Here's the story. For the last 2 weeks of January 2000 I took my family to the Peruvian Andes. I'd always wanted to see the land of the Incas. Qosqo, Pisac, Urubumba, Ollantaytambo, Aguas Calientes, Macchu Picchu.
Whereas normally I stay up late working and then drag myself out of bed early to get the kids ready for school, on this trip, being out in the middle of nowhere with no computer, I found myself going to sleep early with the kids and Gwen, and waking up very early, floating through various half-awake/half-asleep states of mind. In one of these states of mind, a few days into the trip, I picked up a notebook and started scribbling, and was fairly amused by what came out. After this, through most of the trip I spent an hour or two each morning writing -- and snuck in a few verses at other random times.
(And to think, just a week before, profoundly unhappy with my latest product Garden of Nonsense, I'd given up poetry for good, in favor of more practical pursuits such as building thinking machines and being an international business tycoon!)
This series of poems records the thoughts and feelings in my mind on these various mornings. They're given here in the order they were written, as they record a certain mental dynamic, a process with a trajectory, a start, finish and middle, and all sorts of fractal fluctuations. Reading them through now I think the later poems are mostly better than the earlier ones -- as my mental state improved over the vacation the writing improved too.
The Incas, evident in the Andes not only via spectacular ruins like Macchu Picchu, Pisac and Ollantaytambo but also via the daily lives of the Quechua people (Ollantaytambo for example is still in many ways an intact Inca village), play a big role in these poems, but I don't try to do them justice. I'm a self-centered American, and also, due to the nature of my scientific and philosophical work, I tend to be focused on the mind rather than the external world. The Incas are used here as a metaphor for various things much more often than as a concrete subject for description, discussion, lyricizing.
For better worse or neither, I'm more interested in the sun god inside my own brain than the actual one the Incas worshipped.
What is it with those Incas anyway? Is it just the difference of their culture, the bizarreness of their rituals, the sacrifice of virgins to the God of the Sun, and so on? Is it the amazing natural beauty of their surroundings, which I was barely even aware of before visiting their land myself? -- cloud forest sprawling, mountain peaks rising like pencil points one after another, all gathered together, over under and through all the clouds. Perhaps it's the don Quixote-ish whackiness of their architectural accomplishments. Having perfected agriculture to a tee, their terraced farms on the pencil-point mountainsides yielding more food than they needed, they turned their excess labor power to building fabulous ceremonial cities on mountainsides and mountaintops -- Sacsayhuaman overlooking Cuzco, Tambo Machay and Quenqo and Puka Pukura in the surrounding countryside, Oytallaytambo crawling up a mountain overlooking a village, Pisac sprawling across a peak nestled between other higher ones, Macchu Picchu floating in the clouds trying to grab up to the sun. We too have an excess labor pool on account of our efficient agriculture, and we devote this to sensual satisfaction, and to a lesser extent, creative exploration. The fact that I have time to build thinking machines and write silly poems is a tribute to the efficiency of our own food-creation systems, much better than those of the Incas. But the Incas chose to devote their excess labor almost entirely to spiritual purposes -- to building huge temples, fantastically difficult given their lack of metal and other modern construction technology, designed to bring them closer to the sun god. They used the rewards of their engineering intelligence -- free time -- to work on the perfection of the mind, the harmonization of their inner worlds with the beauty of nature and the sun. Theirs was a fascist society, of course -- no place for freaky individualists like me -- but it had an order harmony and beauty that 20'th century fascist regimes have lacked. Those of us unsatisfied with the current order of things can't help but be seduced, to a certain extent, by an entirely different way of looking at things. They sacrificed freedom for spiritual and mental perfection; we have done just the opposite. One almost believes that, given a few more millenia, these crazy Incas would have succeeded in constructing a stone staircase bridging the 98 million miles up to the sun itself. In which case, would they have discovered that the external world sun, a ball of flaming gas, did not match their inner suns at all? Or would they, on tossing their virgins into the big fire, have discovered something else entirely? The Incas' monuments to mental perfection, to mind-nature harmony, to living together with the sun, still have a power that can't be minimized: even as a tourist, wandering from one ruin to another, one finds these structures in their beautiful settings have the ability to slice through the conundrums and contradictions of modernity, restoring the mind to a simplicity and perfection that is valued very little in our lives. This is the theme of INCAntations.