At the University of Virginia, I teach an Introduction to Poetry class called “Dream, Death, and Myth.” While organizing the myth unit, I was met with a super-abundance of poems about Classical and Judeo-Christian mythology. Even among contemporary authors, there were so many great books to choose from, like Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Louise Glück’s Averno, and Gregory Orr’s Orpheus and Euridice. It would be easy to populate a whole course with recent poems about Greek gods; easy, even, to fill a unit with Persephone poems alone, not to mention Eve poems. Given this abundance, it strikes me that relatively few contemporary poets reach past the Bible and the Greek pantheon for mythic content. Some great recent poems do this, of course: Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec contains many of them. To present more global traditions in my class, I often had to rely on scholarly translations of original sources, produced more for academic fidelity than beauty.
So I was glad to hear that a celebrated poet, Michael Bazzett, has produced the first verse translation of the Popul Vuh (Milkweed 2018), the epic Mayan creation myth. Bazzett has written a lovely English version: elegant, lyrical, and accessible. This translation will bring pleasure to many readers, and especially to poets. I needed this book, and I think the poetry world needs it, too.
Stone panels recently unearthed in northern Guatemala date the Popul Vuh to at least 200 BCE. Over a thousand years later, when Spanish invaders were burning every Mayan book they plundered, this ancient literary masterpiece, memorized and chanted over generations, was recorded, hidden away, and devoutly guarded. The epic eventually reached the outside world only because one trusted Spanish friar was allowed to transcribe a single copy of the K’iche’ text in the early eighteenth century. The original manuscript he copied has been lost. Evocatively, the scribes of that lost book, writing under colonization, refer to an even earlier book in their preamble to the text:
We will write about this now
amidst talk of God
under the rule of Christendom.
We will bring it forth
because there is no longer a way
to see the ancient book, the Popul Vuh:
that way of seeing clearly that came from beside the sea,
that account of our origins in the shadows,
that place where we see the dawn of life, as it is said.
The original book exists.
It was written long ago
but those who read and ponder it
have hidden their faces.
This lament evokes grief not only for the Lost Book, but for a vibrant ancient literary culture that has been decimated. While K’iche’ literature is alive among native speakers, the loss of material is incalculable. Bazzett cites this 1566 account by a Spanish invader who made a bonfire of Mayan books: “we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree and caused them much affliction.”
It is astonishing that Mayan scribes kept this epic alive; astonishing that I can sit down to read it. In Mayan traditions, the Word is sacred; In the Popul Vuh, the Earth is wrought from speech. Bazzett explains that for the Mayans, “ancestors are made to live again when we speak their words.” These memories deserve respect and care. In this context, reading this book is a solemn project; translating it seems a very grave one, especially for a non-native speaker.
I believe that Bazzett has taken his task seriously. I don’t know K’iche’ — I can’t address the fidelity of this translation to the original. But in every way, Bazzett’s rendition of the Popul Vuh strikes me as a humble and graceful rendering of the myth. Bazzett spent a decade on this translation, at times visiting Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala to live with native K’iche’ speakers. Allen Christensen, the scholar responsible for the literal translation on which Bazzett relied, writes that he “made intriguing choices and invested a huge amount of work.” Bazzett himself assures us that “every line of the poem has its antecedent in the K’iche’.”
Bazzett’s reverence for this language and this text is most evident in his elegant and controlled lyric voice. He writes, “To make the earth they said, ‘Earth’ / and there it was: sudden / as a cloud or mist unfolds / from the face of a mountain, / so earth was there.” His verse doesn’t draw attention to itself. Bazzett doesn’t use this sacred text as a stage on which to flex and flaunt his poetic muscles. Instead, his writing is restrained and precise. He favors short, Anglo-Saxon words to — as he puts it — “echo the cadences of spoken K’iche’, with its husky consonants spoken deep in the throat and its marvelous sinewy music.” He uses short lines, as if wanting to bow to each phrase: to frame and admire it.
Because of the short lines and many stanza breaks, Bazzett’s Popul Vuh is quite a thick book that you can read in just a sitting or two. “Don’t you feel a little cheated,” my partner asked as I began reading it, “to open the book and see all that empty space?” (He was looking up from a 1000-some page novel.) The joke made me wonder. There’s a sense in which I did want more — I would enjoy a novel version of the Popul Vuh, if only to linger in the verdant, violent world of the epic. Because I generally write prose poems, I tend to ask, “Why lineate this poem at all?” But here, the line breaks feel essential. The music evoked in the lineated form reminds us that the Popul Vuh was once chanted and sung. Without the line breaks, it might be too easy to tear through such a rollicking, magical story. They make us slow down, savor, and question.
Though it recalls other ancient creation myths, the Popul Vuh is also utterly wild and strange. In it, the virgin mother of two hero-twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque—is named Lady Blood. Two generations of twins who rove the forests with blow-guns over their shoulders are summoned to ball-courts in the underworld to play the Lords of Death, irresistibly given names like “Flying Scab,” “Wingspan,” and “Jaundice Fiend.” A villain named Seven Macaw and his greedy sons rule the undead. Men turn into monkeys. Heroes traverse hell-rivers flowing with scorpions and endure nights in caves of fire. They are sacrificed and brought back to life. This story demands to be read.
Bazzett’s focus on lyricism and accessibility in this translation was wise, but since I was new to the material, I craved footnotes: facts and contexts. Some of my questions were satisfied by the narrative “Reader’s Companion” in the back of the book, which summarizes the story as it dips in and out of commentary. Many moments in the Reader’s Companion are illuminating, as when Bazzett reflects:
…the Popul Vuh is built resolutely upon such symmetries, continually folding back into itself, like a fractal or a repeatedly halved piece of paper. The story teems with doubles and echoes: its world is created through one god constantly mirroring back the intent of another. […] This focus on duality is embodied in Mayan script itself, written in double columns, the glyphs placed side by side, as if in conversation with one another.
While the Reader’s Companion is elegantly written, the reader does have to go through the whole narrative to glean contexts that could be better delivered through end-notes. Still, what scholarly precision might be lost in a poet’s translation is, I think, compensated by the immersive, immediate beauty of this text.
Bazzett writes that he dreamed of a translation of the Popul Vuh to “place beside the poetry of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf or Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh in a literature classroom.” I think his beautiful rendition does what he hoped: Bazzett’s Popul Vuh belongs in the company of these works, and others. I know I’m grateful to be able to teach this book to my students next semester. There are many more ancient masterpieces that deserve the particular, ardent attention that poet-translators can bring. Bazzett’s translation show us how that gap might be filled.