“Reading Octavio Paz”

“Reading Octavio Paz”

Reading Octavio Paz



Mexico City and the highlands

the night


            into deep velvet

air so dense I couldn’t understand

how we could pass,

along the way the fabric


by lorries of soldiers

                                                dead set

in armor, ceremonial guns bristling

            obsidian swords

            helmeted, alert

laid by in rest areas. We were


                         to take our ease

for seven hours.

We had the windows rolled

down, thick tropical air flowing

in, a weave reaching back

                                    or down

or covering or connecting

so that I could hear us,

ourselves, talking quietly

in the car as it traveled

its curving line along

            the highway past

                        lakes dying of lilies,

    of human


into the lop-topped mountains

murmuring with

our words                    of today,

English            and                  Spanish,

the driver trying to teach me

while trying to learn, each of

us folding into the other’s

            head some small


Talking of soldiers, pitched

against la violencia, still no

stopping for the rest room,

in Mexico

            for centuries

            no rest,

            only un-,

as well as any narco, they

could raid an americana,

blame it on a driver.

The night

                        so dark, so velvet,

            so thick with oxygen

                        exhaled from plants.

It let us through. The soldiers

couldn’t see us,

                                    I thought,

I thought maybe we weren’t

on the same highway as

the soldiers.

                         Do you hear


The driver, surprised:

            It happens sometimes,

not often.

Cascade of voices, riding the

fabric, this magic

            carpet, flow of


history of words,


                        As if we were

driving not through black

and empty

night but past

markets and carnivals, busy


On one curve

            louder, another


Reaching el Lago del

Patzcuaro where the lake,

still huge, though

                        a fragment

            of itself in the

time of empire,

still fights

its lilies to live, where

the old temple hulks

beneath the cathedral,


                                    the entire town—

                        where the empire never buckled

            to the Aztec,

            so the bloodlines,

                        the lines of blood


One day a horseman rode past

in the town, English-erect

                        in the Spanish


To see is not

to regard.

To be seen is not

to be regarded.

The horse’s fine

fetlocks, its hooves clicking

upon agonizing cobbles.

            Riding it

            was something ancient,

            something old something cold

Do not tell me not to judge.

                        What happened here,

                        in Mexico, was

                        never anything good.

What if one day we said:

            Only the Germans may

            speak about or judge the


Turks, a fine people,

            too bad

            about the Armenians, Kurds.

The Americans, what is it

            with the Americans, fucking

            the whole world.

You, Octavio, stand on your

ancient balconies

            pondering syllables


as crows                      spreading                   into



the hollow

Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon

            statue on its island,

paintings illuminate so many

                        lost words.

A hollow man, a hollow man, standing in a

dying lake, soon to be a desert like the plain

A hollow man erect on this island

in this gasping lake, this island

with its top flattened, lopped,

like the pyramids whose prayers are lost,

because the gods are lost, this island

with its top leveled like the mountains


The first turning of the stairs,

blood from the first rulers

            remembered, Tzintzuntzan:

            whips, slaves,

second turning of the stairs,

            whips, blood, horses:

            the Conquest,


            Revolution: horses,

            blood, guns,

turning, Federales: jeeps,


turning, SUVs, guns,

            blood: la Familia.

            Now that

you stand in the hollow man’s fist, upraised,

look out over the lake:

            one day in time

            fires flared from ruins that were not

            ruins, drums boomed across the

            water, and then

we cannot be sure what happened.

The murals are a memory. Slaves,

blood. St. Gertrudes martyred

in the plaza, blood gushing from her breast,

                        merry fat babies


                        at the fount.

Oh Mexico you drink

as you did before, do not

tell me not to judge.

At the top a hipster—glasses, sideburns—

            sprints to catch. You are from America! I

            lived in America for two years. Denver,

            so beautiful.


            try their English, they

speak our language, descending

that spiral staircase.

Cortez’s palace,

zocalo, Cuidad de Mexico,

guide to Americans:

See Diego Rivera’s Christ,

feel, he says, the Mixteca confusion,

why worship

a god in so much pain?

And why, I say to my son,

            the Templo Major

a few feet away,

            layers of burnt

altars for burnt hearts, built by

            ruler      upon     ruler,

            the people not the gods

            in their agonies.

It is hard, said a young man.

On a bus. I didn’t write down

exactly what he said.

Something like. We would say

life is hard, but he said in this

life it is hard to get any power.

He was twenty-five, he spoke

English well, he had been to America.

For two years, that is what

they all said, two years in America.

He said come to my house, listen

to my reggae music, when I play

I feel a little power. Had it not been

for the tourist advisories, la violencia,

telling us he was a barbarian,

we would have gone, learned much

more than we did. It is so hard

to get any power.

In this life.

