top of page
  • Alfredo Aguilar and Laura Villareal

Dream of Xibalba by Stephanie Adams-Santos

Dream of Xibalba by Stephanie Adams-Santos $18.00 | Orison Books | 132 pp. | May 2, 2023 | ISBN: 978-1-949039-38-2


Laura Villareal (LV): Dream of Xibalba is unlike anything we’ve covered so far for Warp & Weft. I’m a bit awestruck by how lyrical it is and by the expansiveness of the worldbuilding. Stephanie Adams-Santos takes us deep into Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. I really love seeing Mesoamerican mythology brought into poetry. We have so many poems that engage with Greek and Roman myth so it’s a delight to see Adams-Santos engage with Mayan myth.

Maybe we should begin by looking at the form. It's a book-length poem broken down into 12 sections. I wonder, do you think we could call it a novel-in-verse or an epic? What was your initial impression?

Alfredo Aguilar (AA): It’s true; we have yet to look at a book-length poem, so I’m looking forward to talking about this book and hearing your thoughts on it.

In regards to initial impressions about form, I think I relied pretty heavily on notes in the book itself. The table of contents notes that the book is a “poem in twelve parts, as in the hours of a clock.” The comparison to the hours of a clock has stayed with me and I’ve come to think of each fragment as what occurs in those hours. It also made me think that perhaps the nature of the sequence is both linear and cyclical; we read in a numerical ascending order of sections but like a clock it ends and restarts at twelve. It's also notable to me that that an ascending numerical order allowed for a kind a of expansive-ness and opening up in my reading of the book as opposed to a descending numerical order which often has a flair of drama and a narrowing because the implication is that there is less and less as one goes on.

As for how the book could be designated, it's worth pointing out that the subtitle is “A Poem.” I think for the most part the designation of “novel-in-verse” is more book marketing than anything. My sense is that “novel” is more approachable and implicitly straight forward to a larger audience of people than say “poem” which can often be considered difficult or mysterious. In thinking about how the book is a vision of the underworld I can’t help but think about Dante’s Inferno and how this book could be accurately described as an epic. However, in my reading of the book I felt that, in contrast, to Inferno it seems like Xibalba isn’t something so much to escape and get out of necessarily. For me Xibalba reads like a part of the self, some deep part of the psyche that the speaker journeys through to be transformed and to reconcile some part of themself.

Were there any other epic poems that came to mind for you when reading the book? Also how did the form shape your experience of reading the book?

LV: As you know, I tend to have a flexible view of genre and enjoy anything that pushes on the boundaries. To push back, I disagree that “novel-in-verse” is pure marketing. I feel it’s a distinct genre and a useful genre to help reluctant young readers get into poetry. I’m thinking of very successful YA novels-in-verse by writers like Ellen Hopkins and Nikki Grimes that are rich in their narratives and characterizations. A good novel-in-verse is propulsive. I loved Ellen Hopkins when I was a brooding youth. Oh and I remember reading the very notable Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai in graduate school.

As I was reading this book though I did think about Dante’s Inferno as well. It’s perhaps the easiest leap. I recently read Valerie Martinez’s book-length poems Count and Each and Her which are dramatically different from this book. Martinez’s books deal with issues like climate crisis and femicide drawing from nonfiction texts and her experiences (for the most part) rather than delving into wild imagining that uses myth as a springboard to explore numerous topics like self-hood, lineage, memory, and so much more. Regardless, both of Martinez’s books were on my mind as I thought about the book-length poem form. Both poets handle the form so differently in structure, but both tend to use fragmentation as a tool.

Also, you make an excellent point about the form! I forgot about that note about the hours of a clock. I believe the number is also significant because if I remember correctly there are twelve lords/gods of Xibalba. If I’m understanding correctly, you like that the form doesn’t make it feel like time is running out, so to speak–is that right?

On the first read I had a bit of trouble following the narrative because I kept wanting to flip back and forth as I heard echoes of previous images and motifs. I was reading a PDF version of the book. I’m sure there’s probably a good way to do this on the computer that non-luddites have figured out. Perhaps it’s a bit woo-woo to say but this book has a certain energy that requires it to live in physical form. It feels like it’s meant to be held like a treasure or map. Once I had a physical copy, it felt like I could move in various directions to engage with the book as if I was on the journey too. There’s something hypnotic about moving through Dream of Xibalba. I found myself getting carried away by the language’s music.

