The poem is an analysis of the failures of Western expansion over the centuries, of the desire of one civilization to take possession of and exploit others. This vast subject provides the means by which the poet reaches his decision to change his cultural allegiance away from Europe to the New World. The poem’s elaborate procedure of argument and analysis begins with the corruptions of modern Mexico, where a figure announces that the civilization that began with the achievements of the Mayas and Aztecs has been brought by Spanish conquerors to its present degradation.
Though Olson had not yet visited Mexico, he was becoming interested in modern archaeological diggings at some of the principal Aztec temple grounds, and had conceived this scene purely from his reading. Several months after writing the poem, he undertook an expedition to Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, where he resided for six months and wrote vigorous letters home about his own findings and speculations, later collected by Robert Creeley and published in 1953 under the title Mayan Letters. An important part of his ideas as a poet and cultural historian was derived from his studies of Mayan civilization. In “The Kingfishers,” however, his interest lies principally in his view of modern Mexico as the victim of Spanish invasion and colonialism.
That focus on one victim of empire opens into a vision of the frailties of all human civilizations, their vulnerability to...
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