POPOCATEPETL

Anthony Wright



"Time is a river which drags me away, but I am the river."
Jorge Luis Borges


     Childhood's memories are scattered and few, recalled in later years at the random notice of an idle daydream, the slow passing of a clock's hand, or in a psychic detritus that lightly silts, like volcanic ash, the rain swept balconies of sleep. Here is a small boy, the good pupil it's his first day of school. He remembers that, but none of the carefree days before school began: riding the dodgem cars at Luna Park; feeding kangaroos in Healesville Sanctuary; toot-tooting on the Puffing Billy. They told him about that stuff; photographs offer proof of the events but he does not recall any of it.



     Perhaps consciousness of one's existence begins the moment one takes a concrete interest in something. Interest guides action, generates the existential spark. Where might the first tentative step lead, in the forward movement marking adventure? Joseph Conrad as a child, living exiled in Russia's tundras, descries an unexplored patch of Africa on a map, points at it and says: "One day I will go there." Many years are to pass, oceans crossed, countries encountered, before he journeys to the imagined locale the Congo which traces a direct lineage to the childhood resolve.

     "Before Africa," Conrad later observes, "I was a mere animal."



     Here is a boy creating fierce deluges with the garden hose, playing war with jelly babies, vociferously absorbing National Geographics, hearing the drone of old DC3s on their way to King Island, when he lies in his bed of an Essendon night, before slipping into dreams of earthquakes and volcanoes omniscient powers that unleash destruction upon the earth. Concrete interests take shape: other worlds; dreams make flesh. The boy will be a seismologist, vulcanologist, somethingologist when he grows up. He reads about "Hurricane Hunters" flying reconnaissance planes into the eyes of tempests to collect data, after taking off from exotic locales such as Jacksonville, Florida, and Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico.

     Men also release weather balloons from lonely Arctic outposts under the Aurora Borealis; determine theories on far-flung specks of terra firma buffeted by huge seas; steer Coast Guard cruisers plying the Bermuda Triangle, or cutters inching through frozen sea plains. They crawl down the sides of volcanoes in Guatemala and Hawaii, plunging instruments into beds of hot, vibrating rock to determine lava temperatures. These men see what the boy dreams they see.



     The train line that cuts through the outer paddock lands services containers of mysterious freight. Power lines stalk like metal wicker men across a semi-industrial mirage. Beneath these conduits to other worlds, tall grasses sway in the wind. Gecko lizards and American mantises reside on rocks baking in the sun. The zone opens into worlds vast in their minuteness. From a great height the boy now perceives a freight train rolling along the tracks. He rises, higher, beyond the suburbs of the city. His body traces a close orbit to the stars and constellations that he has learnt to identify. The winds suspending him in flight become a visible, breathing force, illumined by moonlight. He will travel. He must escape.



     Science has long since led to Poetry, which leads to travel in the service of yearning for awe. The youth is becoming released from the shackles that bind him. Everything he's experienced up to now has conspired toward the utter rejection of all that he is. He absorbs Saint John of God, the hermitic codes of exile. He drifts through life, drifts in his existential motion.



     The young man now busses from Los Angeles to Seattle to San Francisco, up and down, back and forth, a stink of inactive activity. He buys a book by French poet Antonin Artaud off a bum on Jack Keruoac Street. He reads The Tale of Popocatepetl and the lines: "It stinks the same way that it embalms/ it smells good the same way that it stank." His own restless movement wearies and disgusts him, as he immerses himself in the refinements of exile. Yet every new street in each new city also soothes and balms him.

     Lawless roads, feverish in a strange hotel, under the volcano: the man wanders the bad lands of Mexico. He is alone, but warm inside the whale.



     Now the man is driving with his father-in-law to some distant pueblos. Life streams by like the white lines of the highway, one long road tenuously carved through the belly of parched mountain time comprising former lives, countries, asphalt, wire and leaded air; the teeming purgatories of memory, of whatever or wherever it is he calls "home."

     The main highway is jam-packed with trucks, delivery vans, tractors, removal vans, Volkswagens, sedans of every make and condition. Into the hills, the car climbs ranges bathed in sunshine. They have left the city; it is strange how suddenly it disappears. Hills fanning out below, Leviathan fades as winds rustle through carpets of dry grass. The man's lungs fill with real air, the forest lies ahead. Fields of color ebb and flow like a passive waterway.

     They reach a plateau and encounter the volcano Popocatepetl penetrating the afternoon's early dusk, charged with faint Wagnerian symphonies. It seems enveloped in a distant cinema, projecting itself onto the screens of those whose minds encounter them {OR: `it`?}. The man is the star of his own movie. Who else will dramatize his life?

     "Nothing ever happens," Señor Coronado says, gesturing with a sweep of his hand across the wide plains that climb to meet the volcano. "So it always stays the same."

     An enigma commingles the blood of the Vanquisher and Vanquished. The volcano and the region in which it dwells are props of a mirage, installed by myth. The closer one gets, the more they fade to be replaced by the snorts of the Conquistadors. Those Horsemen of the Apocalypse descend the pass, four-legged gods fanning out across the plain. Popocatepetl erupts hot tears for the city of lakes. The soldiers of fortune are caked in sweat and fear but shoring the ammo and champing for gold, if the Lord sees fit, in the Rape of Tenochtitlan.

     The men stop at a singular roadside altar, painted white and yellow, that also serves as a sarcophagus. It stands fierce and lonely, charging the earth to bear witness to its Christian toil and to the soul who joined Heaven on this empty bend. The wind howls; the sky staring over the land is the same that watched dinosaurs rove the earth a million years ago and from it rained an absurd logic of death, so that apes might advance to pray.



