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Sestina for the Ladies of Tehuántepec

Earle Birney
From:   Fall by Fury. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977. With permission of the Estate of Earle Birney.

"Teh. has six claims to fame:      its numerous hotsprings
(radioactive, therapeutic); moderate earthquakes
(none in several years) ; herbivorous iguanas
(eaten stewed); Dictator Porfirio Diaz
(d. 1911); its hundred-mile-wide isthmus;
and the commanding beauty of its Indian women."

Stately still and tall as gilliflowers the women
though they no longer glide unwary past the hotsprings
naked as sunlight to each slender softer isthmus
now that ogling busloads (Greyhound) make their earth quake
And still skirt-bright before the flaking palace of old Diaz
(hotel) they gravely offer up their cold iguanas

Their furtive men (unfamed)      who snare iguanas
sliding on tree-limbs olive-smooth as are their women's
have fallen out of peonage to landlord Diaz
into an air more active than their tepid hotsprings
more prompt with tremors than the obsolete earthquakes
rumbling through their intercontinental isthmus

From the stone music of their past the only isthmus
from astronomic shrines fantastic as iguanas
to this unlikely world (3 bil.) that waits its earthquake
is their long matriarchal ritual of women
whose eyes from fires more stubborn than under hotsprings
flash out a thousand Mayan years before a Diaz

Goldnecklaced      turbaned      swaying in the square of Diaz
volute and secret as the orchids in their isthmus
braids black and luminous as obsidian by hotsprings
beneath their crowns of fruit      and crested live iguanas
rhythmic and Zapotecan-proud the classic women
dance (v. marimbas) their ancient therapy for earthquakes

0 dance      and hurl flamboya      till the cobbled earth quakes
let your strong teeth shine out in the plaza lost to Diaz
toss your soaring sunflower plumes      sunflowering women!
Hold for all men yet your supple blossoming isthmus
lest we be noosed      consumed with all iguanas
and leave the radiant leaping of the lonely hotsprings

Beneath all hotsprings lie the triggered earthquakes
Within this gray iguana coils another Diaz
Is there a green isthmus walking yet in women?


Salina Cruz, México 1956



Earle Birney's works copyright © to the Estate of Earle Birney.
Reprinted with the permission of the Estate.


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