Linden Ontjes


The Maya Have Twelve Words for Milpa: Cornfield

Che-col: Bush cut but not yet burned. Col: A first-year milpa. A field
from which trees have been cut with blows of an axe. 
A second-year milpa. Cornstalks cut. Sakab col: A third-year milpa.
Cornstalk milpa.
Xlab sakab: An old abandoned milpa in which stalks
can still be seen. Another sakab. Sakab hubche: When the bush is
about a meter high and one can barely see the stalks. Cornstalks mixed
with shorts of trees.
Xlabhubche: Short bush having had no milpa for
two or more years. Old sprouts of trees. Hubche: Bush 2 to 3 meters
high. Dzop-che hubche: Bush 3.5 to 4.5 meters high, trees 5 to 7
centimeters in diameter. Vigorous young forest. Tan celen hubche: Bush
which is 10 or 12 years old and again ready for milpa. It may also be 30
years old. Noh Kax: High bush. Evidence, however, of previous
burning, either on stone or on old stumps. Nucuch Kax: Bush which has
never been burned. Forest of thick trees or big forest.



Gangly stalks of husky coughs
rattle and kvetch. 100 acres,
Zea mays, apex tassel a male
stripper's tease to female cob.
The barely meant, the zipless
fuck of reproduction: florets
spikelets, haphazard pollen.

Muluc's sickle itches for revenge
against the drought—
to cut a swath, to cut his throat.
Each sheath a cerecloth
for suppose, a withered almost.
Each narrow leaf opposed
before word one is spoken. Caryopsis:
kernel, dry fruit with single seed:
a meager coin fused to a miser’s
purse. Germ and endosperm. One
to eat the other. Autotrophic.
Determinate. This crop,
a show of smiles like baring teeth.



These two poems are excerpts from my novel-in-verse, Muluc: How a Minor Maya God, Reborn as the Son of a Mexican Tenant Farmer in Iowa, Leaves Home, Falls in Love and Accidentally Saves the World.

on Maize:

This poem began by playing with the musical sounds of scientific and colloquial terms for corn. The angry tone took over when Muluc, a struggling farmer, entered the poem. I am interested in different ways of knowing: the disjunction between strong emotion and direct experience versus remote scientific terms of description.

on The Maya Have 12 Words for Milpa: Cornfield:

I am interested in the gaps between meaning and language, shifts in vocabulary of different languages over time, and which words are central to a culture. I based this poem upon the anthropologist Morris Steggerda's dictionary of farming terms in a contemporary Yucatec village, Piste, located near the ancient Maya capital Chichen Itza.