“War is like a Flower”: Aztec Songs

ZP_drawing of Huitzilopochtli by Ueuehualli_2009

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,

war flowers.




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 !



.     .     .

Editor’s note:

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 Ungaretti

ZP_La Tradotta_a May 1918 edition of the weekly newspaper of the Italian 3rd Army

Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970, Italian poet, World War I soldier in the trenches)


I am a creature

Like this stone of San Michele *

as hard

as thoroughly dried

as refractory

as deprived of spirit

Like this stone

is my weeping that can’t

be seen


pays for death



*  Saint Michael  –  Leader of “The Army of God”;   Angel of Death


.     .     .


Sono una creatura


Come questa pietra
Del S. Michele
Così fredda
Così dura
Così prosciugata
Così refrattaria
Così totalmente

Come questa pietra
È il mio pianto
Che non si vede

La morte
Si sconta



(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

one remains

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
Che qualche
Brandello di muro

Di tanti
Che mi corrispondevano
Non è rimasto
Neppure tanto

Ma nel cuore
Nessuna croce manca
È il mio cuore
Il paese più straziato



(Valloncello dell’albero isolato, il 27 agosto 1916)

.     .     .     .     .

Siegfried Sassoon: the Enemy within

Ancient History


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”.

Belfast, 1942


Alexander Best

“Belfast, 1942″



“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


shot down,

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

hot chocolate.


And, tasting that flavour, she thought to herself:

Those wee Germans know all our same hymns !


Jo Westren: the Poet was a Nurse

ZP_Toronto sculptor Florence Wyle's memorial to Nurse Edith Cavell 1865 to 1915ZP_Toronto sculptor Florence Wyle’s memorial to Nurse Edith Cavell (1865-1915)


Brief Sanctuary


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

compassion runs

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

is here,

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.

.     .     .     .     .

Joy Kogawa: Where there’s a wall there’s a way…


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

the foundations.

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 —

poems even.

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: Matthieu Gosztola

À propos du Génocide Rwandais de 1994:

Poème par Matthieu Gosztola


Pourquoi une nouvelle journée
renoncer à s’élancer

les disparus
en parler à voix basse

jusqu’à ce que le sommet
nous rattrape

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


the dead

speak of it in hushed tones


until the ‘crown’ of our head

catches us


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


The Siege of Sarajevo: Sarajlić and Simić



Izet Sarajlić:

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,

my friends?


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.






Goran Simić:

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?






Back Door



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

English language.


Translation into English:  Amela Simić

Mendez y Kintana: una voz contra la Guerra, una voz por el Armonía



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
casi tanto,
como odio a quienes pretenden apagar mis sueños
obligándome a dejar de ser niño.
Odio la paz,
por estar tan ausente.




Against War:


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.

Perseguidos, perseguidores;

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.




For Harmony:


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