Stormlight, a poem on the Pueblo Revolt

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Stormlight

            (the Pueblo Revolt, 1680)

 

A priest

in his midnight cell

approaching his four-hundredth year

is afraid to die

and have a life’s deeds weigh

upon his soul.

His story is sequestered

in the quill he holds,

waiting for each lightning flash

to illuminate his desk

long enough for him

to write, and it all begins

in the time before:

 

Days of the year balanced each

upon the next all the way

from winter rain to the ripening

saguaro in the month the O’odham

call the first. The people wandered

with the seasons and returned

from mountain slopes and floodplains

having gathered fruits and sensing

where water would fall next. They tasted

nutrients in silt and knew the eyes

of every animal as closely as the colors

of their many beans. No storm

was ever wasted, neither were the cholla

buds, the yucca or agave.

A wide metate was the surface

of the world, on which mesquite

beans and sunlight were ground

into sweet flour, and the forests were tall

by the river before the land

needed words to know

its own history.

 

And thunder rattles the horizon

shaking loose memories

from the rain-torn sky. In the long ago light

threaded through the dust

in a library silent

with reading, the Lady in Blue

stood before me with her smile aflame

and spoke about

those in the desert without faith.

She fell asleep in Spain

and awakened among thorns and thirsty light

to greet the doves and the coyote

who believed only

in himself. She emptied her heart

there, and let miracles

flow from her palms

as she spread them to show how

to collect water from the stars to drink.

Then she became light

flying at the speed of faith

back to her country. I knew then . . .

And he stops writing

when the air is dark as time.

 

The aching mission doors

opened when he touched the bolt

to enter and kneel at the retablo

whose saints looked at him

with features carved until they hurt

as the lines tightened

in his churrigueresque face

and he told the wood

he understood: I too

am just an instrument

tuned to feel pain for as long

as it takes to make it beautiful.

When the hinge in the spine of his Bible

creaked open the Word

lay in his lap like a snake

about to uncoil, and the bats

who slept above the incense

awakened and became a long black sigh

carried on the wind as he said It is time

for rice and bitter herbs, time

for the evening chocolate

and to take down the whip

that hangs on the nail

beside my bed. The wind

has many tails.

 

In the month the doves

with a white stripe on their wings

were back in the mesquite

valleys in the distance

rippled with unrest. Soon the Lord

would die for the sins

of the rebels and soon He would rise

to float among the vultures

who look down with priestly faces

on the land. No village was too remote for God

or the army to reach as nighthawks

returned to the evening skies

and redstarts to the streams.

At the tip of each

ocotillo stem a flower appeared.

The priest proclaimed them

to be the color of wounds

suffered by the Savior, but the people

said among themselves

that before he came

they had never seen a man

with a wax seal for a heart.

 

In the summer sixteen-hundred-and eighty

a Black Witch moth

hovered above the candle

by which I recorded the flash floods

that carried my brothers away

and only when

the sky cleared did I ask myself what

had we done to draw

such anger from the earth

we had come to save.

 

The corn would not grow.

When the natives danced to return it

Governor Juan Trevino had

more than forty whipped

and hanged four in the plaza

at Santa Fe. The revolt began

when Popé from San Juan Pueblo

washed the lashes from his back

and returned to speaking with kachinas.

Churches rose from their foundations

and came back to the earth as dust.

The men were wildfire

running between villages and leaving

each Christ figure broken

and torn from its cross.

Decades of prayer evaporated

the way that water did

when the sun came back after a storm.

The skies rang loud with whoops

and celebration screams. The people of Jemez

were so happy they stripped

the paint from an altarpiece

and the clothes from Fray Juan de Jesus

before the sword that killed him

hardly moved.

Three days to Santa Fe.

The siege lasted nine.

Arrows and stones contested

with gunfire. The Spanish possessed

more gunshot than water.

Fire took the church and opened the doors

of Nuestra Senora de las Casas Reales.

Thirst drove the Spanish to the roads,

imagining pitchers to drink from.

Their faith drove them

to execute forty-seven before

they believed in their horses more

than they did in their god.

 

We did not know, we did not

understand ourselves, so steeped

in our faith’s beauty

it was impossible

to see another in its place

until souls flew from the lip of a mesa

and across the desert

when a padre’s body

had no further use for it

and the Hopi watched with a joy

in excess even of that

the priest himself expressed

at facing the death he had wished for.

Every arrow pointed

to a martyrdom.

 

In one last flash

before a pre-dawn calm

the priest writes quickly to record

how when he found the room

in which his  own confessor died

it took him days

to clean a scream

from the wall.