Richard Weekley’s Mayan Night rings as true now, as we approach 2012 and the end of the Mayan Calendar, as it did when he wrote these poems while living amongst the Maya in the highlands of Guatemala in 1979.
Reading Mayan Night 30 years ago and again in 2011, I now appreciate much more deeply the feelings about the reality of globalization that Richard Weekley documents in poetry. Perhaps this is because I am older. Perhaps it is because I have since spent many years living among indigenous people in Central and South America.
When I first read Mayan Night in 1981 I was one of the people with “… tourist eyes awash with romantic glint . . . ” that Weekley describes in his poem “double vision in paradise”. Later I felt like the
“. . . backpacks of the young and the daring old / leave in doddering droves / looking for a paradise elsewhere; / staring in awe at / backward indian villages; / contemplating slow paced peasants / like / divine messengers / from another planet . . .”
Like many travellers and ex-pats I have experienced the frustration of “(seeing) both sides / of some strange mirror / the natives cannot see through . . . ” as “today technology teases. / tomorrow it will trounce “. Like Weekley I mourn as”another culture is dying. / ancient traditions are drying up / and blowing away / like road dust / drifting over fallow corn stalks. / the simple people have been invaded, again.”
Invaded. Weekley takes on this topic of Imperialism in many of his poems. In “to a missionary,” Weekley turns the tables and invites this missionary, or any person who believes he is right and everyone else is wrong, to imagine what “if brown Mayans invaded Utah / with tan baskets of truth / balanced on their heads / and told you – / God made white men last / and . . . your only chance at eternal life (is) to live on a mud floor / and eat beans and tortillas / for the rest of your life”.
I enjoy this idea of, what I call, a “reverse missionary” saving souls in Western industrialized society.
One “reverse missionary”, in a sense, was American Renaissance philosopher Henry David Thoreau, in that he disseminated in Walden the importance of living close with nature and learning the wisdom of the earth first-hand.
Keepers of this Earth-wisdom, the Maya and other indigenous peoples, are being turned into objects for consumption – like the children in Weekley’s poem “the shiny side of the red radio”.
“now tiny arms automatically protrude / like mahogany slot machine handles, / their children lips (beg money) . . . / their graceful lives / merely snap-shot-objects / for the folks back home . . . ”
How many photos have you seen of cute indigenous children? It seems that no travel brochure would be complete without at least one darling youngster smiling in a photo for our consumption.
Consuming another’s life for one’s own benefit. This is cannibalism, according to Jack Forbes in Columbus and Other Cannibals. This consumer cannibalism, he argues, is a mental illness that is spreading — clouding our eyes to the sacred mystery of life.
Fortunately, not all are affected to a point of no return.
Richard Weekley is a poet with eyes and heart wide open to the undercurrent of life in our globalized world. In Mayan Night we soar with his spirit that remembers when “corn was gold and sacred” and “stars become realized / one at a time / as indians murmur / in shadowy corners / and raw red embers / rub a coarse natural light / on the eternal side / of Mayan night.”