Song Gatherer

The ghostly Cantares Mexicanos, as rendered by Edgar Garcia

The Cantares Mexicanos, one of the major works of Indigenous American literature, is a codex that preserves 91 songs for musical performance in Nahuatl, the language of the people of central Mexico, including the Mexica, the group that later came to be called Aztecs. Dating from around 1580, the manuscript is a document of the period directly following the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the destruction of the Aztec empire.

John Bierhorst, the first scholar to publish an English translation of the songs (in 1985), held that most of them were composed in the post-Conquest period by “warrior-singers” who used poetry to “summon the ghosts of ancestors in order to swell their ranks and overwhelm their enemies.” This view of the Cantares as “ghost songs”—similar to the “ghost dances” of the Plains Indians around 1890—has been rejected by scholars who maintain that the song-texts belong to a tradition long predating the Conquest. That may be the case, but Bierhorst also might have been right in a sense. Because they preserve the voices of a lost civilization, the Cantares have a distinctly ghostly quality.

Edgar Garcia comes to these songs as a poet and a literary scholar. His translations are far from literal renderings. Instead, as responses and adaptations, they attempt to capture the homeless, unsettled spirit of the Cantares by combining touches of formal, courtly diction, rhymed stanza patterns, and contemporary imagery and references. The effect is provocatively anachronistic. Rather than treat the Cantares as precious shards in a museum case, Garcia is asking: What might these poems, so many of them songs of melancholy and dejection put to paper in a period of civilizational crisis, have to say to us in our era of war and disease, in which people crowd this nation’s southern border, fleeing barely imaginable poverty and violence?

In the song titled “CRISIS,” the “displaced and dead retinues” of Garcia’s Aztec singers have sore throats. Like pandemic-era people everywhere, they must “mask up” when they go out. The “masks” they wear are multiform. Garcia finds their spirits inhabiting hummingbirds, geese, and quetzals—those gorgeous birds from the highlands of Guatemala whose feathers once adorned the crowns of Mesoamerican rulers. Or are the migrant birds that Garcia describes—sad “whippoorwills in white sheets”—simply migrant people wandering the city “in search of things to eat”?

Garcia the translator comes forth as a character in prose sections that are no less wily and lyrical than the poetic texts they frame. Past and present historical emergencies blend when he dreams of serving “as a suicide prevention specialist in ancient Mesoamerica.” With no hotline to staff, he must go about the ancient countryside gathering songs, becoming a part of the story himself. This puts him in the ambiguous position of an ethnographer, in this case a visitor from another century. No wonder, then, that the author of Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss, appears in the dream as an object of sympathy.

Vexingly, or consolingly, the ghosts Garcia is in search of are hard to grasp, having “retreated to a future time.” They may still be somewhere out ahead of us.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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