In The Relation of Álvar NúñezCabeza de Vaca (1542), the eponymous narrator stumbles, slips, and staggers through the new world from the east to the west. A hapless rather than intrepid conquistador, Cabeza de Vaca sailed from Spain in 1527 with around six hundred men in five ships, stopping in present-day Dominican Republic, and devastated by a hurricane in Cuba where the party lost two ships and many of the crew. Current scholarship lands the remaining ships in Florida where a portion of the men headed inland on foot. Wandering without plan or purpose in a hazardous, disorienting environment, eventually only Cabeza de Vaca and three companions remained. Over nine years, having eaten their horses, they walked across Louisiana and Texas, possibly into New Mexico and Arizona, and then south to Mexico, eventually ending up in Mexico City, from whence Cabeza de Vaca finally returned to Spain in 1537.
Meathead in America is not a translation of The Relation, but it follows the tale closely, reconvening its details in a lyric narrative of aspiration and madness, hubris and loss. This poem is an attempt to capture what Emerson, echoed by Stanley Cavell, called “this new yet unapproachable America,” an America that remains new, continues to resist every approach, even while aging into its present density and darkness.
Two friars, forty horsemen, Meathead, I,
the commissary left the ships in port.
We each had one-half pound of bacon, two
of biscuit. All we found to eat along
the way were seeds of palms—hard, ugly things.
Across a wide river we saw a group
of natives. They behaved in ways that made
us feel obliged to strike. When beat, they took
us to their homes where we found corn profuse
and ready for the harvest, thanks to God.
We marched on through a marsh with water to
our knees. The oysters cut our feet. We’re new
to tribulations such as these and need
to study torment. Crossing one cursed stream
we lost a man and horse to current fierce.
A leader of the natives came to us,
flute players dancing ‘round him. Natives in
the far off land were enemies of his,
he said, and vowed to help. We gave him beads.
He gave to us the fine robe from his back.
Meathead was sad about the man who drowned
and worried lest some similar fate befall
him. Someone shot an arrow at a man
who’d ventured off to fetch some water. Damn
these natives, Meathead cursed. We picked our way
through forests dark. The trees were wondrous tall,
some rent by lightning bolts. This savage land
in turmoil rages, storms we’ve never seen
at home. Our dreams of gold and corn made light
the armor on our backs, the wounds it left.
When finally we reached the far off land,
the yield was less than we’d imagined. All
we found at first were youth and women. Men
returned, we scuffled, arrows flew. A horse
was shot before the natives ran away.
We gathered corn both dry and ripe and took
the vessels used to grind it. Meathead took
a pile of poorly woven blankets, used
by women covering up their private parts.
The fallen trees a fortress formed all ‘round.
I pause to give My Lord a picture of
this place. The land is flat, the soil is poor.
The fallen trees and lakes make travel hard.
Of trees we’ve seen pine, oak, and juniper;
of birds white herons, geese, and partridges.
Among the hares, the bears, and three species
of deer, we found a beast unknown to us.
Her young reside within a pocket on
her belly ‘til they’ve grown too fat for it.
Their skin would make a garment warm and soft.
Goff’s Pocket Gopher, Pallid Beach Mouse, Tule
Shrew, Brace’s Emerald, Sea Mink, Amistad
gambusia, Tecopa pupfish, Harelip
sucker, Recovery pearly mussel, Arcform
pearly mussel, Thicktail chub, Short-spired
elimia, Dusky Seaside Sparrow, Old
fig-eating bat, Louisiana Vole,
Bahaman Barn Owl, Cuban Red Macaw,
Imperial Woodpecker, Lined pocketbook.
Goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye farewell.
Lacy Schutz is the Executive Director of Shaker Museum in New York State. Another excerpt of Meathead in America is forthcoming in Trampoline, a Journal of Poetry. Lacy’s work has appeared in Fence, New Orleans Review, Denver Quarterly, Verse, and many other journals.