The Yucatan Peninsula has always had a powerful hold on me. I used to say I went there for refueling with every rite of passage. This particular trip had been a surprise. Following my divorce, after a twenty-year marriage that was as difficult as it was long, I had gone to my high- school class reunion. The short version of the story has me flying to Cozumel a few weeks later with a classmate I scarcely knew. He had an interest in Scuba diving and I, well, I was having my midlife crisis, after all.
So here I am. He has dropped me off at the city of Playa del Carmen so that I can find Tulum, a small Mayan archaeological site on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. By dropped off, I mean he has hired a fishing boat for the day, we are no longer amusing each other, and I am on my own, alone, but equipped with my Spanish and the belief that I have a special relationship with this place. A bus will be coming sometime soon and Tulum is a couple of hours down the road.
In 1989, the year of this story, that road is two lanes through the jungle. Most of the people on the bus speak Mayan as a first language. The women still wear huipiles, long white blouses embroidered with vividly colored flowers that are worn over ankle-length skirts. The men are in white pants and shirts. For the first hour and a half of the ride, standing room is all there is. The driver promises to tell me when to get off the bus. We come to a crossroads. No buildings, just jungle. He points down the intersecting road, which he assures me goes to Tulum and the sea.
I walk for less than a mile through the tunnel of vegetation until I reach a clearing. I enter the walled city, sit beneath a tree, look up at the largest pyramid, El Castillo, as it rises high above me, and I cry. The emotions come from fear and wonder and a pride in being in that place at that moment, from all that has happened in my life up until just then.
All right. So you may be asking yourself about the connection of this story with María Auxiliadora Álvarez’s poem, “Piedras de Reposo,” which I translate as “Standing Stones.” If you have Spanish, you may already be arguing that piedras de reposo are resting stones, not standing stones, a term generally reserved for megalithic stones from the Bronze Age. Think Stonehenge or various pre-Celtic alignments found in the British Isles and in Scandinavia, in many places in the world, actually. Please bear with me for a moment. The image in my head is complicated.
In my case, as I read María Auxiliadora’s poem, I kept picturing Carnac, a site in Brittany in the northwest part of France. Some of the stones date back to 4500 BC. They aren’t huge monoliths like those found at Stonehenge, but there are more than 3,000 of them in rows in and around this small French village. The question with this site, as with hundreds of other ancient sites, is how did inhabitants ever moved the rocks? How did they make them stand? The thing that does seem to be clear is that it is sacred ground.
As I read María Auxiliadora’s poem, I could not reconcile the images I had in my mind with the idea of resting stones, which I saw as either lying on the earth, as they might in nature, or fallen, as could happen in ruins—a word which implies a human maker. The poet in her description has included carvings, “small/engraved suns/their crevices and cracks.” If these “great stone slabs . . . are not tombs,” then what are they? In order to find my way through the central paradox the poem provides, I emailed the poet, who had been working with me on the translation. I included photos from our trip to Carnac. Here is what she replied, in her own English.
“To start with, let me tell you that the pictures you sent me of the standing stones touched me profoundly. I have seen (with strong feelings passing through) others prehistoric standing stones (like the Mayan ones or those in England) but I didn't get to that point when writing the poem. In making this relationship you got a clear understanding. It totally supports the original “ascending” sense of the whole idea of the poem and not the contrary (as usually happens.) “Standing stones” is a perfect translation for “Piedras de reposo” since if a human being can get a “standing rest” it implies that he/she is not/will be not dead (or buried), the essential clue of the warning: “these are not tombs.””
Those of us who translate understand that a real sense of joy comes with making a clear connection with another poet or a particular work. So, there we were, María Auxiliadora and I, living in the paradox of her poem. I understood that the dozens of experiences I had had searching out one sacred place in the world or another came together in this particular translation, much as I understood as I walked into the city square in Tulum that I was brand new. María Auxiliadora comes to her work with a strong religious faith and a belief in resurrection. She also says about reading a poem, “If you had the same experience as the poet, you will understand because you will recognize yourself.” I am grateful for the gift of grace I received from the poet when she speaks in an email of our “standing stone souls.”