Forty-five years after the untimely death of John Keats, another famous British poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, attempted to correct a poetic error. In one of Keats’s more famous sonnets, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” the young Romantic poet was mistaken as to who gazed from “a peak in Darien” at the New World’s possibilities—he substituted Hernán Cortés for Vasco Núñez de Balboa, an error Tennyson noted, writing “history here requires Balboa.” Taking that correction for the title of his chapbook, Shane Seely offers many other corrections. In the first poem, he indicates there was “nothing / in the narratives / of how he breathed / of the captain’s eyes.” (3) Unlike those narratives, Shane Seely’s collection of poems briefly leads readers into the life and work of those captains—explorers Cortés and Balboa—and the atrocities that followed that first gaze into unconquered Mexico.
Seely’s work invites readers to reconsider some of their previously held notions concerning the Aztec conquest.
While most of the poems feature one of the two explorers as the subject of the writing, Seely’s narrator also paints vivid portraits of the Aztec leader Montezuma and Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.
Montezuma’s death, as the narrator carefully notes “one story goes,” features images of “a stream of gold / poured molten from its crucible into the crucible / of the king’s mouth,” and “the tongue / cooked like beef the soft tissues / of the mouth bursting.” (6) Quetzalcoatl is described as he “sowed his blood / into the powdered / bones” and “left / the people / of the fifth sun / in a debt of blood.” (9) The violence in these depictions of the Aztec leadership and deity reflect a side of the conquests not often discussed alongside the triumphs of exploration.
Seely’s work allows us to begin to imagine the Spanish invasion from the perspective of the indigenous peoples, yet never explicitly inhabits that persona.
One of the poems even lists twenty-one names of native peoples, with “Spanish” as the final offset word on the page, calling attention to the “otherness” of the Spanish in the eyes of the established tribes.
Along with violence and oppression, Seely also introduces the theme of greed, of hunger—specifically for riches. A poem that opens with the infestation of a “bare, raw Spanish foot” also acts as a metaphor for impetus to conquer these people, as the narrator wonders “What body / infiltrated the larger body, made the larger body / host.” (12)
Another piece describes the “natives / prying the mouths of prone Spaniards / filling them with molten gold” just as Montezuma met his death. Seely complicates the dynamic between conqueror and conquered, showing that both are susceptible to the charm of avarice, suggesting that “the Spaniards’ / hungers were not / their own.” (15) Seely’s narrator even addresses the theme through watching dogs, noting the hunger displayed as “pure” and that “they might seem / in sleeping to be most themselves”—a chilling suggestion of the power of the unconscious mind and its hold over living beings.
Seely’s chapbook gives pointed insight into the nature of conquest, naming, and ultimately exploration as a whole. His inclusion of Keats gives readers the opportunity to situate Seely’s work in the context of a greater artistic and historical framework.
In one of the final poems the narrator declares, “Keats, that quiet stowaway, needs only / Cortez’s iamb, the heartbeat in his name.” (13) I needed only the lasting, beautifully haunting quality of each successive piece to pull me through Seely’s slim volume of gilded throats, burned villages, and beating, severed hearts.
Bryn Homuth, originally from Fargo, N.D., is a graduate student focusing on poetry in KSU’s Master of Arts program.