I was on the bus with him in Patzcuaro

with the lilies strangling the lake,

Chinese sucking livelihoods from reed weavers,

            stealing designs from pottery makers

            copper workers, wood

            artisans and luthiers,

those workshops going back

to the days of empire,

so that now Michoacan

            exports its people.

He told this to me, I want to tell

you what he said.

While he spoke I

thought of my baby

choking to death,


in his own blood.

There was nothing—

In this life,

it is so hard to get any


One day my son

stood atop a staircase

overlooking the lands of lost

Tzintzuntzan, assuming

it is lost

                        (Paz: “lost islands” in

            the evaporated

                                    Lake of Mexico,

            I thought, reading, my lost places,

            Lyonesse, Avalon,

            are on another continent

            and not mine)

assuming Tzintzuntzan

is lost, I don’t

know, I’d have to ask,

I do not know

the right people to ask:

was it ever

lost? The lake, the islands, cities,

the flat-topped mountains.

Inside the cathedral, glyphs,

meaning what, speak to

the congregation. Does it


            Who placed

            those blocks, gathered from

            the old temples, in which

            configurations, decided to

            turn them in which

            directions, was it

            a decision that certain

            glyphs face those who pray

            to the new god?

My son’s hair long, thick, wavy

with moisture, he looks

happy in rich air high altitude

yet thick with planted oxygen.

Later in Mexico City in the palace

courtyard there he is his hair

contemporary with 16th century

architecture, looking young as he was

charismatic as he was, people stopping

as they did to point: da Vinci! In the

olive groves where bearded, long-

haired Jesus lay encased in glass,

nuns stared, no doubt the hair

also that gliding, water-sliding

way of striding, with some concern.

                        Now, he is emptied for

the moment, pale, hunched. I know

why, hate to think of it, lost

in cities of his own country, when

he seemed so at home in Mexico, amid

the interstices of the centuries.

It is hard, said the young man,

in Patzcuaro. Define hard, I do

not know how you define it. It

seemed, that moment on the bus,

we were all on the same bus.

I do not

know what my son was thinking,

that moment, on that bus,

but I could see he was


Is a man—Paz—brown-skinned, and

traveling in a brown-skinned land

more empowered to be wrong

than a woman, white and traveling

in a brown-skinned land?

Obsessing with how lover

            and beloved


I am not concerned with that.

                        The ruins sweating,

cowering, lurking, waiting. It is said

of them. Sweating and waiting. Who

knows how many still buried?                        We don’t know.

Archaeologists don’t know.

Experts are unsure.

                                    Surely someone knows.

Ask enough someones.

                        In the village

of Coba. Seven centuries of triumph

over that hideous city. Someone knows

what it lives beside.

            Seven hundred years

a village.         My village in New

England three hundred years alive.

Still there, hating, guarding.

                        I believe

it takes a village. It takes a child. It

is grueling, a small village. You build

a village, or you build Coba.


pyramids, sacrifice, or the village

square for seven hundred years,

it is the same. It is either/or.

                        Atop the pyramid

in the shrine rooms, an atmosphere,

            it is the same all over Mexico, an

altitude, even in the lowlands.

If you did not know what went on

            here you would know

            what went on here. No human

sacrifice here,


                        Yet no other rooms so black

and bleak. Open to the sun, yet dark

and black. Have you ears to

            hear them here, those voices,

            weeping with pain and


The village thought primitive,

            the lost knowledge,

            bold monuments,

bemoaned. Yet the people live,

as they chose,

seven hundred years

ago. Before the Spanish.

Not lost, this city: turned


To be direct I want to know

what’s inside or under, mainly inside,

those mountains

around el Lago del Patzcuaro.

No one knows, I’m told.

I’m told they haven’t excavated. Surely

someone knows.

Just this year village dwellers

came to archaeologists, revealed

a cave of Maya artifacts. See?


knew. So much

we don’t.

I care nothing for artifacts. Only want to know

            which came first


or pyramid

pyramid or mountain

Did they cut off the tops of those mountains

to match their pyramids? That would be

monumental architecture. Terrifying even

to the Aztec.

And now Michoacan

exports its people.

It is so hard

to get any power.

            It always

            has been

About the Author

Claudia Putnam

Claudia Putnam lives in Western Colorado, where she has a small craniosacral therapy practice. Her fiction appears in Cimarron Review, Sunspot Lit, phoebe, bosque, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry has previously appeared in The Write Launch. Her debut collection, The Land of Stone and River, won the Moon City Press poetry prize and should be out by the end of 2021. A long personal essay, Double Negative, won the Split/Lip Press CNF chapbook prize and is forthcoming in March 2022. She's had a few residencies, including The Bennett Fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy, and most recently at Hypatia-in-the-Woods.