“From music, I bore/Some gold-stone fins/but they sank away/through the waffled shadows.” These lines open Annie Finch’s poem, “Spells,” one of many gems to be found in a new anthology of Washington, D.C.-area poets. The Music of the Aztecs, edited by David B. Churchill, presents selections from eight poets who gather as the Magic Theater Poetry Club to share poems and offer critique and support to each other.
Finch’s poem catalogues her attempts to gather and hold solid beauty (gold) and sustenance (rice). But the gold “sank away” and the rice “edged deep away/In sunk stone bowls.” So the poet “ask[s]/For bowls and fins” and “a hand that could gather them back,” and she (goddess? muse?) [w]hom I had asked/Whom I had guessed” and in return receives “the speech of bowls, the speech of fins.”
Marianne Szlyk, in the opening section, imagines Purgatory as an airplane and her mother as “a stewardess, flying/through turbulence, never crashing, never/landing.” Despite numerous difficulties with the flight, the poet is confident that [s]omeday this plane will land” and her mother return to Maine where [h]er friends/and family will all have/ to find her there.” In a more earthy vein, in “Saturday Morning,” Szlyk sees “Girls with yoga mats walk[ing] in the rain,” but knows that “Soon they will be/inside./They will salute the sun/that will not show/its face today.”
The sun returns (by implication) in Jan Claire Starkey’s “At the Swimming Pool.” Though she learns “how easy it would be to drown,/just falling asleep,/letting the water fill my lungs like humid air,” at night Starkey and a friend “pretended to be mermaids/together and separate in the hazy underwater silence—/The pool lights turning into moons.”
The title of the collection is also the title of one of Ethan Goffman’s poems. Despite the horrors of war and blood sacrifice, two Aztec gods, “Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl/smoked mirror and feathered serpent,/their names a convoluted music…conspired to steal music from the temple of the sun,/bring it to earth, to the Aztec people/to fill their days with life.” Though “We can only recreate/a kind of cartoon of the Aztecs,” nevertheless we can imagine “Blood and sacrifice/war and worship/drums vibrating/a ghostly facsimile.”
More travel: In “Dog Lake Satori,” Reid Baron takes us to Yosemite, where “Alpine-perfect Dog Lake provoked real tears.” What he brings back includes the knowledge that “I have no mortal fight/Nor sudden death to face/But days of ordinary hours to spend/And somehow be decent.”
Alan Britt travels across the Walt Whitman Bridge and finds that “the true bridge,/the one he created/from our lives to the infinite/is the one I’m crossing now/between the shores of my solitude.”
Similarly alone, John Macdonald is an “Elder Emeritus.” In an almost surrealistic turn, he compares himself to “a broken/old crucifix” and inquires “how/would you/feel after/jesus hung/on you that/many years?” Here the short, concise lines suggest the stumbling pace and narrowing life of an old yet sage self-observer.
Editor David Churchill closes out the volume, returning us to D.C. and “Bishop Asbury on Horseback,” a statue in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. While his horse, Old Revelator, is weary, the Bishop “is not tired: he rides/with one finger/tucked in his book.” Reflecting on Asbury’s calling, Churchill notes that “men have their feet/in the earth at all times/ in this country;/in front of its mystery/they can only kneel/in order to get close to it.” Unlike the Bishop’s flock, the Confederate soldier in “Memorial to the Confederate Dead,” “stands,/contemplating something at his feet.” He recalls not the sounds of gunfire or the sights and smells of battle, but sun “on dew-stilled lupines—/the swish of feet/through wet timothy—the spring-like call of a wren/across dawn meadows/before the first deaths—the grief of
bugles/still lives in present horns.” The sound of horns brings us back to the present in which “gone the trumpeter,/gone the drum;/gone pennants/jumping in the breeze—/gone the cause.”
These brief excerpts can only hint at the range and power of the poets collected in this book. If you want a fine sampler of what D.C.-area poets are up to and the astonishing range of themes and language, pick up this book and begin reading. Whether you start at the beginning and read through to the end, or wander through the pages as your fancy strikes you, you will surely be moved, entertained, and uplifted by this collection.
The Music of the Aztecs can be ordered from the editor or from Amazon: