À propos the Rwanda Genocide of 1994:
by Matthieu Gosztola
Why a new day
gives up throbbing
speak of it in hushed tones
until the ‘crown’ of our head
the “We” that nobody
‘exited’ of his own will
is right under the ‘machete’
Diminished is one’s solitude
we learn to measure our cries
making our fears less furrowed,
less cross-hatched – in every sense
before death and its troubles
on that first day
we hadn’t the same laws
we taught ourselves to retrace our steps in mutterings,
to be satisfied without complaint over
no more offers of any hiding place
Forgiveness … … … ( is ) … … … to hope.
Matthieu Gosztola (né en France, 1981) est un écrivain et poète.
Ce poème vient de son recueil de 2010, Débris de tuer (Rwanda, 1994).
Rwanda, un pays de l’Afrique de l’Est, est entrée dans une guerre civile
en 1990 et puis, plus de 800,000 Rwandais ont trouvée la mort durant
simplement cent jours entre avril et juillet, 1994.
Matthieu Gosztola is a French writer and poet, born in 1981.
This poem is from his 2010 collection, Debris of killing (Rwanda, 1994).
A small country in East Africa with a history of ethnic strife between
Hutus and Tutsis – greatly exacerbated under German then Belgian colonial
rule – tensions built until the stupefying hundred-day massacre of 1994
in which 800,000 people died. Rwanda’s Genocide was the final “slaughter”
in the most violent century known to humankind – the 20th century.
Translation/interpretation from French into English: Alexander Best
Traduction/interprétation en anglais: Alexander Best
Theory of maintaining distance
The theory of maintaining distance
was discovered by writers of post-scripts,
those who don’t want to risk anything.
I myself belong among those who believe
that on Monday you have to talk about Monday,
because by Tuesday it might be too late.
It’s hard, of course,
to write poems in the cellar,
when mortars are exploding above your head.
Only it’s harder not to write poems.
To my former Yugoslav friends
What happened to us in just one night,
I don’t know what your’re doing,
what you’re writing,
with whom you’re drinking,
in which books you’ve buried yourselves.
I don’t even know
if we are still friends.
The beginning, after everything
After I buried my mother, running from the
shelling of the graveyard; after soldiers returned
my brother’s body wrapped in a tarp; after I saw
the fire reflected in the eyes of my children as
they ran to the cellar among the dreadful rats;
after I wiped with a dishtowel the blood from
the face of an old woman, fearing I would
recognize her; after I saw a hungry dog licking
the blood of a man lying at a crossing; after
everything, I would like to write poems which
resemble newspaper reports, so bare and cold
that I could forget them the very moment a
stranger asks: Why do you write poems which
resemble newspaper reports?
While I watch the front door, officers with gold
buttons for eyes enter my back door and look for
my glasses. Their gloves leave the prints of their
ranks on the plates in which I find my reflection,
on the cups from which I never drink, on the
windows bending outward. Then they leave
with crude jokes about the women I once loved.
Through my back door the police enter
regularly, with rubber pencils behind their belts.
Like kisses their ears splash when they stick to
my books which whine at night like pet dogs
in the snow. Their fingerprints remain on my
doorknob when they leave through my back
door, and their uniforms fade like cans in the
Why do postmen enter through my back door
with bags stinking of formalin? Their heavy
soldier boots march through my bathroom and I
can hear them looking for the pyjamas hidden in
a box of carbon paper. I ask them why they need
my pyjamas and their eyes flash for a moment
with April tenderness. Then they slam the door
and the room is illumined by darkness.
And I still watch the front door where the
shadow of someone’s hand lies by the doorbell.
Someone should enter. Someone should enter
Izet Sarajlić (1930-2002) was a Bosnian poet
who lived in Sarajevo for 57 years. The two poems
featured here are from his Sarajevo War Journal (1993).
Translation from Serbo-Croatian into English: C. Polony
Goran Simić (born 1952) was active in Bosnia’s literary life
and ran a bookstore in the capital, Sarajevo. He survived the city’s
Siege (1992-1995) by Serbian troops and the Yugoslav Army – an assault
that cost 11,000 lives. Simić has lived in Canada since 1996.
Written during the Siege, the two poems above were part of a collection
Simić had published at the time – then lost control over, being cut off
from the world. The vagabond volume took on a life of its own,
turning up in Serbia, Slovenia, Poland, France and England – in
piecemeal forms and translations.
In 2005 From Sarajevo with Sorrow was finally re-published,
in Canada, in a translation that gives the poems a new home in the
Translation into English: Amela Simić
Contra la Guerra:
Carlos Mendez (Venezuela)
Odio la guerra casi tanto,
como odio los zapatos escolares de mi niñez.
Odio la pluma que firma decretos de muerte
como odio a quienes pretenden apagar mis sueños
obligándome a dejar de ser niño.
Odio la paz,
por estar tan ausente.
I hate War so much,
like I hate those stiff school-shoes of my childhood.
I hate the pen that signs death certificates
– so much,
Like I hate anyone who tries to shut down my dreams,
forcing me to abandon being a kid still.
And I hate Peace,
for being so absent.
Por el Armonía:
Jenaro Mejía Kintana (Colombia)
En el principio también nació los Andes
Paso a paso, día a día;
Se sumaron los meses a los pies cansados.
Fueron los años y el camino
Así las centurias se sucedieron caminando
Y en los siglos nacieron las pisadas.
Sol, viento, lluvia, tierra,
tierra nuestra y de nadie.
Naciste y nacimos para todos
De la misma arcilla bajo el mismo sol
Todos somos nosotros.
In the beginning were born The Andes mountains,
Step by step, day by day;
adding up to months measured in weary feet.
Years went by – and the path,
In this way the eras – walking along – followed one another,
And over the centuries footprints came to be.
Pursuer, pursued – persecutor, the persecuted;
Sun, wind, rain, earth,
The Earth – ours and nobody’s.
You were born, we were born, all of us
Of the same clay from below + the same sun.
Everyone is Us.
Traducción al inglés: Alexander Best
Translation from Spanish to English: Alexander Best