I mentioned having trouble following the narrative, so I want to unpack the perspective and talk about how we orient ourselves in a project like this. Let’s talk about how Adams-Santos uses the second person. When using “you” it often feels like you the reader are the “you.” Though in the book there’s a moment where the “you” is revealed to be “Daughter of Xibalba.” In the Popol Vuh, a text documenting the myths of the K’iche’ Mayan people, there is a story about one of the gods/lords of Xibalba’s daughter named Xquic who gave birth to twins who grew up to defeat the lords/gods of the underworld. I believe that’s the “Daughter of Xibalba” being referenced here. The myth is much richer than my single sentence version I gave here so I encourage folks to read it.

As for Dream of Xibalba, the “you” in poetry can have many effects, so I wonder what your thoughts are. How did you approach this aspect?

AA: Yes, the form of the book and its “hours” made the poem feel expansive as opposed to narrowing as I read through the sequence.

My reading experience was similar to yours; it felt like moving through a dream or vision. I was also trying to track repeating and echoing motifs and images. One that stayed with me was the zopilote (vulture). Sonically it's a great word but there are so many moments and meditations on death throughout the poem that the zopilote took on, for me at least, the presence of a harbinger of death and what death can feed. Notably another bird that recurs is the tecolote (owl) which is suffused with its own kind of mythic and witchy associations. Birds, maybe vultures more so, circle whatever it is they are after. Likewise, the recurring images and phrases throughout the sequence circle above this dream of the underworld that we move though trying to get at the texture and sound and feeling of the poem.

Adams-Santos’s use of “you” throughout the poem worked for me in a few ways. Because the vision in the poem feels so specific and particular, as well as the “you” being named as “Daughter of Xibalba,” there were moments where I felt the “you” was a self address, the speaker talking to and narrating themselves. This creates a bit of distance where the speaker is watching themselves, which I felt added to the dream-like quality. The use of “you” also had the effect of putting me as a reader right in the middle of experiencing the vision. The use of the second person collapses a kind of distance between the speaker and reader where I felt it was me that was moving through the poem instead of seeing it happen to the speaker. In other words, there were moments where it felt like I was the one experiencing the dream even though the dream is singular to the speaker.

I do want to touch on the difficulty in talking about a long poem. Unlike a collection of poems where we can focus and talk about a single poem or a group of poems, the long poem presents a challenge because everything in it is informed by the context of what came before it, far more so than a collection. The long poem is one continuous stream and it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact moment or set of lines and not lose some of the resonance of the language surrounding it. Poems themselves are things that are held together by patterning, whether that patterning is visual, imagistic, syntactic, or what have you. In the interest of pointing to some moments in the book, what patterns did you notice and where did you feel those patterns breaking away? What was the effect for you?

LV: As poets we often joke about how much we love to put birds in poems, but birds are significant symbols full of meaning and have a variety of superstitions surrounding them so it makes sense that we’d be drawn to them. In Dream of Xibalba they are supercharged symbols. I really like how you’ve described the vulture circle in a way that mimics the form of this poem. Recently, I was listening to an episode of Radiolab called “Corpse Demon” in which vultures are called “nature’s immune system.” They eat everything without getting sick (most of the time) so when they do get sick or die en masse it’s indicative of a serious imbalance in nature. We associate them with death but their importance in nature to maintain a balance cannot be discounted. Out of the many mentions of vultures, I especially loved:

Zopilote, Zopilote—

In your childhood ear the word sounds like sopa & elote soup & corn, the elements of a future-body.

These lines which play with music and repetition bring to mind the music of a spell. The tenderness of this memory resonated with me well after I finished the book. I kept repeating “Zopilote, Zopilote, sopa y elote” to myself.

As for what imagery stood out to me, the recurring image of a white veil and its transformations in the book felt important. It begins as “the veil of a bride” then shifts throughout the book into “Your flesh beneath a veil / caresses a void” then “the long white veils of the dead.” Allowing the veil to represent life events like marriage and death gave me the sense of temporal expansiveness housed in the poem. I also felt myself interested in the images related to materials for rituals like precious stones and sigils. Okay I’m going to sound woo-woo again, but poetry sometimes feels like alchemy. Poets gather images they turn into words that they place in a certain sequence then they transmute them into something new. Especially in this book, it feels like magic that the poet can conjure a whole world from all these images.

I have tabs all over my book, marking lines and images I loved. Let me see if I can pinpoint a few places that I want us to discuss. I keep thinking about page 30. Adams-Santos writes:

You follow a vision of birds, a wet slope down to the river.

You forget about desire, stand there staring at the greenish silt.

It’s a dream, everything floating over,

lazy, going by . . .

But someone in the lace of flames

screams far away,

another world of life and death,

another city, another blood.

Another memory nested

in memory.

