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The Ecstasy of Cabeza de Vaca

Keith Hill

Available to order from your favourite online store or local bookshop.
In 1528, a Spanish expedition was shipwrecked in the Gulf of Mexico. Eight years later only four men remained alive. One of the four, Cabeza de Vaca, later published an account of what occurred. Naked and enslaved, de Vaca was stripped of all he possessed, then underwent an extraordinary transformation. The Ecstasy of Cabeza de Vaca is Keith Hill’s masterful retelling of Cabeza de Vaca’s story. This is a heartbreaking account of courage and faith, barbarity and miracles, that transports us to the limits of human experience.
180 pages, 5.5 x 8.5 inches / 140 x 216 mm
ISBN Paperback: 9780473324070
ISBN Ebook: 9780473324087

“A tour de force. A truly original and remarkable recasting in verse of the ill-fated Narváez expedition to Central America. Hill’s humanizing of de Vaca is the ingredient that makes it so moving and once taken up, impossible to put down.” – Alistair Paterson, poet, editor, literary critic

“In a series of extraordinary encounters depicted in beautifully rendered action and imagery. Hill makes de Vaca’s inner world spring to wondrous life. Natural, memorable and rewarding.” – Raewyn Alexander, author, editor, lecturer

“An extraordinary effort of imagination. Keith Hill is a unique creative individual who has produced a huge body of distinctive work. In New Zealand literature there’s no one quite like him, and certainly no long poem like this one.” – Roger Horrocks, poet, cultural commentator

Chapter 1. Landfall

We surged from the sea
ecstatic, demented
sagged on the still swaying shore
our cracked mouths filled with joy.

Five days we prayed for this
feared it would never come
that devouring death
which hovered over our swaying hopes
which filled our one sail with despair
blowing our broken raft this way, that
would feed us eventually to the deep
and all our hopes would drown there.
Now we felt firm land beneath our cheeks.
And as the tide nuzzled our beards
sucked backwards
pulled streaming sand across wrinkled hands
we raised our heads
dumbly stared into each others’ eyes
and knew there was a God.
That, ultimately, all was good.

“Our Father, which are in heaven
to You we make a shameful confession:
we feared this day would never come.”

Seven men we were in number
kneeled, in a circle, shoulder to shoulder
scarce strong enough to hold ourselves erect.
Seven battered heads bowed in a rasp of prayer:

“To You who are a mystery
whose measures are unfathomable
here and now we give thanks
contented with the workings of Your will
until our time itself should end.
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.”

That “Amen” echoed in seven chastened hearts.
Then, as one, we turned our eyes
towards the land which had proved our ark.
In the darkening light of dusk
we saw a glowing stretch of sand
and a dank wall of jungle leaves.
Birds sang within, life quickening life
promising food and the luxury of shelter.
All we saw was another deep in which
who knows what terrors lurked.
No words passed that moment between us.
But, as one, we turned back towards the sea.


Man is not man without fire.
We squatted like savages
eating beach grasses
reduced as we had been by our days at sea
to that primeval state we shared
with Adam in the garden.
Except he never needed fire
being radiated by God.
And except our innocence was long lost.
I cannot speak for my emaciated men
but in my salt-wrinkled heart
and despite the savour of our prayer
I doubted we were yet saved.
All we were was not yet dead.
As we huddled together in the dark
no sleep came nor respite from our dread.
For while hard sand held our bodies firm
I could feel Leviathan sweeping the depths
that continued to sway beneath me
feeding the fear that we were abandoned
in our good God’s true and just creation.


A morning’s laboured walk confirmed it.
Captain Andrés Dorantes was with me
a commonsense and courageous man
whose judgement the years had well burnished.
We tramped the lumped course of dunes
staggered where the curved shore led
often forced to stop, sit, draw deep breaths
so weak we were from our torment at sea.
Yet hours of sweat and aching stagger
but returned us to our makeshift raft:
we had beached on an island
and the jungle we had darkly feared last night
that it crawled with all palpable terrors
day revealed to be thin, straggling and safe.
No beasts threatened our survival.
We were where we had prayed to be.
Yet there was trouble in this too
for neither was there food.
The birds we disturbed by our walking
proved to be resting not feeding.
They circled the island crying
then flew out to sea.
We waited. They never did return.
Where did they fly to? Another shore?
We could but hope.
For given we would surely starve
if we made this island our final stop
that shore we knew nothing of
we had no choice but to assay.


Half a day we creaked on the waves
praying wind and tide
would not pull us back to sea
too tired to row ourselves to safety
even if we knew its direction.
In truth, we were past despair
at the ocean’s mercy
resigned to our God’s chosen fate
when we saw a green line of tree-tops
that stood above the swelling ocean
and smoke drifting above all.
Our hearts leapt.
But hope is the cruellest emotion:
it most betrays when most heaven-sent.
For smoke meant men.
None spoke of our shared nightmare
yet each vividly knew what it was —
that we would fall in with the cannibals
we had heard the miseries of in Spain.
The most severe of this land’s savages
would shatter our chests with adzes
wrest out our still throbbing hearts
throw them on the fire to roast
and suck the marrow from our bones
grinning at us all the while
we writhed our last moments of dying.
That I have written these fevered words
is witness to our unspoken fear.
That I am alive to write them now
proves how far our fear was a lie.
The truth is we fell exhausted and starved
onto a golden arc of sand.
We heard the screech of parakeets
felt the waves lap our legs
watched the breeze caress the jungle leaves
smelt the smoke drifting in the sunlight —
and felt the thud of stone striking wood.
If we had come to paradise to die
we were too broken to care.
We lay like morsels on our fractured raft
mesmerised by knowing men
we had long prayed would find and save us
worked now not far away
feeding the fire that could finish us all.
Yet was this to be our end?
Were we too starved to save the meagre flesh
that hung now from our starkened bones?
I, Cabeza de Vaca, was not!
This was not the paradise I sought of God.
Nor was it the paradise to claim me now.
A paddle my crutch
I levered my numb body to its feet
forced it to stagger up the slope of sand
and approached the wall of jungle.
I thrust my face into the leaves
and was shocked to find a face peering back.
Startled, I pitched straight backwards
falling onto the hard daze of sand.

[Continues …]