Chilam Balam by Thomas Merton

I came across a book of poetry, The Geography of Lograire by Thomas Merton, in a used book store in New Orleans a bunch of years ago.  I sat in Jackson Square, a great place to watch the world, and read bits and pieces of the book.  I found the poem below particularly enjoyable.  Note I am not a Mayanist, beyond a few courses and a single field season in Guatemala, and don’t vouch for whatever Merton’s scholarship in attributions to anything.  Rather, the poem presents images and concepts that are good to think about.

Seemingly an analysis of Merton’s intent for the book can be found in The Mandala as Structure in Thomas Merton’s “The Geography of Lograire” by Virginia Randall


X. Chilam Balam (Yucatan)

1. “They came to Tisip
With pepper in their speech
In 11 Ahau
Cleared cornfields
Built a city.”
2. They were received like Fathers
With nodding plumes at the well’s edge
In Itza
Thus they were called the “Itzaes.”
3. Sunrise. New Kingdom.
Fresh wakes sweet tropic earth!
Tribute paid in cotton
For the Four Men
(North South East West)
In Chichen.
Then the Lords
Rich in cotton
Meet Gods
Equal in voice to Gods
And those whose voices
Were not equal to Gods’ voices
Were thrown in the well
To cry louder.
4. Then came Laws
High pyramids
Thirteen Itzaes in majesty
With pepper in their prayers
Made deals with the Raingods
In clouds of smoke.
5. “Our Gods have grown bigger” they said
Then bitter times began
The plain smoke
All the way to the sea.
6. Thirteen katuns they ruled.
Until the treason of Hunac Ceel
Driven from their cities into jungle
4 Ahua was the katun
The wail of lives
Thirteen katuns of suffering and law
And they were called in the end
“The Remnant of Itzaes”
The last few built Mayapan
“Maya men”
Was their new name.
7. Lamentation
Priest of Xiu
Slow along the cavern wall
From altar to altar
On the well’s rim.
8. “The priest asks for green bark. Thirteen times he strips all flowers and all leaves off the branches. He strips them utterly bare. He binds the stripped branches in a bundle. Katuns without hope!”
9. Prayer in the cavern
For the last time
Pitch dark well
Stopping at the altars
Blind fingers explore the faces
Of rock signs
Figures cut in the wall
Spell: “Justice exits”
“Heaven exists”
And the prophet Chilam answers
Hix binac hix mac
(Maybe yes maybe no)
“But we carry the sons of Itza on our backs like boulders.”
And the priests have come to the end of submission
The end of desire.
They are about to destroy themselves because of the injuries done to our people.

(The Geography of Lograire by Thomas Merton.  1968.  New Directions Publishing, New York, pp. 31-33).

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