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 the decay of time or to the instinct of human violence to crush them. Hence, the E cut on the stone marks the last mysterious expression of a lost civilization marking one boundary of time, a point of origin along a continuum of growth and decay known as the Western tradition. The kingfisher, who flies into the sun to meet the westering light and warm its breast against it, is thus a figure of enduring vitality that stands in vivid contrast to the tragedy of human history.
By the end of part 1, Olson has wrested a valuable lesson from his musings on history: Time is “not accumulation but change.” Little endures of human nature but a few ruins; nature’s vast backdrop is the stage on which human life plays out its tragedy. The Mongolian louse inherits the few possessions that were heaped in the Aztec burial mounds. Olson scorns the Western attitude that would destroy a civilization that lived close to nature. He senses in his own time a decay in social ideals and reads in the Korean conflict that had broken out in 1949 a continuation of Western violence against other cultures.
Arriving at the coda in part 3, the reader observes Olson’s own ritual rebirth as a poet as he proclaims his new heritage and birthright as an heir to the New World, a descendant of Aztec roots. He sides with the victims of imperialism and claims them as his true ancestors. It is Olson’s way of protesting against the nature of war and the aggressions of his own civilization. “The Kingfishers” is the first anti-imperialist poem written in an era that saw the end of many colonial states and the breakup of the major European empires.
Though “The Kingfishers” belongs to a long tradition of landscape and graveyard meditations, it turns this tradition around by meditating over the burial mounds of an ancient people who become, through the urgency of the poet’s musings, his own ancestors and bloodline. With this poem, Olson may be said to have invented post-modernism, with its array of anti-imperialist arguments and its desire to reconcile contemporary Western art with ancient myth and ritual.