     Now the man takes a bus with his friend Cavalcanti to the mountains; it fitfully grinds through a gray world assuming the aspect of a dying sea. Pales of graffiti-panicked concrete connect the sprawling realms of apartment blocks, gas stations stores and warehouses. Suburbs named Oceania and Misterios merge under overpasses, over underpasses, colonies of mud and layers of cement that cover the ancient systems of mythologized lakes. The outer shanty districts, hollow-eyed and fierce, eventually succumb to the purity of forests.

     Cortes Pass. Tantalizing glimpses of Popo may be discerned between the trees. The man and his friend plan to scale its icy back. They check in at the spartan chalet. They walk around Popo's black pumice base. Crisp air, wet, thunderous clouds. The volcano burgeons upwards, a fulminating majesty, haloed by scribbles of lightning.

     The pair rise early to join a ragged line of somnambulists and commence the ascent on Popo. They are held fast in lumps of soggy pumice, as rain sweeps in on one gust and departs on another. The man is reminded of a hike he once made along Discovery Bay and its beach of viscous sludge. Mired underfoot in an ooze of ash he ascends, by subtle gradations, a memory line to Southern Ocean driftwood, dead penguins and the viscera of surf. He feels as helplessly immersed in the icy darkness plumbing the trail, as he might drown in farewell to the sea.

     Las Cruces. From this perch they witness the dawn. The last stars disappear, and above the cloud line an empty sky awakens in azure. The sun faintly announces itself, the summit rises menacingly above, covered in snow, speckled with a dull sheen of ice. The man's hands and feet have gone numb. He cannot bring any circulation to his feet.

     "I'm finished. If I don't go down I'll get frostbite."

     "The experience of God can be linked to Popo," Cavalcanti says. "In Aztec thought, there is a deep connection with the earth, as it pertains to mountains rising to heaven, if you perceive of the world in vertical stages, as many people do. This volcano is supercharged with energy, encircled by the gods. Mountains are entries into another form, a transmutation between the human and the divine."

     The man makes his way back down the mountain.

     "Toby, wait up!"

     Cavalcanti's voice. He catches up to Toby.

     "We failed," Toby says.



     Now Toby is watching TV in a hotel room with his friend Octave, in a town called Tehuacan, known as the birthplace of Mesoamerica, for it is where corn was first cultivated, 10,000 years before Christ. Octave's jeep broke down on the highway, after the pair spent a week exploring the backcountry behind Popocatepetl. Each day the town's mechanic says he'll have the vehicle fixed "tomorrow."

     There's a documentary on TV. It narrates the yoke of exile, exploring the lives of East European Jews who came to Mexico in the 1920s with little more than the shirts on their backs. Now an old man is seen on a train chugging through the Sierra Madre Sur, for what will be a reunion.

     Zelig left the Ukraine in the 1930s, retaining the fond childhood memory of a teacher who spoke of the 2000-year-old Tule Tree in Oaxaca. When Zelig first arrived he took the train to Oaxaca to see the tree, tracing a direct lineage to the childhood reminiscence. He repeats the journey in the film. Interest guiding action, generating the existential spark.

     Octave is asleep. Toby drinks mescal. He retires to the terrace and stares out onto the dead street below. He pours the booze from a glazed clay monkey, which he bought in some soul-sucking village scribbled onto a bleached tablecloth of rock and bone. He sorely misses Viridiana, his wife. When was the last time he saw her?

     He spies a closed newspaper booth, a day's old headlines. Tomorrow the Zapatista Caravan will complete its long journey from the Lacandon jungle to the capital; but the Popo is rumbling, the conquered will succumb and Toby will watch, in his capacity as outsider. He will drift into abstractions of Science, as men crawl down the side of the volcano, plunging instruments into beds of hot, vibrating rock to determine lava temperatures. Army helicopters will land in fields to rescue the poor during eruptions or shoot them in revolutions. Balaclavas will cover the faces of shattered corpses, the anonymity of poverty will be preserved. The mescal monkey grins at Toby. He empties the monkey into a glass.



     Now Toby is driving from Cuernavaca to Puebla to Mexico City, up and down, back and forth, a stink of inactive activity. The years have nervously ticked by, a series of nervous ticks. Popocatepetl casts its eye on the road. The sun descends beyond the petrified gulf, igniting the ether in Congo reds. Toby dips into the valley all hard curves, the wheel nervous in his hands. He ventures a gaze beyond the streaming guard rail. Shadows enclose like the wings of giant buzzards, while Huitzilopochtli feeds on lost souls. Banal songs, nerves working overtime. He's got to descend these curves. Minutes to go, hours left, spying Death the eyeless donkey chiseled by the road, battered rigs crawling on blind curves. Corner the bend. Stones packed into its gouged side dance as white lines vanish under the bonnet two, four, six blurred tongues. Low beam, high beam, dashboard glow. Eyes like cannonballs drag Old River Time. The mountains leer like Old Man Yahweh. Eagles catch updrafts in fluorescent fields of air. There's dear Viridiana at the end of the road and memories recalled at the notice of a daydream, the passing of a clock's hand, in psychic detritus that lightly silts, like volcanic ash, the rain swept balconies of sleep.

     Sleep... Snap to it, boy, you're driving! You're secure in your cage.

     You're only seeing what you dream you see.


GHOSTS OF KRAKATOA