Say Shibboleth
The Marketplace in Machu Picchu

By Harald Weinrich

Translation Steven Rendall

Say Shibboleth

Stumble stutter stammer slur
twist the tongue in knots and
become incapable of speaking
no
today is another day
a day to snap my fingers
when everything so easily
slips smoothly from my tongue
I felt it first thing this morning
when my tongue fresh and free
with a healthy red color
and no trace of white coating
awoke amid my tired teeth
and immediately slithered
through all the articulation points
effortlessly reaching just to test
even the hard interdental ones
(usually I can do them only late in the day
and sometimes not at all)
oh what pleasure to articulate today
even the difficult diphthongs and triphthongs
Words with heaps of consonants like
Shortribs Sheepshank Muttoncalf
or maybe Rumpelstiltskin
and then the lovely words with l
no need to fear a lapsus linguae
not today, certainly not today
I have my tongue I tell you
how good to have it today
especially today
since yesterday the Gileadites
seized the fords over Jordan
and cut off our escape
they won’t catch me today
even if their phonetically-trained guards
make me say Shibboleth Shibboleth
and again Shibboleth
whether as a single word or
in a harmless context
I know they won’t catch me that way
today I’ve got my tongue
I shall certainly
not misspeak
I shall certainly
pass over Jordan
I shall be saved
In fact I am
already saved

The Marketplace in Machu Picchu

For Friedhelm Kemp
the writer

Here I stand now on the ruins of Machu Picchu
and my shadow is a collar round my feet
So here Machu Picchu was founded
Here it crept long ago from its enormous egg
Here the she-wolf suckled the twins
From here the last Incan king was driven out and then
only the word ruled over the Forum
Americanum
From that outcropping the Inca Cicero probably uttered
his famous Quousque
Somewhat farther up died the great Inca Caesar
struck down by the Inca sons Brutus and Cassius
but avenged by Octavian the noblest Inca
and reborn in the schoolbooks of very young
Inca pupils all over the world
because his writing is so perfectly clear and marvelously simple
a model of style for me still today on the
marketplace of Machu Picchu

When I lie about your classical art of writing
You men and women of Machu Picchu
quid ergo vos?
Hasn’t any of you ever had an itchy hand?
The right hand I mean that leads the llama and that
you hold out to a friend
the hand that is made for writing
about the gods over the Forum Romanum and about
the good and even the evil gods
Why haven’t you written anything down?
Why have you kept to yourselves everything that
moved your hearts?
All Inca thoughts locked up in the miserly breast
graves made out of your mouths
ex oribus ossa

Stones yes stones that’s how you understood yourselves
Stones you broke smoothed and marvelously laid up
without mortar
You had stones in your hands and stones in your minds
and you put stones in our ears
marvelously without joints
So our ears are now deaf to your long-since
silent lips
to simple everyday words on the marketplace
of Machu Picchu
and the hushed balm of the nightwords

Were you on the whole satisfied with your world?
Did the gods benevolently accept your sacrifices?
Even the white gods who came up from the sea
on your unprotected flanks?
You had just founded the empire the Inca empire
more powerful than any other
and strategic roads linked all parts of the empire
roads as straight as the mountain ranges or
watercourses allowed
roads like the ones the hands of Roman pioneers built
who does not see that
you had a sense for order like your
Roman brothers
a sense for order and a sense for empire

Oh we gaze intently at the hands we moderns
at your diligent hands or rather those of your
diligent slaves
for the Inca empire arose hand in hand
and none of these hands in Machu Picchu in Cuzco or
elsewhere in the empire
from Chimborazo to the saltpeter desert in the south
no victorious hand no vanquished hand
reached for the graver stylus quill or other
writing instrument
among thousands and thousands of Inca hands
no writing hand
only hunting hands weaving hands flaying hands warring hands
and probably loving hands
Then why no writing hands?
The hands of love are also writing hands they
inscribe love on the flesh
Haven’t you noticed how transitory flesh is?
Paper lasts longer parchment endures almost
indefinitely
Writers of the Incas where are you?
Ignoti quasi non nati

Or was it all quite different?
Were you more literate than is good for writing?
Were you already tired of writing before you began to write?
Did you write yourselves on the wind?
On the indifferent Pacific wind that sweeps
over the Andes to die in the interior?
Ventis verba ut vela dedistis

 
From Sag Schibboleth by Harald Weinrich
© Officin Albis, Garching 1997
All rights reserved
Translations © Steven Rendall