1102: How to Be a Good Savage by Mikeas Sánchez, translated by Wendy Call and Shook

20240423 Slowdown

1102: How to Be a Good Savage by Mikeas Sánchez, translated by Wendy Call and Shook


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

Poetic language makes nations accountable. One of the aims of literature, in my humble opinion, is to reveal and call out nuances and abuses of power. Democracy is presumed benign and egalitarian, however, in practice, inequities in society reveal themselves: unequal public education, unfair housing practices, gender discrimination at work, and lack of quality healthcare are but a few examples.

Poets like Airea D. Matthews, Muriel Rukeyser, Langston Hughes, C.D. Wright, and Aja Monet have made literature a place where we closely examine economic disparities and social injustices. We protest all manner of unfairness. Right now, as I speak, someone is penning a poem against war. This is what makes literature in a free society vibrant and vital. Where principles of fairness are absent, or reigning attitudes do not acknowledge the humanity of others, poetry serves as a platform for valid discontent. This is true across the globe.

And yet, poets are fiercely committed to the art. They equally desire to advance its growth as an art form, to explore the possibilities of human speech. To me, a poem of resistance alone feels limiting; it can sound too didactic or proscriptive which defies poetry’s inherent value as an art of insinuation, suggestion, and humility. I admire poets of conscience who also innovate or strike a less than predictable tone or set of images by which to speak truth to power.

Today’s poem ironizes the lens through which the colonizer sees Indigenous peoples as uncivilized. It is a horrible term that diminishes a people’s humanity and ascribes assimilation as the cure of a presumed inferiority. It is an example of a poem that my friend Willie Perdomo describes as a poetry of “decolonial practice.”

How to Be a Good Savage
by Mikeas Sánchez, translated by Wendy Call and Shook

How to Be a Good Savage 

My grandfather Simón wanted to be a
good savage,
he learned Spanish,
and all the saints’ names.
He danced before the altar
and was baptized with a smile.
My grandfather had the force of Red
and his nagual was a tiger.
My grandfather was a poet
who healed with words.
But he wanted to be a good savage,
learned to eat with a spoon,
and the Nhkirawa’s electric lamps
impressed him.
My grandfather was a powerful shaman
who spoke the gods’ language.
He wanted to be a good savage,
but he never quite learned how.

Jujtzyi’e Nhtä Wäpä Tzamapänh’ajä

Simón, äj’ atzyipä’jara sutu’ wäpä tzamapänh’ajä,
kyomujsu kastiya’ore
teserike mumupä nhtä’ nhkomis’ nyiäyiram.
Ejtzu’ masanh’nhtäjkis wynanh’omo
teserike’ mpyäkinh’tzyoku’ sijkpa’ te’ näyä’yäki’uy.
Äj› atzyipä’jara’is nyiä’ ijtayuna’ tzapas’Mää’is pyä’mi,
Nhkyo’jama kak’tena’.
Äj atzyipä’jara ketkäkätpapä’pänhtena
te’is muspana’ tyak’ tzoka tzyi’ame’jinhtam.
Te’ sutu’ wäpä’ tzamapänh’ajä,
myuspäjku jujtzyi’e yajk’ yosa’ te’ käjtz’täjkuy’,
teserike’ nhkyenh’tuyu’ te’ nhkyrawa’is’nyi’o’a’ram.
Äj› atzyipä’jara musopyapä’ pänh’tena,
te’is muspana’ nyiä’ tzapi’a’ä pyeka’nhkomi’ram.
Äj atzyipä’jara sutu’ wäpä tzamapänh’ajä,
tese’ja’ myujsä jujtzyi’e tzyiäkä.

Cómo Ser un Buen Salvaje

Mi abuelo Simón quiso ser un buen salvaje,
aprendió castilla
y el nombre de todos los santos.
Danzó frente al templo
y recibió el bautismo con una sonrisa.
Mi abuelo tenía la fuerza del Rayo Rojo
y su nahual era un tigre.
Mi abuelo era un poeta
que curaba con las palabras.
Pero él quiso ser un buen salvaje,
aprendió a usar la cuchara,
y admiró la electricidad.
Mi abuelo era un chamán poderoso
que conocía el lenguaje de los dioses.
Pero él quiso ser un buen salvaje,
aunque nunca lo consiguió.

“How to Be a Good Savage” by Mikeas Sánchez, translated by Wendy Call and Shook from HOW TO BE A GOOD SAVAGE AND OTHER POEMS © 2024 Mikeas Sánchez. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Milkweed Editions.