Humberto Ak’abal (1952-2019) was a K’iche’ Maya poet born in Momostenango, in the western highlands of Guatemala. The highlands are lush, with mountains covered in cloud forest, the trees draped with bromeliads and furred with moss, well adapted to taking a sip from the sideways-drifting morning fog. The connection to place in Ak’abal’s work is palpable; the language seems to arise from the land itself, where stones speak, wooden benches remember being trees, and there is laughter in a rain shower. As Ak'abal himself said, “My words hold the dampness of rain, / the tears of morning dew, and it cannot / be otherwise, because they were / brought down from the mountain.”
This connection to land via language calls to mind the great epic of the K’iche’ Maya, the Popol Vuh, where, when it came time for the gods to create the world, “it only took a word. / To make earth they said, ‘Earth’ / and there it was: sudden / as a cloud or mist unfolds / from the face of a mountain, / so earth was there.” An entire theory of language is embedded in this mythic moment, where words are not labels, like post-it notes, to be affixed to what they name. In this cosmogony of the K’iche’, words are a form of energy, tethered intrinsically to the thing they call forth, and as such they are not imposed by humans upon the landscape, but instead uncovered through careful listening and observation of the world around us.Ak’abal’s work does just this, with clarity and subtlety. It has an essential, almost elemental simplicity that can make it a bit tantalizing to translate; the plainspoken diction and clarity of image allow a reader to arrive rather quickly at an initial sense of the moment. Yet there is an ineffable quality to the work that remains elusive, a sensibility that mixes playful, earthy observations with musings on time and memory that evoke Heraclitus “watching how the water leaves / and how the river stays.” Ak’abal’s work is rooted in the acuity of his observations, his looking and his listening, and the work often feels to me as if it was made by everything nonessential being carved away.
Given that, for the most part, Ak’abal wrote in K’iche’ and then translated himself into Spanish, one can simultaneously grapple with to two versions of a poem, different cadences bridging the colonial divide with a contraconquista energy. And of course, there is a completely different cultural syntax at play here. K’iche’ Maya has no verb to be; past, present and future often co-exist with a simultaneity that can feel strange to a sensibility marinaded in a sequential construct of time; dream and memory intermingle in the eternal now of the poem.
I’m grateful to his family, and particularly his wife Mayulí, for their support and encouragement in this work. My hope is that these translations might help Ak’abal’s poems find a broader audience in English so that readers might, as Carlos Montemayor put it, “penetrate that other reality that we do not know, and understand … that this indigenous soul lives and breathes in our own reality at the same time as our time, with the same life as our life, loving and understanding the same continent that we love but do not understand.”
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