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I will take your stony heart and give you one of flesh.
The wake     sewing shut those white lips    
and after    when leagues     and all behind to salt
fell     the grateful Spaniards prayed
It became their habit     to turn eyes     sore away
from surfeit     Rashes and abrasions of spring
leaf  stem  vine  blossom  aphid & berry stridulant
intricate and promiscuous     without the rose
or borage or pomegranate embowered
in flaunting silks on gauntlet cuffs     No
none of that repose their soldier-love required to root

     20,000 had died in Ravenna     He survived
without mark to show what he knew
how fear cramped each man solitary
inside himself until the spark that leapt     stinging
them on to violence     the grass-fire battle-frenzy
the grass that kneels to its burning
                                                      Then aftermath’s
vegetable melee     limbs and bodies

But what is not threat in this contagion and panic
of green     Whores  wives  saints  sovereigns
this beach     that thick-leaved mustardy shrub     Names
he thinks     the names keep slipping

Swift     intent     armored obdurate as beetles     no one man
felt the wound of where like Adam     too late he walked

                                  *     *     *

The air     flexing     began to bruise green around them
the fresh human injury of them     Like flies
trapped in a bottle     they didn’t know what to do
and carried on doing it
while bird     by bird invisible rescinded its song
while the sun     a drop of vinegar in milk      curdled the sky
Quiet     sumptuous as pain eased by what hand
abrupt as that held in the breath
exhausted just before the witch confesses

Like an executioner     who ropes hair over hand
to bend and lengthen the neck for his ax
the wind brutalized palm trees     spun men
before it loosely as leaves in a stream
He linked arms with another
     Broken wing     Splintering oar     Chainless anchor
dragging through darkness thick with sand and water and noise
whistles  braying  drums  timbrels & ululations
Pressed all night to the porch of the storm his ear
mistook the self’s own alienated music     called it sorcery

That the fury never ended he would learn
walking the eye of its silence

After the hurricane the stunned brilliance     like a spell
or question he woke into     waking by himself     to himself
and naked as a saint     to discover his ship
     with its ropes  tools  weapons  salves  Spain
was the anchored ship
now hoisted on planks of sunlight     over the palm-trees
sailing out of sight     The boat sick
for such mirth
made by root  sap  riverbank & squirrel
it would return to that green oak it once had been

                                  *     *     *

In what hour of what night did he know his soul
to turn a stranger to him
Pilgrim     he will venture forth across uncertain fields
Explorer     he will cry out

                                            He may be nothing more
than a hide rigid with gore & soil to be
scoured  pounded  abused by caustics and by iron
and     in watered pigeon-shit     kneaded until supple
for the hand—
                          but whose     and must
the hand continue to wear     or it will toughen again

                                  *     *     *

Daily he marched his men into corrugations of
blue distances dissolving one to another    like promises
of gold & corn made by guides snatched from villages
As the Spanish found new ways to die     natives
loomed     naked on the horizon they looked
splendid & violent as idols     Their women & children
restored for ransoms of melons or fish

Often some chief would repeat his good friend
possessed more of each thing they desired     His noble gestures
spread like balm     his speech intoxicating
but so militant their hunger     his words came entire
& legible to their sense as the amber & musk that steamed
from these his fine furs

                                  *     *     *

His dwindling force
through swamps & ambush labored     circuitous     stalled
like mayflies in their brevity & towarding and never
fable  riches  youth  nor rest to take
                                                        Only the body
with its anxious extremeties     eccentric     naked
not natural     from which a vein of fascinated shame
opened darkly     glittering     smoldering
like sea-coal     Every eye interrogated
Each inquisitor humiliated
by these echoes of himself     his body violating
the silence

                                  *     *     *

Now alone and exposed     approaching
he amassed his ocherous archive of blister
and of bruise     the old fabulous
atlas of faith in blood & smoke redrawn

Still even the most exacting map dreams
omits & lies brindled
                                with sums & suppositions

Every step makes him more wilderness
He goes interiorly
to trade conches  sea-snails & screw-beans
for red-dyed deer-tail tassels and the arrow-makers’
sinew & flint between ragged bands
surrounded by enemies     enthralled by visions
that command them to bury their sons alive
Girls whose marriages would multiply their foes
become meat for their dogs     
Where were the jades  turquoises  zinzibar Where
the sacred monsters  cannibals  or kings fielding legions
of dog-headed warriors
                                       Husbands groaned
bucked by pain onto the dirt when wives gave birth
& both sexes wept
strenuously after any absence     overjoyed to see each other
again in no essential changed

Had any man traveled farther than he

                                  *     *     *

Whether time is the ripening of fruit     the dying of fish
& the position of stars     or all
the king’s clocks ringing his will upon the quarter-hour
hunger is the self’s severe eternal god
From desert skies could be harvested evanescing
bounties     dove  rabbit  wild boar  mountain lion
when for two months the natives drank bad water
and ate only oysters
                                 Or salamanders  ants  dirt  
deer dung but also many days without
To suffer only this much
demands devotion     or the ingenuity of the wasp
which deposits eggs in the walking nursery of a spider

A single brief season happy to know enough
everyone was summoned by neat cornet-shaped fruits
the prickly pear     migrating north     as it sweetened
from parrot through orchid
What use ambition in the desert     or will
The pangs can shrink but never close
                                  *     *     *

He came late to healing     Even a stone     
they said possessed its virtue and how could he     
as well so different from themselves     solicit less
Left within his heart     sealed     it might sour
                                     Farther they starved him
The power grew     Passed along from tribe to tribe
intangible economy of magic
increased by use

Fright filled some with a lassitude they withered on
others suffered cramps  headaches     or had been struck
by a sorrow     a terror     a surfeit
Blessing each joint with a cross and that something
of him might be spent on the hurt
he breathed over it     Just a little game he played to eat
before his mind emptied     stroking down & up the air
like a kingfisher
under the shadow of the vaulting falcon that played it
When he lifted his hands     his fingers
glowed like ten lamps of fire     Why not be all

                                  *     *     *

How much can I change before I am changed
It has been years     so long
without abradings of any other to recall him

Dilation     digression     by these ways he will return

Natives said he could not be
Christian     whose eyes they felt crawl over them
as if where women & men had stood was
desolating space     His own people turned
away     warding off this apparition of a new fault
in themselves     This man

neither their stone houses
nor the need that stirs the fox’s miles     nor the moon
following     which laid down his bones
to scry the distances in him     but as though
pierced by some small passive wingless insect
whose gall     blighting him
would concealed suckle & multiply its question
down a thousand generations
he was that
                  which they’d feared most to find
now abject     now famous

Twice a year his skin like muslin     pulled from his body
Without armor or felted wool or hide afterward
he was now discovered
small  pricked  loose & unpleated     opening
to manifold injury & errand

A channel for pain and a channel for hearing

Poets's Note: With some liberties, the poem is based on Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (ca. 1490–ca. 1557) and the six years he spent in the Americas. The exact route he walked is disputed, but the record of his travels (La Relación) is one of the earliest written accounts of south Texas and northern Mexico, including his observations of the native peoples he encountered, first as their slave, then as a merchant and a spiritual healer.—AC