Between “Maya” and “Maya”

At the poet’s eulogy, a speaker says Larry came to him in a dream—recognizable stubble, salted hair, those piercing eyes—and gave him the perfect definition of “maya,” the Sanskrit word for the binary delusion which keeps the physical world spinning. When he woke, the words were gone. “That’s the way with dreams,” he says. When I hear the word “Maya,” I think of Anselmo the shaman, who chanted to a newborn soul on a pine needle carpet in the Chapel of Esquipulas. Gingerly he tugged each squirming hand, as he led the infant soul into the human world. He introduced the plaster saints cloaked in gaping orchids and pointed to their chests, where mirrors hung as precaution, lest an ecstatic soul forget its body and flee. Escape is never an option—a person who falsely claims to be a healer is soon discovered, because shamans regularly hold meetings in the land of dreams, which is not so unlike the waking world. In the land of dreams, bonesetters are summoned to raise fallen trees. In the land of dreams, midwives are given their sacred pots and secret herbs for erasing pain. In the land of dreams, your healer argues your case before the ancestors, with a wine gourd and a ritual meal. If the ancestors eat, you are healed. In that other world they call this other world “where rippling cliffs split the sky’s memory.”

Luisa Villani is the recipient of a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship in poetry, an AWP Intro Journals Award, and an Academy of American Poets Prize. A former Bucknell Younger Poet, her work has appeared in The New England Review, The Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and other literary journals. Her book, Running Away from Russia, was chosen for the Bordighera Prize by W.S. Di Piero and published at Purdue University. Selections from her forthcoming chapbook Highway of the Mayan Sky, appeared in the Random House anthology Poetry 180; A Turning Back to Poetry, edited by Billy Collins. She currently teaches at the University of Southern California, where she holds a Wallis Annenberg Fellowship.