by Adam Penna
I. The Day Called Waterlily
In a house by a sacred river
we’re following the Tzolk’in:
two hundred and sixty numbered days.
We hope to shed our allegiance
to the post-industrial grimace
the newspapers label The World.
Today is Waterlily, followed
by Wind, then Night, Corn, and Snake.
Browsing through this borrowed house
we find thousands of heavy art books:
Rodin, Michelangelo, van
Gogh, Cezanne, Titian, Rembrandt.
We lug them to the river and set
them adrift. They float some distance
before soaking enough current
to sink. By the day named Death Head
we’ll have discarded a dumpster-load
of cumbersome western culture.
Numbering our days from one
to thirteen, naming them for twenty
familiar objects, we‘ll break
the first sum over the second
and generate a thirteen plus
a seven day week named Corn Stalk,
Jaguar, Eagle, Shell, Earth, Flint
and Storm Cloud. Can we survive
so plaintive a measure of time?
The Maya of Guatemala still
observe this epos in the round,
and so the river shucking along
glutted with expensive art books
has accepted our sacrifice
with hardly a belch. We nod
wordless, and withdraw to count
the remaining volumes: Turner,
Gauguin, Sloan, Hopper, Monet—
the day called Waterlily dying
in a far more dignified manner
than paint or pastel can portray.
II. Long Count
After the Maya, we’ve devised
a Long Count calendar based
on the days elapsed since the myth
of our self-invention aloft
among the stars. We accept
a base of twenty, so every
position we inscribe represents
twenty times our previous pose.
Slouched in your swivel chair
you represent twenty times the self
who yesterday poured black coffee
from a stainless one-quart Thermos.
Each subject-position assumes
a place in the massive Zodiac
I chart as our lives unravel
into the deprivations of age.
Yesterday watching herons nest
in the heights of drowned trees, I posed
the question of whether our Long Count
could extend itself forever.
Already that base of twenty
has generated a sum so large
it exceeds the digits of pi.
Yet we can’t abandon the myth
that originates us higher
above the universe than herons
above the still water they fish.
Tomorrow when you open a book
or cross your legs I’ll multiply
by twenty your entire life
to that point, and the sum will swag
through the ether like angry wealth.
Do you believe in the Long Count
as fervently as the Maya do?
I realize it’s blasphemous
to found creation on ourselves,
but the stars wink and conspire
every night, and even the herons
scrawl something absolute about us
whenever they unfold in flight.
III. The Haab’
The Maya invented zero
a thousand years before Europe did.
Yet despite your troubled math
attempting to prove otherwise,
the Haab’, with its eighteen months
of twenty days, made no attempt
to chart solar or lunar cycles.
We sulk over charts and worry
that Wayeb’, the five nameless days
at the end of the calendar,
has arrived. The underworld
opens with a hydraulic sigh
to permit the cruelest deities
to riot and trouble the earth.
Swine flu breaks out in Mexico
and coughs up the coast to New York,
choking school kids and homeless men.
A car bomb kills eighty people
in Tikrit. A major league pitcher
throws wildly into the stands
and fractures an eight-year-old’s skull.
We shouldn’t have tracked this calendar
so far into the future. Combined
with the Tzolk’in, this calendar
describes a fifty-two-year era,
longer than Mayan lifetimes.
The recurrence of this cycle
depended on the whims of gods.
We’re hoping to span two cycles,
a couple of calendar rounds,
and like the Venus Cycle recur
at regular intervals, peeping
with the concept of zero
over horizons so distant
no one will note our approach.
Mr. Doreski has the following to say about “Mayan Calendars”: A few years ago, New Age-types were musing about the world coming to an end in 2012 “according to the Mayan calendar.” I decided to investigate, and learned that this wasn’t quite true—that of the three Mayan calendars, the Long Count calendar recycles every 52 years, The Haab’ is a solar calendar, although not an entirely accurate one, and the Tzolk’in is a 260-day ritual calendar. The world, according to the Long Count calendar, will not end on December 21, 20012, as popular belief has it, but will recycle into the next ritual period.
I decided to write a sequence of three poems based on these calendars, and assumed that editors would be interested in the subject matter, at least. But both as a sequence and separately these poems have failed to find an audience. I’m interested not in the individual poem (or calendar) so much as the notion that the Mayans felt they needed three calendars to meet their social and religious needs. So I wrote poems that try to engage those calendars in terms of the contemporary world of events and trivia. From this, I hope that readers might imagine how the Mayans regarded their calendars as an ongoing commentary not just on their religious vision but on their daily lives.
William Doreski teaches at Keene State College in New Hampshire. His most recent book of poetry is City of Palms (2012). He has published three critical studies, including Robert Lowell’s Shifting Colors. His essays, poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared in many journals, including Massachusetts Review, Atlanta Review, Notre Dame Review, The Alembic, New England Quarterly, Worcester Review, Harvard Review, Modern Philology, Antioch Review, and Natural Bridge. He won the 2010 Aesthetica poetry award.