M. Soledad Caballero: “The Myths We Live”



a loose pecha kucha after Fernando de Szyszlo



The red moment will come. That time
of future blood, when you, your head,
grown underground in the pit of dirt where
they kept your head away from the others,
the people who loved you, it will bloom
through the dirt. You will burst into the sky,
rising like a promise. Your body, severed
for now, a map of what is yet to come.



As a girl, I lived in the water, a fish
of sorts, with no fear of metal or hooks.
I did not live with sadness. I tasted the salt
on my lips, the brine of the ocean was
a gift. It tasted wild, like the world
at the beginning, right after the particles became
life. The ocean my world. Only later did
the sadness find me, when I left the water
for dry dirt and snow.



The Inca loved their children by taking
them to the snowy mountains, feeding
them coca leaves and beer, letting them
find the other side in the cold. I wonder
about their dreams, what they saw
as they waited to find ancestors
in the sky while condors flew around
them. Or maybe they had water
dreams, like mine when I fled
a dark story, a country also
stuck in blood and nightmares.



My niece suffers in the dark. Even at
thirteen she sleeps with all the lights
on, wrestles with nightmares.
I watch over her sometimes, remember
that dusk still haunts me, still forms
silent yearnings about things I cannot
see. We sometimes forget that in
the middle of the night, in the mouth
of the wolf, in the deepest ocean water
where creatures swim blind, there is still
a bright hope of living.



I grew up Catholic. The closest
godly woman I knew was Mary
who seemed to me always accepted
the pain of her life in silence, or that
is how the story goes, the one I heard
over and over from old Priests. Still,
her altars always loomed in my mind,
bright and red and full of breath,
like the dusk sky on the water, red
red like memory, red like a pulsing
open heart. In these tales of female
suffering, joy came as silence,
as acceptance. I like to think of the terror
still inside her, the power of Pachamama
who is still out there waiting, looming,
ready to rise out of any altar,
burst out and strike.



Atawallpa and his brother Huáscar
fought a civil war. They could not
know their own violence left room
for a crack, for Pizarro and his men
and steel and rage for gold. In the myth,
the Inca warrior comes back from
underneath the earth, puts his body
back together, restores his people
to love of Pachamama. How will he
put himself back together. His body
is severed, head and hands and legs
and arms buried far from each other.
In other accounts, the Spanish wanted
to burn him at the stake, put him in the pyre,
baptize by fire. Atawallpa converted.
Pizarro used the garrote. Even after the misery
of his head twisted off his body, the Spaniards
burned his skin. The warrior is still waiting
for the afterlife.



There are myths I tell myself, when I
cannot imagine what morning will be
or how the light will emerge out of the
bright darkness of the night. I wonder
about the beginning of things, the mist of
first impulses, when the light opens up the sky
and the world is illuminated. I remember
the shadow parts of the heart, the blood
at the center, how once the ocean burst
out of that beginning, carried even the sun.



My niece still holds my hand
when we cross the street or when
we walk down the street or when
we are at the mall, small and even,
sticky from chocolate or soda or
whatever she’s been eating. She is
not ashamed to put her skin near
mine and sit with me in the heat.
Sometimes she tells me about her
nightmares, the bats or creatures
without eyes that reach for her,
fur and tentacles and metal bodies,
things like Cyclopes and other men.
She thinks about stars, the expansive
liquid dark, the stars that are already
dead and then, she cannot sleep.
That is when the eyeless things grab
her, so she lies very still and tries
to remember the sun.



Now when I stare at the ocean
I look for the past, imagine the dark
water still has magic to give. When I
left my childhood ocean, the cold
bright blue world of joy, of pulsing life,
that place of all my people in one place,
it lived in my body like a spell against
forgetting. I still remember my loud laughter,
my blooming skin, the way the sun lit me
like a torch, like coral flowering from beneath.
It did not last, this blooming memory.
We fled a war between men and armies
who did not know how to love each other.
No ocean came with me. Instead
everywhere was a sea of white snow,
frozen water and ice. It sucked out all the heat.
I did not see the Pacific for a decade.



There was a time when the Inca were
more than just bending heads
and wishing for the end. When
they lived in the sun like birds after
rain. There was a time when they
carried more than the salt in their own
hearts and looked to the sky, and they
knew the water, the taste of joy,
even in the darkness.



Decades later it is impossible
to remember, to calculate all
the ways my girlhood was a dream.



