Go to: Karl Young Home Page or Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry


(Sketch for a chapter of Leaf Mosaic)

by Karl Young

During the early to mid 1960s, I saw reproductions of sculptures and murals, and a few hints at indigenous manuscripts from pre- Colombian Meso-America. In the late 60s, my interest, based in part on exploring forms of visual poetry outside the shallow and narrow Simias of Rhodes to Mallarmé paradigm, began to cohere. I'm not sure of the order of revelations that followed, but the gists of some of the most important centered on the following:

The peoples of Meso-America had created a broad spectrum of writing systems, some including phonetic elements, some remaining purely visual, including the most highly developed iconographic system I've found. The Valley of Mexico acted as a bottle neck for the migrating peoples of the Americas. Many cultures and languages, some belonging to different families, jostled together in this place. Modern commentators on writing systems generally exclude or patronize the iconographic writing system of the area as a crude and childish form of picture writing. Yet by the 1960s - long before the advent of the World Wide Web - it became apparent to me that such a system may have been considerably more sophisticated than scholars and savants realized. In a multi- cultural and multi- linguistic environment, a writing system based on something other than speech made more sense than a phonetic system. Perhaps we were catching up to it in a globally expanding culture where insularity no longer worked. Unlike the cosmopolitan peoples of central Mexico, the Mayans had evolved a syncretic system which included stronger phonetic elements. Their writing system not only integrated complex and extensive mathematics, but it kept time and linguistic dichotomies firmly wedded to their writing. Distich structure in Mayan glyphs and poems sharpened my sense of the potential of pairs and couplets. This worked out through all sorts of pairings, ranging from the nature of facing pages to the parallelism in classic Chinese poetry. In the 1960s and 70s, this system was not as well understood as it has became later, when linguists and anthropologists have gone to contemporary Mayans for additional guidance.

Both central Mexican and Mayan systems worked out simplification not altogether dissimilar to the refinement of phonetic scripts such as those that lead to the Roman alphabet. Central Mexican iconography, when used as the basis for a writing system placed strong emphasis on legibility, and possessed a haunting quality that made them difficult to forget once you'd gotten past initial impressions and confusions. The strong black frame lines, simple and brilliant colors, crystalline clarity of images, and vibrant parataxis of composition seemed unique among writing and iconographic systems throughout the world. This seemed admirable for bureaucratic documents such as the Matriculo de tributos. Not only did it make information less tedious to read, but the icons seemed to make such data easier to remember. As I worked with the preconquest books, I came to the tentative conclusion that the religious and historical books didn't tell readers things they didn't know, but deepened their sense of the material covered. You could see this as an emphasis on wisdom rather than data. The nature of the books seemed to lend themselves to numerous forms of participation and performance, at once related to ceremony and personal introspection. Exploring this attitude toward writing became an essential part of my initial interest and my continued fascination with the books. The late iconography suggested continuity and growth from the era of Teotihuacan to the conquest, and that elements of it survived in Mexico and its northern diaspora.

Human sacrifice troubled virtually all writers on the subject, and accounts of such practices troubled me, as did their association with art forms that seemed unrelated to things so monstrous. The real catch, however, came from the way this meshed with the world in which I found myself. The contemporary world practiced more grisly sacrifices on a larger scale without seeing them as such. From Auschwitz to Vietnam, Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dresden to Nanking, the Moscow Show trials to the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the liquidation of Max Jacob, Osip Mandelstam, d.a.levy, and Victor Jarra, the endless lynchings, bombings, burnings and other atrocities committed against black people in this country just like racism throughout the world - even the endless bodies piled up on the great altar of automobile and the misery inflicted on the world in the name of Capitalism, Nationalism, Leninism, and other ideologies, human sacrifice still framed the world. At the time I began Middle American Dialogues, the Vietnam war was roaring ahead full tilt, a focal point in a world in the midst of an orgy of human sacrifice. That I took part in the anti-war movement didn't put me in a position where I could hold myself aloof, pretending that I was part of a different order of being from those who prosecuted the wars of the time. In this context, who were we to flinch at people who sacrificed a few warriors who believed in the sacrality of such a death?