Your chest aches like a bomb, asleep

It feels like a window opening in the poem that allows me to see clearly for a moment. A lucid moment of waking in this extended dream. Could you speak to some of the patterns you noticed or moments where the poem opened for you?

AA: That's a really great moment in the poem and I can see the lucidity that you are pointing to.

I also have a lot of moments that I bookmarked throughout this poem but one that stood out for me coincidentally happens a bit earlier on page 26 through 27. What really caught my attention was the visual change in form. For many of the preceding pages the fragments are composed of shorter lines and are almost strictly left aligned. It's here that I felt something else was beginning to happen; the lines became longer and on page 27 specifically the lines drifted further down the page and away from the left margin. Here is an experect from page 26:

You are netted by ghosts—O shadowy aunts of Xinabajul

who talk beneath ruins, O basket-headed women

of Huehuetenango, who fill the graveyard ovens with bread,

the white-earth mouths of the ovens, the blue-tongued heat

hisses silently at their hands.

Here also are some lines from page 27:

You want to know where you come from.

Aquí la noche da vueltas lentas

un zopilote

negro e imenso

The night circles you

With its many eyes of fire…

You are the lost daughter of Xibalba.

Can’t you see the scythe

swinging from you footsteps,

a thousand deaths in every direction?

Something that I’ve continued to think about since encountering these fragments has to do with form and how a poem takes shape. Often I feel like if a poet is attentive and attuned (as Adams-Santos is), the poem always finds and creates the shape necessary for it to exist and to create its meaning. I’ve been wondering what it is about this part of the poem, these fragments (and a few others like it in later pages) that creates and perhaps necessitates a different shape than the fragments before it. One of the answers I’ve landed on is the subject matter and tone.

In the first excerpt the use of a longer line read to me as a kind of opening up that allowed a more flowy breath and syntax to come in, compared to the shorter, choppier lines in prior pages. It's also an invocation of “ghosts” and “shadowy aunts”; these presences which are alongside the speaker to make it through this journey. To use the language of the poem the presences invoked are a type of net, a security, a safeguard. However what is required to conjure these presences is a greater breath and smoother motion of syntax, which is what I feel the longer line doing here.

In the second excerpt the line begins to move more boldly across the space of the page; it goes further down the page and later does not conform to the left margin in the way many of the previous fragments have. Subject wise the speaker is searching for an answer to their sense of self and gets it in the same fragment; they are the daughter of the underworld. While there is a sense of seeking in some of the earlier and later fragments, this part of the poem questions and gets to that perhaps terror inducing answer on the same page. I can't help but feel a kind of physicality being enacted by the lines and their movement in the language’s searching.

It’s a funny coincidence that we both picked out points to look at in the book that are fairly close together. Were there any other patterns and moments that you noticed in the latter part of the poem?

LV: Oh, I love “the poem always finds and creates the shape necessary for it to exist.” It’s so true! The form and shape of the poem is a remarkable example of form and content uniting to create meaning.

Something else I noticed was that the poem has many moments of exiting and entering from physical, psychological, spiritual, and liminal spaces. Pages 90 and 91 which are recto and verso in the book are a good example of it happening explicitly. On 90, it begins “Suffused with sleep, you exit / from your shape.” which sounds like astral projection. Then 91 almost feels like an answer to where the consciousness goes while out of the body.

You enter the flayed house,

muscling your way

to the kitchen

against a horde of raw silences.

Your mother turns toward you.

Your grandmother turns toward you.

The Burning One turns toward you.

Spirit erects in the tongue,

all blood rushing to the mouth…

Warm tortillas, dusted with salt,

ground chili and vapors of lime.

Your tongue, the serpent,

leads you home to yourself.

The house connotes the familial and, specifically here, a matrilineage. This domestic space contains warmth of food, but also a sort of overwhelming tension. I find “against a horde of raw silences” riveting. Poets find the most startling ways to describe silence. I often think of Anne Carson’s description, “Something black and heavy dropped / between them like the smell of velvet.” Adams-Santos conveys how cramped and teeming the silence feels. Though “raw” is an unexpected descriptor. It could be read as “raw” as in unrefined or abrasive and chafed. And “against” adds the dimension of fighting to not be consumed so perhaps the latter reading of “raw.”

