On the ridge looking from and down mountainsides,
to the Usumacinta River and beyond
Palenque rises through jungle in bleached stone,
spectral white etched in moist gray:
Bàak in the mouths of modern Maya.
Centuries yet no time at all has passed since our year 800
when a great city began to melt beneath black moss,
the snake-like roots of fig trees
wrestled walls and lintels to the ground,
sealing patios built to admit interior light.
Strong profile of Pacal the Great, one hooded eye
above long downward curve of nose
and protruding lower lip: king for 68 years
sleeping now in his Pyramid of Inscriptions:
rotted to bone and gold and jade.
From 583 to 604 Yohl Ik’nal—a woman—ruled
but I do not know where she rests,
no evidence of her womanness rises from these stones,
no story of continuity or rupture wets my lips
despite this burning need to know.
The Mayan zero settles into our own numerical puzzle,
their calendar dividing the year into 260 days.
They had another with 365: 18 months of 20 each
plus 5 believed unlucky.
Each a god carrying the world’s weight upon its back.
Language both ideographic and phonetic,
hieroglyphs carved in sequence into stone,
each picture, person, action or idea
tells a story, weaves a people’s history
we grasp imperfectly.
We know they adorned themselves with feathers
and beads, had 5,000 dances, played flutes
and trumpets fashioned of wood and clay,
moved to the resonant beat
of turtle-shell drums.
We know they ate cornmeal and black beans,
turkey and rabbit stew, chewed gum
from the leaves of the Sopadilla tree,
drank frothy cups of dark chocolate
and recorded these customs to our curiosity.
Along a narrow footpath through jungle
threatening to close once more
over careful excavation
I move away from the great palace
with its tower: lookout or observatory,
away from secrets cleared, cleaned, studied,
deciphered and cared for by locals
as well as archeologists from near and far,
wander into that terrain where a kingdom
remains in darkness.
From the Tablet of the Sun and Temple of Dead Moon
I stray from familiar season, banish my own time
from consciousness, imagine nothing,
invite anything to touch my fingertips
or stop me in mid-journey.
A woman and two children appear at the far end
of a footbridge. They stand perfectly still,
no questions in their eyes. No conversation
is exchanged, no connection made
before we go our disparate ways.
(from RUINS, forthcoming from University of New Mexico Press, 2011)