This, like other aspects of Meso-American thought, explored the deepest of question: Who are we? What does it mean to be human? Psychologists in vogue at the time often answered the question in variations on Freudianism. Meso-American mythology uncannily took a number of Freudian concepts much further, particularly in the Quetzalcoatl-Tezcatlipoca cycles. According to Freud, the Id, the endless source of creation and destruction, raged on in a subconscious and unknowable torrent. What Freud may have been looking for was Tezcatlipoca, whom the peoples of Native America brought forward into full consciousness, a figure who could be known, delineated, understood and lived with. At the same time, the Ego and Super-Ego only hinted at the clarifying and regulating character of Quetzalcoatl. Although dressed in the trappings of science, Freudianism seemed an inferior mythology, based primarily on interviews with groggy neurotics from the elite of a bloated and repressive society. Meso- American mythology had evolved over centuries of careful observation of fully- functioning communities. Not the product of a single man or clique, these beliefs depended on something closer to scientific method: empirical testing and correction by a broad group of observers over a long period of time. In the late 60s, studies of evolution and animal behavior engaged much of the intelligentsia. Native American mythology saw life as forming a continuum through all species, with humans playing a perpetually interactive role with their relatives in the natural world. Seeing Tezcatlipoca or Quetzalcoatl's innate, inalienable, profound animal characteristics made more sense to me than seeing people as "naked apes."

From these rudimentary observations, I wrote some wretched lexical poetry, but began moving toward the next stage of development. I began putting large sheets of paper on my walls and painting reconstructions of the murals at Teotihuacan. This came from a closer look at good source material, which brought large and rapid bursts of revelation. The source material could be divided into two types, though they didn't come to me in separate divisions. Facsimiles of complete manuscripts, not just single pages, opened up worlds within worlds within worlds. Of the dozen surviving manuscripts from the Aztec and Mixtec cultures, many represented unique schools, genres, and types of books. The soul- wrenching force of Codex Borgia seemed to come from a different world than the delicate simplicity of Codex Laud, as did the colorful, ceremonial grandeur of Codex Borbonicus, or the crudely painted but intellectually complex Codex Vaticanus 3773, even though all four contained some of the same material. These stood in distinct contrast to the serene mastery of the mytho-historical Codex Vindobonensis and its more highly focused cousins, Codex Colombino. Some works, such as the Lienzo de Zacatepec represented the sole examples of book forms found nowhere else in the world. Each of the manuscripts presented unique approaches to page layout, iconography, and logopoea.

I began painting facsimiles of these books as a way of getting closer to them, understanding them better, and searching out possibilities for transposition into new contexts. Facsimile painting became a discipline something like translation had become earlier. Both acted as a means of study, of getting closer to the text, and, at times, a form of solace. Systematically reading and, if possible, photocopying books and manuscripts in libraries wherever I went took on something of the character of pilgrimage. This could become comic when I tried to make facsimiles of books in special collections. On one occasion, I managed to persuade a librarian to let me bring paints into a library that normally allowed no more than a pencil and notebook. Bless her for all eternity. Other librarians simply saw me as an amusing or annoying eccentric. Whenever possible, my parephrenalia included a Methuen or PMS color guide, and necessitated working out a system of notation for indicating color. Essays grew naturally out of work on the manuscripts and their background.

Another type of manuscript not only aided in interpreting the indigenous books, they also opened new worlds of their own. These are books written in Nahuatl and several Mayan dialects transcribed in the Roman alphabet after the conquest. The first to grab me were from the largely Nahuatl Florentine Codex compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagun and the Mayan books of Chilam Balam. Codex Florentino presented the fully functioning and integrated culture of the mythology; the poetry, particularly the Hymns, seemed unparalleled elsewhere in the world, and hence a starting point for a re-visioned poetry. One group of Nahuatl oral poems transcribed in the Roman alphabet, and referred to as the Cantares, particularly moved me. Translations available at the time were inadequate. I began translating these poems from Angel Garibay K.'s Spanish translations. These were working drafts for my own use, not for publication. Since then, John Bierhorst's excellent English translations have become available. Combined with the other Meso-American works, the Cantares seemed to form a largely untapped water table for New World poetry.

The books of Chilam Balam presented something altogether different: not only did they suggest transcription or recension of the as yet indecipherable Mayan glyphs, they also presented a form of Surrealism that made its modern counterpart seem pale.