A“flayed house” and the way the mother, grandmother, and The Burning One turn carries the sense that the “you” is being judged. Speaking for myself, but I think as a Latina we have so much pressure to please our families, especially our mothers and grandmothers. There are many expectations explicitly and implicitly imposed on us. Perhaps this is why I felt this part of the poem so viscerally. There’s something so on point about how the speaker exits their body to enter a house of judgment– they literally have to depart from themselves to meet these expectant family members. But I love how the way to return to the self is “Your tongue, the serpent, / leads you home to yourself.” So often we’re told to be quiet or we maintain silence to keep the peace. The image of the tongue as the serpent that could easily strike or bite and perhaps contains venom is an empowering image.

A point of curiosity in this section is who/what is “The Burning One.” At first I thought about “The Burning One” from Doctor Who and then thought perhaps a god of the underworld.

We typically end our reviews by looking at how the book closes. Should we do that here too?

AA: That movement between, corporeal, spiritual, and social spaces was something I noticed too throughout the poem and found it engaging as the “you”/self morphs and changes in each of those spaces. I love your reading of that particular moment where these multiple spaces, or spheres intersect. I’m not very familiar with the Doctor Who world, but “The Burning One” reads to me as some spirit or god as you say from the underworld. Being judged by your mother and grandmother is bad enough but imagine being judged at the same time by an underworld deity! Scary stuff!

Yes, let's take a look at the last section of the book. Would you like to start?

LV: Sure. The end of the book is striking in how it requests a slow return to consciousness. It reminded me of the cool down sequence at the end of a yoga class where the mind is now realigned with the body and has opened the door to communication. Life forces us to move so quickly that sometimes we don’t make time to check in with ourselves. In Dream of Xibalba the “you” has traveled and transformed a multitude of times. I couldn’t predict how the poet would choose to end the book but I’m moved that the speaker is now encouraging rest and renewal.

Sensation walks through you.

It’s okay to lie still,

to let the blooming happen all around you.

You will be good again

when the flimsy grass pierces the earth.

The voice is tender and reassuring. “It’s okay to lie still, / to let the blooming happen all around you” it says. I love this reminder that it’s okay to move at your own pace. Sometimes we forget that like the earth we have seasons. Life cannot be sustained in periods of constant bloom and growth. We need time to be fallow. We need time to germinate and time to allow ideas to pollinate too. Nothing grows without a break.

AA: In reading and re-reading this section one thing that stood out to me was this gesture towards making a path and stepping into whatever it is that is to follow. Some quotes from various pages:

The sierra whispers into your feet, a voice of crushed stone.

Step forward half in sleep, into the capilla of the midnight eye. [121]

Step forward into darkness again…

One foot pierces the world below, and the other rests firm above.

May the green sword of the angel guide your feet. [125]

you must let your blood move to each side,

making a path. It’s okay if you have nothing to sing.

Sensation walks through you.

It’s okay to lie still,

to let the blooming happen all around you. [126]

I noticed the strong and recurring image of feet as not only what will carry the speaker into whatever may come next but as a kind of channel where the earth and perhaps spirits can communicate with the speaker. I get the sense too that this attunement which allows the speaker to hear what is being communicated through their feet requires an ability to be present and a willingness to listen. That powerful connection to the earth, to spirit, to one's sense intuition is something that has to be tended and heeded, which is of course work and may prove difficult to undertake at times. Also worth noting that the speaker has one foot in the underworld and one foot on the earth. This image reinforces a kind of connection with something beyond the corporeal self. This speaker is and contains more than only earthly things; they have a connection to something spiritual, metaphysical that serves as a guide for them.

The last fragment we both quoted really struck me in that it approaches ars poetica; it is on some level about making poems. However what I found refreshing and true to my own experience is that poetry, the practice of its writing, always waits for you. Because we live inside capitalism, which pressures us to be productive at all times, we often as writers feel guilty if we are not producing anything. This anxiety seeps into our practices. But really what is needed to make art is time, time to do nothing, to pursue our interests, to live our lives, and figuratively replenish our wells. This last fragment is coming to terms with that, with being “okay if you have nothing to sing. // Sensation walks through you.” Even when we are not writing, we can still attune our attention and our living to what is around us because that is also what is needed of us if we wish to make art.


Alfredo Aguilar is the author of On This Side of the Desert (Kent State University Press, 2020), selected by Natalie Diaz for the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. He is a recipient of 92Y’s Discovery Poetry Contest and has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Frost Place. His work has appeared in Poetry Northwest, Waxwing, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. Born and raised in North County San Diego, he now resides in Central Texas where he is a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers.

Laura Villareal is the author of Girl’s Guide to Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022). She earned her MFA at Rutgers University—Newark and has been awarded fellowships and scholarships from the Stadler Center for Poetry and Literary Arts, National Book Critics Circle’s Emerging Critics Program, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program at University of Texas-Austin. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, AGNI, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.


bottom of page