Now I have come

I am standing,

I will compose songs,

make the songs burst forth,

for you, my friends.

("Poem of Temilotzin")

I find tremendous power in the native chants of ancient Mexico. In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec world, one key word for poet was tlamatine, meaning "the one who knows" or "he who knows something." Poets were considered "sages of the word," who meditated on human enigmas and explored the beyond, the realm of the gods.

The pre-Hispanic Aztec poets of the 14th and 15th centuries are perhaps the first known poets of the Americas, but their work comes down to us at some remove. Their indigenous texts were painted in what are now lost pictoglyphic codices. These were later recited to ethnographer-friars, who in turn transcribed them in Roman letters. The "ancient word" of the Nahuatl texts was preserved in a few 16th-century manuscripts.

The Aztec poets had a keen sense of transience. They sang often of cahuitl, "that which leaves us." Here is a poem by the song-composer Nezahualco{acute}yotl (1402-1472), a well-known figure who was not only a poet but also the supreme ruler of Tezcoco. I discovered it 30 years ago in a free adaptation by Peter Everwine in his first book, Collecting the Animals:

I Nezahualco{acute}yotl ask it --

You live on this earth?

No, not forever

Only a short time.

Be jade. Jade breaks.

Be gold. Gold tears away.

The broad plumes of the quetzal unravel.

No, not forever.

Only a short time.

"I comprehend the secret, the hidden/ O my lords!" Nezahualco{acute}yotl declares in another poem: "Thus we are,/ we are mortal,/ humans through and through,/ we all will have to go away,/ we all will have to die on earth. . . ."

In his immensely helpful Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World, Miguel Leo{acute}n-Portilla provides translations and summarizes the biographies of 15 masters of Nahuatl verse, which he reproduces in both the Nahuatl and English languages. Leo{acute}n-Portilla points out that these composers had all been instructed in the calmecac, or priestly schools, where "they had mastered the science of the calendar, the divine wisdom, the books of the annals, the ancient songs, and the discourses."

One of my favorite poets in this group is Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin, who lived in the second half of the 15th century in what is now Puebla. He seems to have been a teohua or priest, a "White Eagle." He was a seeker after heights who believed that "Friendship is a shower of precious flowers" and that "Earth is the region of the fleeting moment." From a lapidary statement in a poem sometimes entitled "Let the Earth Remain Forever," I have an image of him walking and chanting his songs on ancient roads. Here is Everwine's adaptation:

Let the earth last

And the forests stand a long time

Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin said this, traveling

The road to Tlaxcala

The road to Huexotzinco

Let field after field

Unfold with brown corn

Flowers of cacao

Let the earth last

(The excerpt from "Poem of Temilotzin" as well as the seven lines beginning "I comprehend the secret" appear in Miguel León-Portilla, "Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World." University of Oklahoma Press. Copyright © 1992 by the University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. The adaptations of poems by Nezahualcóyotl and Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin can be found in Peter Everwine, "Collecting the Animals." Atheneum. Copyright © 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972 by Peter Everwine.)