Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

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Cardenal was influenced by Amerindian themes. Ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica arise from the text. The Mayan perspective of time as cyclical is evident throughout the poem. Each verse creates a passage to the following verse in a continuous thread that reinforces the thematic interplay between past and present. He repeats the temporal unit of katún several times as a multifaceted link that connects the stanzas thematically as well as structurally. The brilliance of the most accurate calendar ever calculated is linked to other accomplishments of the Mayan civilization throughout the seventh stanza.

The term katún appears in the first, eighth, and ninth stanzas. Katún is the final day of the Mayan twenty-year cycle, which consists of 7,200 days. When the Spaniards confronted the Maya in 1541, their arrival coincided with the first year of Katún 11. This date was an omen of the impending demise of the Mayan civilization, and it continues to serve as a symbol of recurring misfortune. The eighth stanza encapsulates this temporal vision: “They adored time: the mysterious/ effluxion of time.” This concept is concretized in the examples that follow. Each day was assigned a deity. The past and future were intermingled in their oral history and glyphs. “They used the same katúns for past and future,/ in the belief that time was re-enacted/ like the motions of the heavenly bodies they observed.”

Other symbols reinforce the poem’s temporal theme. The cycles of night and day, dark and light, life and death, and Jesus as the “God of the Maize” and the string of dictators and generals. The staff of Mayan life, corn, recurs in the second, third, and seventh stanzas as the milpa, or cornfields that domesticate the jungle and reinforce the alternating cycles of taming the earth and letting it run wild. Jesus is also equated with the God of Corn as the image contrasts the hierarchy of a destructive and deadly military regime that replaces a supreme being in contemporary Petén as well as in Central America.

The eighth stanza reinforces the advancement of the Maya at the height of their civilization, in juxtaposition with the concept of advancement in modern society: “they never left the Stone Age, technologically speaking.” The stanza lists elements that the Maya lacked, though their absence did not detract from their accomplishments. “They had no applied sciences. They were not practical.” The stanza enumerates achievements in religion, astronomy, mathematics, and art. The ancients lacked the tools that drive contemporary societies: metallurgy, the wheel, a system of weights, and war.

The last days of Tikal are shrouded in mystery. Their grandeur is frozen in poignant images: “Stelae remain unfinished,/ blocks half cut in quarries.” These rocks are crystallized in time as wildlife buries the human masterpiece. Tikal serves to inspire, to herald the emergence of another great civilization in the infinite cycle of time.