When I was a girl, I was also scared
of the dark. Not like my niece who avoids
the dark even inside. I feared the nether
worlds of the outside at night, when bugs
and stray possums and bats flitted through
a graying sky, when the sun fell slowly, dying
into the horizon and I was alone with
whatever happened after. When I was very
young, there were many things to note
in the dark, when men and tanks and guns
and other secrets grew in shadows,
did things to bodies like Pizarro did. But
I did not know this suffering. I only knew
the Pacific and its breath. My fear came later,
when I no longer lived near the water,
when the wind outside the bedroom window
grew monsters right on the glass and it seemed
they were just just just right there, and only
thin glass keeping them out. They were ready
to grab my heart and devour it.



A few years ago, beneath mounds of
darkness and ice, archaeologists found
three bodies in the mountains, three children
mummified in ice, everything preserved,
even their eyelashes and small mouths.
They were curled up, legs crossed, pushed
into their chests and their faces slightly
melted, but the skin still there. They were
there as sacrifices for the ancestors,
children chosen to bring joy and beauty.
It is hard to look at them. The exhibit
curators put them in dark glass cases,
so that only if observers choose, they could
turn on the lights. But they belong to the ice,
to their people. They belong to howling
mountain and the gods who want them back.



There is a sliver of orange burst
right in the center of the ocean,
like a star before it dies, like the sparks
of life right after the universe split
open and brought with it cells and heat
and other primal things. I wonder about
the astral bodies that got made in
that moment and movement
of swimming objects and light.
It must have been just blindness
at first, no distinctions of bodies
or rocks or particles, just the organs
of who we would become.
Our own myths.



I never think of Peru as a water
place. The Andes seem to be the
specter rooted in my mind.
Altitude and rocks and the edges
of mountain towns and stories.
But Pizarro had to land somewhere
with his men and guns and germs
and grey war heart. Many many years
before the Inca there were those with
a love of water, who buried their dead
facing the bay, bundled them in textile,
glowing reds, yellows, oranges, blues.
Like Atawallpa, their heads did not always
stay with them. Sometimes those left behind
still needed their life force.



The Pacific of my childhood
had a pulpy, thick heart that beat
at the very center, like a drum.
The waves beat against the sand
quivering, vibrating reds, blues,
black, pulsing back and forth
like breath.



In the land of no water
we moved to when I fled and
left the ocean of my childhood,
yellow orange grass grew like
arms and other body parts in
the middle of flat flat prairies.
At the time I thought only
half-formed, dark, tall creatures
grew there. As far as I could
see, there was only the wind
and the dry grass wailing.



At the center of every story is a red
sliver, the marrow, all the mashed
up birds and insects, all the wishes
and all the stars and all the breath.
In the center, the shadows eat the things
that have yet to crawl out, that have yet
to become. They live there in the pulpy
wound, like wild things waiting, waiting to
be released, to burst out. When I think
about the living things inside
the ocean, the tentacles and gills,
the fins, and scales, the way they
pulse like a gasp, I think about
the frozen dead children, how their
stories are hidden between the dirt
and the water, how we know
only their silences.



Migration is blue. It is like the color
of a heartbeat, the sound of waves
in a storm. Atawallpa did not want to cross
over to death. He was not ready to migrate
to the ancestors. But Pizarro skimmed
across the ocean, carrying some kind of god
and death in the belly of his ships.
He moved across the blue, like a whirlwind,
like a gale of black disease. When he stood
on the shore, Spanish flag in hand, men gawking
from behind the canons ready to burst.
All the wings of birds fluttering, flying,
wilding, swirling in the sky made
the whole world a tempest. Pizarro
the vessel of the nightmare.



I look at my niece now, all thirteen years
of her. She is a bird bursting, with voice
and wings, growing long and wild. She is
still unsure of the next migration. She is still
waiting for the sounds of unsung songs
to show her how to breathe, how to fly,
how to bend her body and become air.


First published in VIDA Review and reprinted here with permission of the author.


M. Soledad Caballero is a Professor of English and co-chair of the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Allegheny College. Her scholarly work focuses on British Romanticism, travel writing, postcolonial literature, WGSS, and interdisciplinarity. She is a 2017 CantoMundo fellow. Her poem “Myths We Tell” won the 2019 Joy Harjo poetry prize for Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts. Her poems have appeared in the Missouri Review, the Mississippi Review, the Iron Horse Literary Review, Memorius, the Crab Orchard Review, Anomaly, and in other venues. Her first collection, titled I Was a Bell, won the 2019 Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award and will be published by Red Hen Press in September 2021. Preorder her book here.



