Thanks to a recommendation by Abdul-Walid of Acerbia (soon, alas, to vanish into the dreamtime of the internet, not even archived [July 2 update: poof, it’s gone!]) I have discovered Dave Bonta’s epic poem Cibola, which he has been serializing on his blog Via Negativa since the start of this year; he’s reached the penultimate of the 120 segments into which he’s divided the poem, so you won’t have a long wait for the conclusion. Being partial to a poem containing history, I visited out of curiosity to see what Dave was doing with the long form; I was hooked as soon as I saw the first epigraph, a snippet from the John William Johnson translation of a version of the Malian national epic of Sundiata (or as Johnson eccentrically renders it, “Son-Jara”):

Though a person find no gold,
Though he find no silver,
Should he find his freedom,
Then noble will he be.
A man of power is hard to find.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Malian epic, so this immediately drew me in, and the further epigraphs by William Blackwater and Wendell Berry further ensnared me, so that I was ready for Dave’s own poetry, which begins:

This thing called a fetish embodies
what can never be touched.
Its odd contours—all lump & twist
& rag-end—are best kept out of view.
To see it exposed, you must assume
the burden of its origins, you must
give up some part of what makes you
you. Who now would choose
such displacement? It lives
in a buried season, carboniferous.
It is the solid shadow
we abandoned in the womb.

The poem is “a psychological/anthropological drama based on historical events: the ‘discovery’ in 1539 of an apparent Shangri-La somewhere in the mountains of present-day New Mexico by the Franciscan friar Marcos de Niza and the ‘black conquistador’ Esteban, originally from Morocco and probably of Sahelian parentage and culture.” You can get the historical background here; once you’re hooked on the story, let yourself sink into Dave’s complex and lively retelling. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

I can’t resist, naturally, providing the original Malinke of the Johnson passage quoted above:

N’i mògò ma sanu sòrò,
N’i ma wòri sòrò,
N’i di ki yèrè sòrò
I kèra hòròn ye dè!
Sin-kula le sòrò man di.


  1. Oh, the Cantos. Iceland’s greatest 20th Century poet (the criminally undertranslated Steinn Steinarr, whose greatest poem, Time and the Water has barely been translated into the Nordic languages, let alone any other) once got asked who he thought the greatest poet of the 20th Century was to which he replied: “Probably Ezra Pound, but you could knock out a bull with his poetry.”
    Of the high modernists (a phrase that should come with irony quotes permanently attached) I prefer Eliot. Eliot’s fucked upness gives his best poetry an edge that Pound lacks. Not that Pound wasn’t a bowl of raisins short of a fruit cake. But there’s something charming about Eliot’s neurosis that Pound’s utter psychosis lacks.
    That being said, Pound was technically a much better poet, and The Waste Land was a true collaboration between the two. Any time I hear/read a poet complain about editing, I think of Waste Land. Without Pound it would have been an incomparably lesser poem.
    But I’m writing my B.A. thesis about Cummings.

  2. Just a note to say that I have finally updated the Via Negativa links so that, after god knows how many years, they actually work.

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