Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women, Ámbar Past, w. Xalik Guzmán Bakbolom and Xpetra Ernandos (Cinco Puntos Press) $26.95
Incantations is a surprising and necessary publication in contemporary world poetry, stunning in its execution. Jerome Rothenberg contextualizes it well:
There has to my mind never been a project quite like this: a collective body of poetry—and women’s poetry at that—coming directly out of an indigenous culture and gathered as a deliberate work of poetry and art by the women themselves.
The first edition of this collection, in Spanish and Tzotzil (Maya) appeared in 1998, presented at Mexico City’s Tamayo museum, the collected efforts of 23 years of labor by the Taller Leñateros, a collective of Mayan women poets, traditional healers, artists, and songwriters. Past’s introduction describes the project’s genesis well, providing biographical sketches of many of the women involved, its political context—having been lauded by Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos, the state of the indigenous populations of Mexico, the social status of indigenous women, and more. This narrative writing shines with a passionate knowledge. If anything, it’s lacking only more information: perhaps a brief and basic linguistic sketch of Tzotzil and a contextualization within the larger indigenous poetry traditions of Mexico.
Her second essay, “She of the Great Writing, She of the Glyphs,” in which she sets out to introduce Mayan culture and poetics, is less impressive. Though equally anecdotal, the essay wanders slowly through the abstract ideological conceptions of Mayan poetry and spells, as received by their respective poets in dreams and visions from “the great book.” While certainly worth noting, her presentation often primitivizes their poetics beyond what I imagine that Past herself intends for her essay to do. Perhaps this dissapointment—which is an admittedly small one, considering the quality and uniqueness of the project—comes from its simultaneous engagement with oral histories and folk ethnographies. That allowed, it also presents the poetry as in a vacuum, which seems unfair considering the thriving Isthmus Zapotec poetry of Southern Mexico, for example.
The screenprints contained within the book are as important and impressive as the poems and spells, but are also lacking in broader context. Though Past mentions the amate making tradition of Puebla and even discusses ancient Mayan books destroyed by the Spanish (in one of my favorite sections), it would be interesting to be able to, even casually, place the included artwork alongside other contemporary indigenous artists, from Guerrero Nahuatl brothers Juan and Marcial Camilo to Isthmus Zapotec Soid Pastrana. That aside, they accompany the poetry fabulously, and are a great addition to the book.
The poetry itself has some of the cadences of Classical Nahuatl poetry, places a strong influence on the natural world, and is often written in direct address to the religious figures of the contemporary Mayan women (though, as Past points out, not all of the project’s poets practice traditional religions). Though the book does a good job of respecting indigenous culture, without resorting to neoliberal hyper-defense, it fails to include a single en-face Tzotzil-English poem, which, even with no knowledge of Tzotzil orthography, would be visually interesting.
Antonia Moshán Culej’s poem “Before Felling a Tree” exemplifies the Mayan women’s respect for and connectedness with nature:
Don’t kill me, don’t fall on me.
Sacred Tree, Sacred Pine
It’s because I am in need
that I cut you down….
Give me your firewood, your kindling,
your torchlight so I can see what I’m eating, Kajval.
Give me your heat to bake my tortillas, to boil my beans.
Give me the beams to build my house
and pillars to support the thatch, the vines, the mud.
I’m going to split your wood, your arms, your legs,
your face, your head.
I’m going to chop you down with my ax,
with my machete.
Don’t scold me, don’t drip your tears on me.
I don’t want to cut you down, but it’s cold….
Many of the poems collected here concern family life and community interaction, most often in address to religious figures to whom the poets recount their daily lives in forms of exaltation or petition. Poet Xunka’ Utz’utz’ Ni’ writes about her family’s new house in her poem “So the New House Won’t Eat Us”:
We are going to live here,
We are going to sit here.
We are going to shit here.
We are going to pee here.
beneath your flowering face,
each day, beneath your flowery eyes….
We are going to sleep here.
We are going to rest here.
We are going to sin here
and make love.
And almost echoing the Bible’s wisdom books, she continues:
The neighbors claim we are rich, Kajval,
but we have no treasures.
Close the mouths of the envious
so they can’t gossip about us….
Protect us from being eaten by a vine of a stick.
Save us from being devoured by the new thatch
or the shiny nails.
But then she ends the poem with a distinctly Mayan practice:
We offer you gifts, Kaxil.
Something for the red envy that bites our hearts:
A little pig, Kajval,
so the new house
won’t eat the people in it.
Like Peter Everwine’s use of the word “cunt” in his versions of the Classical Nahuatl, here Ni”s “shit” comes as a delightfully appropriate surprise, a reminder that we cannot afford to allow exoticism to shade our perceptions of the Maya.
Rather than further analyze the poems and spells of the Taller Leñateros, I prefer to end with a strong recommendation to those interested in contemporary poetry to read this book, and Xpetra Ernándes short poem “To the Soul of Corn”:
Come back from where the raccoon took you,
from where the grackle ate you,
from the mole’s tunnel,
the weevil’s mouth,
the gopher’s hole,
the worm’s house, the rat’s den,
where the water washed you out,
where you drowned inside the Earth.
You never saw daylight.
You didn’t grow like the other corn.
Come back from where you are lost,
gather together all your souls of corn.
We are making your fiesta.
We give you food and song.
We serve you
worm-eaten corns and beans.
Sing and be happy,
with guitar and rattle.