The Popol Vuh, translated from the K’iche’ by Michael Bazzett
Milkweed Editions, 2018. 271 pages. (ebook)
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid
I sensed trouble right away with this one. If you flip through it, you see miles and miles of couplets and tercets separated by white space. You think: Whatever the Popol Vuh is like, it can’t be like this.
Then you read the Introduction. There you encounter this kind of boosterism:
As it has many names, the Popol Vuh is also many things: it is a work of startling cosmic perspective, a masterpiece of world literature, a founding myth of the Americas, a heroic epic embedded into the cocoon of a creation story, the proto-history and genealogy of a royal lineage, the seeds of a cosmology, and so on. But first and foremost, the Popol Vuh is a rattling good story.
Listen, I’ve read the Popol Vuh a bunch of times, and a rattling good story it is not. It’s interesting as hell (a lot of it takes place in hell), but you’re gonna be mighty disappointed if you read it hoping for the pleasures associated with the standard epics in Greek and Latin and Sanskrit. If you need the Popol Vuh to be like those books, it’s just gonna make you mad.
If, gun to my head, I had to compare the Popol Vuh to something in European literature, I might compare it to the most deliciously twisted Russian folktales. The ones where the morals are deeply weird, and the structures arbitrary. Or forget Europe. The Popol Vuh is a lot like Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard.
All the same, the book under review can be sincerely recommended, for the same reason I cited with regard to Rolfe Humphries’ Metamorphoses of Ovid. The translator makes his narrative clear, probably clearer than you get anywhere else. And that’s not nothing.
While I was reading his version, I heaved many sighs over the feckless line breaks; I wound up calling ’em “kidding-himself line breaks.” That is, I didn’t buy for a second that these “stanzas” were doing anything to convey the poetic rhythm of the original, or any poetic rhythm at all. You could set the whole thing up as prose and not lose a thing.
Lemme throw down a favorite bit, which will help to show the folkloric aspect of the Popol Vuh. For interest’s sake, I’ll include the crazy-literal translation, by Allen J. Christenson, of the same passage—which translation Bazzett had at his elbow when he was devising his version. See what you think. The context is: A grandmother is crying because she has just been told her two beloved grandsons are to be summoned to the Underworld.
Then, a louse dropped onto her.
It itched and so she plucked it
and put it in her palm.
It scuttled sideways as it
walked about her hand.
“Oh, my grandchild,”
she said to the louse.
“Would you like me
to send you to the ball court
to fetch my grandsons?”
So the louse crept away
bearing this message:
“Messengers came to your grandmother.
They say that you must come.
You must come in seven days,
said the messengers of Xibalba.
This is what your grandmother says.”
The louse crawled along,
scuttling through the dust,
until he came upon a sleek toad
sitting in the path, named Tamazul.
“Where are you going?” asked the toad.
“I’m taking this burden,
these words in my belly,
to the boys of the ball court,”
said the louse to Tamazul.
“Very well then.
But I see you’re not going
said the toad to the louse.
“Wouldn’t you like me
to swallow you?
Then you’d see how fast I go.
We’d get there quickly.”
“Sounds good,” said the louse,
and the toad licked him up
and went hoping down the road.
So there he goes, now,
but he’s not too swift
and so then he was met
by a great white snake,
“Where are you going,
Tamazul, my boy?”
the snake asked the toad.
[ The reader indeed sees where this is going. The snake eats the toad, a falcon eats the snake, the falcon is shot by the grandsons, coughs up the snake, who coughs up the toad, who coughs up the louse and the message gets delivered. And of course this “explains” why animals eat what they eat. But actually it’s just playful delight. ]
Now the literal version. And I mean literal:
Then therefore fell hither a louse,
Then therefore she grabbed it up,
Then she put it therefore in hand.
It would scuttle about therefore
The louse walked.
“You my grandchild,
Would you like
I send you
To go then to you summon
The my [sic] grandsons at ball court?”
Was told the louse.
Then it went summoner.
“Came messengers with your grandmother,
They say you are to come.
‘In seven days therefore they are to come,’
Say its messengers Xibalba, she says,
Your grandmother she says,” was told the louse.
Then he went,
Scuttling therefore he went.
Sitting therefore the boy in the road,
Tamazul his name the toad.
“Where you go?” says therefore the toad to louse.
“It is there then,
My word in my belly.
I go with boys,” said the louse to Tamazul.
“Good then that.
Not then you go fast,
I see it,” was told therefore louse by toad.
“Not you would want I swallow you?
You will surely see how fast I go.
We shall arrive quickly.”
“Good then that,” said the louse to toad.
Then therefore he was licked up by toad.
He goes hopping therefore the toad.
Then he went now,
Not he goes fast.
Then therefore he met now therefore a great snake,
White Life his name.
“Where you go,
You Tamazul boy?”
Was asked again the toad
by White Life.
ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called TRY NEVER (Canarium Books, 2017).