Book review

Counterculture poet rewrites the travels of Cabeza de Vaca

Peter Rabbit's epic poem was posthumously published

By Johanna DeBiase
tempo@taosnews.com
Posted 1/16/20

In his posthumously published epic hybrid poem, "Cabeza de Vaca," poet Peter Rabbit (born Peter Douthit in 1936) reconsiders history. Communing through time and space with the famous Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca via ingestion of psychotropics, Rabbit transforms the resilient pioneer into a groovy nomadic beatnik shaman.

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Book review

Counterculture poet rewrites the travels of Cabeza de Vaca

Peter Rabbit's epic poem was posthumously published

Posted

CABEZA DE VACA

An epic poet

by Peter Rabbit

138 pp. Crescent Press. Price $12

In his posthumously published epic hybrid poem, "Cabeza de Vaca," poet Peter Rabbit (born Peter Douthit in 1936) reconsiders history. Communing through time and space with the famous Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca via ingestion of psychotropics, Rabbit transforms the resilient pioneer into a groovy nomadic beatnik shaman.

In 1527, Cabeza de Vaca was part of the Narváez expedition whose purpose was exploration and colonization of the New World. However, nothing went as planned and of the original 600 crew members, only four people survived, including Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza and Dorantes' enslaved Moor, Estevanico. After surviving hurricanes and enslavement, the four men spent eight years wandering the wilds of what is now the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico.

Cabeza de Vaca survived as a trader and faith healer to Native Americans and eventually reconnected with Spanish civilization in Mexico in 1536. Upon his return to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca published a detailed account of his journey and the ecosystems and tribes he encountered titled "La Relación y Comentarios."

In the preface to "Cabeza de Vaca," poet and editor Anne MacNaughton writes, "[Rabbit] discovered the saga of Cabeza de Vaca through Haniel Long's 'Interlinear' and believed that the man and his companions had crossed through what is now southern New Mexico on their epic journey across the continent. Studying de Vaca's original text in translation -- and empathizing with those attempting to justify a mystical experience to a fundamentalist Church during the Inquisition -- he discovered intimations of the use of peyote as remedy and implications of the author as doctor."

The reasons for Rabbit's intrigue and deep understanding of Cabeza de Vaca might further be explained in MacNaughton's brief description of the author and his life. Though he was raised in a strict Irish Catholic home, Rabbit's life's work was as a "psychedelic priest and peyote roadman." She writes, "It was during an early resident in Taos in the 1950s that he had been introduced to the peyote road and to its weekend 'teepee meetings' by a Taos Pueblo family with traditional ties to the medicine ways." Throughout his life, Rabbit "embraced and utilized all entheogens. He believed that their use brought one's consciousness into contact with the source of the cosmos and enabled a brief communion with creation."

This narrative epic is hybrid in that poetry is intermixed with prose and reads like a play with four distinct voices -- Cabeza de Vaca; Estevancio; Los Indios, representing the Native population encountered along their journey; and Rabbit. On occasion, there are also quotes from outside sources.

Rabbit's dialogue interjects intermittently as a voice from the future looking back and making observations of what he believes really happened. Rabbit writes, "Cabeza de Vaca went from being a hired killer for the King, one who hacked and stabbed people to death, to becoming the first European medicine man, doctor and a realized human being. He was the real explorer of America and he saw it as it is, not as anyone wanted it to be."

Cabeza de Vaca appears to be the voice of reason. His view is often that of the anthropologist. Though his intent is truly to heal, he also sees himself as a showman, putting on a medicine show for the Natives who don't know any different. He is an intelligent observer of his own mind, reflecting on the past and future as he walks through his present.

The Moor slave Estevanico is portrayed as a rowdy hedonist. He puts on a song and dance and seduces women. With a jive slang dialect, Estevanico's portrayal precariously borders on a racist caricature.

Los Indios serves as a classic chorus as from Greek dramas, commenting on the state of affairs during this historic period when Europeans were beginning to invade their land. This gives the poem an opportunity to express the viewpoint of the colonized as in the lines,

"They called it the New World even though it's very old."

In true beatnik style, "Cabeza de Vaca" rambles like a trippy journey through unexplored wilderness both on the physical and spiritual planes. Cabeza de Vaca and Rabbit travel together through the 16th century and the 21st century in parallel lives intertwined by hallucinogenic plant medicine. "Cabeza de Vaca" is a work of deep philosophical and historical exploration interspersed with moments of frolicking joy.

Rabbit authored six books of poetry and nonfiction, including the underground classic "Drop City." Other publications include "Ornithology," "Recognitions," "With a Bone in Her Teeth" and "Mastodon." He was the founder of Libre, SOMOS, the World Poetry Bout Association and the Taos Poetry Circus. He received the Verse Converse Festival's Eternal Flame Award for a Lifetime of Dedication to Poetry. He passed into the cosmic ether in 2012.

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