by John Willson

(kēē´pōō) A record-keeping device of the Inca Empire
consisting of a series of knotted strings attached to a rope.

Museo Larco, Lima

Gathered on a crescent of rope,
knotted strings fan down behind glass,
bold as rays of sun engraved by Dürer.

Could a reading of them hang on each knot’s
distance from the rope, on a string’s color,
position with regard to the others?

Choose one knot among the hundreds.
Imagine a music box, and one steel pin
among pins that bristle from the drum inside—

a pin to strike a note in the tune—but
the steel comb that holds the tine of each note
is missing, and the drum revolves, a silent

composition, a cyclical
code of pins.
So the Inca strings

decline to account for their meaning.
Your knot claims its beauty within the pattern.
As the sun at Machu Picchu, winter solstice,

shoots a beam on a carved groove in stone,
so you possess this array of strings.
Runners carried it in relay

through the four corners
of an empire without a written language,
coiled in their bags, the poem, quipu.


Inca Pisac, Peru

Across the ravine from the ruins, holes
they gouged in a hillside—
hundreds of them, in rows—
resemble a woodpecker’s industry.

Adobe bricks litter the slope, remains
of walls they chiseled away.
Each tomb, once broken, in a single breath
bled out a spirit and was void.

They extracted the skeleton that rested
in fetal position.
Then, with flashlights, probes of steel rods,
their search for huaca, the sacred

thing: a woven mantle,
a point-bottom pot for corn beer,
a llama figurine cast in gold.
I picture myself walking into Greenwood,

bouquet in hand, approaching the grave
of my mother, dead these two years,
finding dirt in a pile again,
shards of her clay urn.

Quechua poor dislodge their ancient
ancestors, loot the tombs
to feed their families.
They fuel traffic

bound for the gallery, the museum case,
the wall niche in a sunken
living room: It looks just
as though it belongs there, don’t you think?

View, Teardown

San Diego, California

The chipped glass juicer, the Benny Goodman
78s, the armchair with its gouts of stuffing—
I step away from what remains inside
the house, take to the deck.
Tijuana anchors the horizon, Shelter Island’s

docks hold yachts like bullets in a clip.
From the neighboring King palm tree,
birdsong rises above the roar
of Navy jets.
Oh mockingbird,

my mother’s words come back, teaching
me your name in childhood: That’s a mocker.
Blind in her last year, she heard you sing
incessantly from the same palm,
remarked, It’s a new bird, a mystery.

The screen door slaps out front, car idles
in the red zone, my suitcase holding one thing
I did not consign to the shippers:
a four-leaf clover that fell out
of a book by a poet

named Teasdale.
My wife runs to tell me I’m late.
Mimus Polyglottoes, I finally remove
myself, so your song may bless
the swing of the wrecking ball.


John Willson is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize and awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Artist Trust of Washington and a two-time finalist in the National Poetry Series. His poems have appeared in journals including Bellevue Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, Journal of the American Medical Association, Kyoto Journal, Northwest Review, Notre Dame Review, Poet Lore, and Sycamore Review.