“Could it be true…”

Could it be true we live on earth?
On earth forever?

Just one brief instant here.

Even the finest stones begin to split,
even gold is tarnished,
even precious bird-plumes
shrivel like a cough.

Just one brief instant here.

by Nezahualcoyotl

From Flower and Song: Aztec Poems, translated and introduced by Edward Kissam and Michael Schmidt.

This book has recently been published by Anvil Press to coincide with the British Museum’s exhibition Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler (September 2009–January 2010).

Two young poets who grew up in Mexico became fascinated in the 1960s by the fabled Aztec poems composed before and during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in 1521. They encountered these extraordinary poems largely in Spanish translations, made from the texts recorded by the early friars who followed in Cortés’s wake.

Nezahualcoyotl, the original author of this poem, was King of Texcoco. He lived from 1402–1472. He is the most famous of the Nahuatl-language poets, considered by his contemporaries to be the best master of the classical style. Many tales are told of his wisdom as judge, public servant, philosopher, and teacher.

Nahuatl is unlike any European language – so different that Michael Schmidt doubts whether meaningful translations can be made, the cultural context of the poems being so alien and having, in any case, been destroyed. But all we can know of Aztec poetry is what these two gifted poet-translators have given us. It may be inadequate of course, but the poems are fascinating and often quite beautiful. Schmidt and Kissam’s introduction to Flower and Song is also a superb, distilled account of the background to the Aztec empire: from its way of life and its fall, to the role of poetry in Aztec life, and how the poems were preserved. It is an ideal introduction to the British Museum exhibition.

Anvil Press Poetry was founded in 1968 and publishes English-language poetry and poetry in translation, both classic and modern. You can read more about Anvil here.