In 1974, I started sketching out a series of books based on these sources, and in the autumn of 1975 I started work on an introductory book based on a collection of omens in Codex Florentino. During a period of overwork the following June, First Book of Omens cohered and insisted that I print it immediately. An essential part of the imaging of this book came from the work of d.a.levy, for me, the central figure of the mimeo movement of the 1960s. He also acted as a modern victim of human sacrifice, not sacrificed by friends or directly assassinated by the police as some conspiracy theorists claim, but pushed into suicide by a year and a half of ritual torture by factions throughout society. In several works, particularly The Tibetan Stroboscope, levy worked with texts obliterated in various fashions, including the heavy inking of mimeo stencils that ate the texts. I had seen these as calls for a new, reemergent text. I had developed what I came to call "nimbus type" - clearly delineated Roman letters with blurred areas surrounding and joining them. My first impulses in developing this kind of lettering was to combine characteristics of calligraphy and type. In the context of Omens, they suggested imperial Roman letters cutting their way through a fluid background; at the same time, they seemed both an answer to and an extension of levy's smeared texts - new possibilities coming out of a return to the undivided ground of being. They bore a hallucinatory character which could be seen as a reading of messages coming from this ground. I printed the book in brown ink, not only enhancing the hallucinatory quality, but also suggesting the colors of skin, of dried blood, of the ever renewed and renewing earth. Each page bore ten lines, suggesting ribs radiating out from the book's spine, as well as the number of fingers and toes on each half of the body. Unfortunately, I did this book too quickly. The text simply wasn't rigorous enough. I had wanted a different type of binding, one that would allow the front and back cover to snap together so the book would form a radiant cylinder, and reiterate the cyclical character of the Aztec conception of history, which gives omens a greater reality. I rewrote the text, but have not imaged it, and probably won't do so. For presentation here, I have placed the last page of the book first, facing the opening page, something I wanted to do with the original book, and have only done in print here.

Click here to go to an opening from First Book of Omens

I began A Book of Questions and Goddesses at the same time, but worked it out more slowly and carefully. The first movement of this book, based on the Chilam Balam of Chumayel, took another approach to omens and Native American Surrealism. The example shown here could be considered visual poetry, or a score, or simply a schematic - it represents one area of confluence between visual and lexical poetry. As I note in the book, the texts in the columns of these poems should be read twice, first down each column, then across the columns. This picks up on Mayan dual linguistic structures and extends them. Thus the first reading would begin like this: "The sun / lances, lofty crosses in its heart / green jaguars /heaven's brains..." The second would begin "The sun / a fried egg / lances, lofty crosses in its heart / words and gestures of benediction / green jaguars / green chili peppers..." This acted as a score for reading, accompanied by tight dance steps and gestures. D. Clinton published the book through Salt House in 1977.

Click here to go to the first page of A Book of Questions and Goddesses

The last of the Middle American Dialogues books to see print, A book of Openings and Closings, I published myself in 1984. In this book, I printed some mistranslations of some of the Cantares in brown nimbus type, with European and Mayan texts printed over it in plain black Roman characters. This carried forward my attempts at presenting multiple texts simultaneously without resorting to such cop-outs as interlinears. The sections from the Cantares act, as usual, as lyrics and celebrations. The texts printed in Roman letters explore the intimate interrelation and dependency of creation and destruction. The book works in multiple pairings: facing pages, the interaction of the two layers of texts, lines in Roman letters based in Old Norse verse forms dependent on caesurae in mid line, etc., all in some sense echoing the creation/destruction pairing. The texts in Roman letters follow this pattern: First opening: workings from the Icelandic Elder Edda dealing with Oden's discovery of runes and his visit to hell. Second opening: from Bernal Diaz's account of the conquest of Mexico. Story of Gonzalo Guerrero, who had been shipwrecked in Mexico before Cortez's voyage, had become completely integrated into indigenous culture, refused to join Cortez's ranks, and died fighting them. This faces Diaz's description of his amazement at the first entry into Tenochtitlan, and his meditation on its destruction. Third opening: From the Mayan Popul Vuh. The first page chronicles the destruction of the "dolls," beings who could act like humans, but couldn't think. The facing page tells the story of how Hunter and Jaguar Deer tricked the lords of death and destroyed them. Fourth opening: From Beowulf. The hero killing the dragon facing the account of his funeral. In the first version, I had the dragon episode facing the fight with Grendel's mother. In this work, the layers of text work with degrees of identity and distance from my European heritages.

Though I had written the book earlier, I first printed it at a time of confusion and personal difficulty, and managed to botch it thoroughly. I sent some copies to friends and a distributor, then, on further consideration, destroyed the rest of the edition, not even keeping a copy for myself. In 2000, I had to buy a copy of the book as a base for trying to redo it. I did a rendition using computer imaging techniques. I've passed copies of this version around to friends, but I'm still not satisfied with it. Among the odd comedies of literary ventures, trying to deal with the interrelation of creation and destruction seems to run into something like one of Murphy's laws.