Commentary by Amanda Moore

“The Myths We Live” by M. Soledad Caballero is longer than most featured on Poetry Sunday, longer than the page or two typically seen in contemporary literary journals, and certainly longer than anything I have ever found the stamina to write. The poem’s length and expansiveness, the way it draws out its historical and contemporary narratives and deeply plumbs its themes and ideas, are part of what makes it so admirable. As with a well-crafted novel, I find new elements to appreciate each time I approach the poem, sometimes focused on the connections between the speaker and the niece as they navigate facets and forms of migration, other times in its levels of mythology, from the Incan to the personal, and still others in its ocean and water imagery. I am reminded as I read it of a wonderful essay on the long poem Rachel Zucker wrote in 2011 that lists the attributes she admires in the form, many manifested in “The Myths We Live”: “create intimacy,” “discover themselves,” “change the mind,” and “are sad and full of joy.”

Zucker quotes poet D. A. Powell’s assessment of a successful long poem as one that “arches from beginning to end with a central consciousness, a directly traceable story, a singular (not necessarily single) purpose,” an apt description of the way the sections of Caballero’s poem cohere over time while addressing several narratives, time periods, and conceits. One way the poem achieves this “central consciousness” while navigating so much temporal, geographic, and thematic ground is through its use of the PechaKucha form.

Japanese for “chitchat,” PechaKucha started out as a business presentation tool in which twenty slides on a topic are shown for twenty seconds each. The presentation mode evolved into a storytelling platform, and “PechaKucha Nights” featuring a wide range of knowledge, information, and passion have popped up across the world. After being invited to participate in one such event, serial poetic innovator Terrance Hayes adopted the form poetically, writing twenty-part poems in quatrains and quintains to simulate the rapid-fire progression of slides. One of my favorites is “Arbor for Butch,” an ekphrastic tribute to sculptor Martin Puryear, with each of the twenty sections taking one of Puryear’s works for its title.

Caballero’s “loose” PechaKucha (termed loose, perhaps, because some sections take longer than twenty seconds to read) follows the formal and ekphrastic approach of Hayes’s poem. She writes in tribute to Peruvian abstract artist Fernando de Szyszlo, who worked to weave together his Latin American heritage, culture, and stories with modern international art movements such as abstraction and surrealism. Each section here is named for one of De Szyszlo’s works, often using the colors and elements of their imagery as a backdrop.

As with the most compelling ekphrastic poems, “The Myths We Live” is enhanced by, but not dependent on, the paintings that inspire it. Because a PechaKucha is ultimately a visual form, it is perhaps incumbent upon the reader to seek out De Szyszlo’s works and consider them alongside Caballero’s poem, and indeed, I found this to be a truly illuminating and deepening experience. (Just look at De Szyzlo’s painting in response to the “Inkarri” myth from the poem’s first section to gain a stronger sense of the separation, severing, and sky references, and to experience the shades of red that run throughout the poem.) However, it is also possible and rewarding to move through the poem without outside reference, as through a compressed presentation, absorbing what you can from each section before moving on to the next. In Caballero’s capable hands, it is possible to have a sense of what is important about each painting in terms of the poem without necessarily beholding it.

It ages me to say it, but the experience of reading “The Myths We Live” is reminiscent of attending a college art lecture, the kind with dimmed lights and the professor’s disembodied voice lifting from the back of the auditorium as slides in a carousel drop into place with a mechanical click to project image after image on the screen. More than PowerPoint or Google slides, Caballero’s poem evokes a carousel because of the sensory and circular returns she makes to Incan myth, the speaker’s experiences with the ocean, the niece’s sleep, and the idea of migration, among others. The art lecture, like the poem, is comprehensive, satisfying, and fulfilling, but doing a bit of extra-credit research outside class can also yield rewards. Thus, “The Myths We Live” offers multiple experiences, from the rapid fire of PechaKucha to a more in-depth exploration of the poem’s allusions, myths, imagery, characters, and stories.

Zucker reminds us that long poems “resist ‘aboutness’” and can be “muralistic or kaleidoscopic rather than overarching.” Though themes and narrative evolve, “The Myths We Live” is not about just one thing, and this expansiveness is enhanced by a form that inherently offers at least twenty perspectives—kaleidoscopic indeed. The poem demands an investment of the reader’s time and attention that, for me, is richly rewarded by the unique, multifaceted experience of each successive reading.




Amanda Moore‘s debut collection of poems, Requeening, was selected for the National Poetry Series and will be published by HarperCollins/Ecco in October 2021. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Currently a Brown Handler Resident at the San Francisco Friends of the Public Library, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: Clementine Nelson.



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  • Nancy Lane May 5, 2021 at 7:19 am

    Amazing poems. The Myths We Live is a box full of chocolates. I read them one at a time and savor each one.