Jerome Rothenberg

Aztec Definitions: Found Poems from the Florentine Codex

[For these men too there was a need to take a reckoning, to see what things were left & to know them by places in which they could still be put. Something like that must have been the case when the Friar, Sahagún, came to them, the Conquest a few decades back & with it the smashing-to-hell of previous certainties. What’s to be done whe the shape of the real falls apart? If not to curse life, then to sense that life returned to chaos is returned to the possibility of new thought.

[Perhaps it only happened then—when they were powerless—but more likely, from the work, they had known it before & had welcome it, this need to preserve the potency of the real by a regular overturning & remaking of primary beliefs. That archaic system, fixed in ritual & myth, had been wrenched from them, but the pattern of it lingered: a habit of the mind, in-grained but operating in no as-yet recognizable new context. What context did Sahagún give them? His work, written largely in the Nahuatl of his informants, was the daybook of a civilization that would die with the old men who were helping him record it.

[Everything goes but the words: the fragments of speech of a people who had learned that the mind's grain is our final clue to the real. He led them to a reconsideration, to an assemblage of “the things of New Spain”—of their gods, their days, theis signs & omens, their sacrifices, their songs, their defeats, delivering to him, in the twelve books of his great Codex, the first scientific epic of a civilization seen-as-it-vanishes. But he doesn't drop it with the highstuff of culture, for more astonishing than all that rich detail is how the habit of their minds begins to play among the everyday debris. What must have asked them was to list & define the things-of-this-world, all that we take most for granted. Here, though, the mind finds release in a strange new encounter; free of ritual & myth (The System) it approaches its objects as if for the first time testing their existence. IT IS DARK, IT IS LIGHT: IT IS WIDE-MOUTHED, IT IS NARROW-MOUTHED: all of this said with no apparent sense of contradiction, as if, among these objects, the old pattern holds: of preparing chaos for the birth of something real.

[Having come to this for ourselves, we can draw close to them, can hear in these “definitions” the sound of a poetry, a measure-by-placement-&-displacement, not far from our own. While their poetry proper—songs & hymns collected by Sahagún & others—has its own godness, it is as part of the fixed world before the upheaval, before the pattern was secularized & the eye freed. Only these definitions participate fully in that freedom, & this it seems to me is more important than whether they were intended as poems or not; for surely it should be clear by now that poetry is less literature than a process of thought & feeling & the arrangement of that into affective utterances. The conditions these definitions meet are the conditions of poetry.

Published on <o> future <o>, June 4, 2014.