A number of other books in the series remain unpublished. I reworked passages of the Cantares into the texts Tlalocan, a book that would have come at the end of the series. Tlalocan is the paradise of Tlaloc, the rain god. The imaging of the book would cost too much to produce without hefty financial backing, and will probably never come to pass. The frame images of this book come from hands in the murals at Teotihuacan. The basic physical unit of the book is, as usual, the two- page spread or opening. In openings where the fingers of both hands point toward or away from each other, the hands would be surrounded by (or dropped out of) photographs of crowds printed in the color sequence blue, red, green, brown. In openings where the fingers of both hands point in the same direction, the outlines of the hands and the texts would be blind-stamped, without ink, just embossed into the page. The embossing of hands would push through the other side of the page, further defining the color-surrounded hands on the other sides with raised outlines. The embossed texts would leave their impression on the texts on the colored sides, suggesting a ghostly text behind the text printed in black ink. Brightly colored openings would alternate with stark white openings, which would enhance the sense of dialectical progression in the work (white openings are more speculative; colored openings are celebrations). The hands in individual openings would suggest the basic human gestures of giving, gathering, and pointing. In the book as a whole, the progression of hands would suggest the mudra-like hand positions of indigenous dance. I include here sketches of several openings. Please bear in mind that the pages without faces would be stark white, the other pages would be brightly colored, the faces would be photographs, and the blind stamping would produce more of a bas-relief than a flat page.

Click here to go to a sketch of openingf from Tlalocan

Towards the end of the book the lyrics of "De colores," appear. This is the anthem of the United Farm Workers' Union, whose membership is largely Chicano. These lyrics retain characteristics of the Cantares, in tone, in imagery, and in the use of abstract syllables. Although I often work with historical material, the poems are not antiquarian speculations or reconstructions. Their only significance acts in the present - no more remote or exotic than the Mexican-American woman with whom I lived while writing Tlalocan, nor the Aztecs del Norte among her friends who helped me with obscure references in the Cantares, nor the Chicanos who live in my neighborhood now. I grew up with Italians who were proud to be the heirs of Roman culture. Greeks still welcome the return of Persephone in the spring, just as surely as Jews observe Passover and some of my oriental friends take part in Buddhist celebrations as a birthright, and some of my occidental friends practice Asiatic religions by convincement. Paradoxically, to look no farther than your walled-in back yard is to live in a world gone by. We now live in a global culture where all places come together, and the heritages of all times come to us through every means they can. We may become as sophisticated in dealing with diversity as the peoples of pre-Columbian Central Mexico, who used a form of visual poetry to share their lives among peoples who had no common spoken language.

Additional bibliography:

My facsimile and reading of the last pages of Codex Boturini appears on-line at Tezcatlipoca magazine's web site. Jerry Rothenberg published facsimiles and readings of the first pages of this ms. in the second edition of Technicians of the Sacred. My facsimile and reading of three pages of Codex Vindobonensis appeared in Rothenberg and David Guss's New Wilderness magazine in 1983. Granary Books reprinted this magazine as The Book: Sacred Instrument in 1999. The first section of my essay, "Notation and the Art of Reading," first published by bpNichol in Open Letter magazine in 1983, deals with the central Mexican books. This essay has been reprinted many times, perhaps most easy to find in Rothenberg and Steven Clay's A Book of the Book, Granary Books, 2000. The essay appears on-line in English, Spanish, and Hungarian, all accessible from my home page and the Light and Dust main menu.

"Animal and Human Stages in the Aztec Continuum of Life," first drafted with several other extended essays on Meso-American thought in 1982 and extensively revised in 2001, appeared in Tezcatlipoca magazine. This includes commentary on iconography in Codex Borbonicus. I summarized sections of another one of the extended essays, "Aztec Images of Death," for David Meltzer's Death: An Anthology of Ancient Texts, Songs, Prayers, and Stories, North Point Press, 1984. David placed the sections of the essay throughout the book, acting as nodes in its chapters and forming dynamic interrelations with other work in the book. For centuries, misunderstandings have plagued study of iconographic writing systems, as they have other forms of visual poetry. In this instance, the publisher decided to eliminate "illustrations," and confused the iconographic texts studied in the essay with decorations. Thus my comments gloss texts that aren't there. It's pointless to get huffy about this, and it seems best to see it instead as one of the scherzi in the long road to an integration of writing systems.

Go to Karl Young Home Page

Go to Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry