worlding with Valerie Martinez

ddm4This week found me conducting two separate poetry workshops, one in Spanish and one in English, focused on Día de los Muertos / Day of the Dead. At this workshop, we went over some of the history of the holiday, from its indigenous roots and variations to contemporary observances. While I had students write recuerdos / poems of remembrance, I also shared examples of calaveras (short, satirical poems that are also at times political) and descanso poems.

This week’s poem, “World to World” by Valerie Martinez, is an example of a descanso poem, a tradition that combines elegy and narrative. In his introduction to Camino Del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing, editor and poet Rigoberto González describes the descanso poem as “a word version of an altar to the dead,” and cites Martinez’s poem as an example.

ddm3Reading through the poem, one can see the altar-like spirit of the poem in the way the narrative collects its details while at the same braiding the human and the natural world. When “the dead come” in the poem, for example, they come with “mouths silent as under-earth.” This metaphor pairing “mouths” with “under-earth” builds off the idea of the dead engaging with the living world and gives an exactness of feeling. The “silence” described here is tied to the absence of words. The speaker then shares that “We needn’t have any words, / the dead and I,” and continues in its details, leading us from the earth to the sky through graceful turns of enjambment and phrasing. The ending then takes a poem that is about exploring layers of outer existence and notes how these layers resemble the ones we live with inside ourselves.

Since my workshops were in two languages, I went ahead and translated Martinez’s poem. I’m sharing the translation below as well. Enjoy!

World to World – Valerie Martinez
for Tim Trujillo 1951-1991

I discover the Buddha in the backyard,
black paint on wood, head titled,
smile so tranquil. Then the dead come,
over the grass, the garden stones,
a bed of wildflowers, without sound,
mouths silent as under-earth.
We needn’t have any words,
the dead and I, just holy imagery,
the message, they come, the secret
passage under the wall, the creature
who climbs through, the sky
over the clouds over the air over the earth,
world to world, this afternoon
someone I am someone I knew,
the layers beneath the layers.

Mundo a Mundo – Valerie Martinez
traducido por José Angel Araguz, Ph.D.

for Tim Trujillo 1951-1991

Descubro al Buda en el patio trasero,
pintura negra sobre madera, cabeza inclinada,
una sonrisa tan tranquila. Luego vienen los muertos,
sobre la hierba, las piedras del jardín,
una cama de flores silvestres, sin sonido,
bocas calladas como la tierra.
No necesitamos ninguna palabra,
los muertos y yo, sólo imágenes santas,
el mensaje, ellos vienen, el paseo
secreto bajo la pared, la criatura
quien sube, el cielo
sobre las nubes sobre el aire sobre la tierra,
mundo a mundo, esta tarde
alguien que soy alguien que conocí,
los estratos debajo los estratos.

*

The original poem is from Valerie Martinez’s collection World to World (University of Arizona Press). To learn more about Martinez’s work, check out her site.

* ¡presente! with anne sexton

The Truth the Dead Know – Anne Sexton

For my mother, born March 1902, died March 1959
and my father, born February 1900, died June 1959

Gone, I say and walk from church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.

We drive to the Cape. I cultivate
myself where the sun gutters from the sky,
where the sea swings in like an iron gate
and we touch. In another country people die.

My darling, the wind falls in like stones
from the whitehearted water and when we touch
we enter touch entirely. No one’s alone.
Men kill for this, or for as much.

And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.

***

Dia de los Muertos – or Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday focused on praying for and celebrating the dead – occurred this past Sunday and Monday, and I found myself moved for the first time to build an altar in honor of my father. Here’s what it looked like:

* dia de los muertos altar *
* dia de los muertos altar *

Included on the altar are a copy of my first chapbook, The Wall, and a pencil sketch of my father done by Andrea Schreiber. Also, I have my stones in a J formation to symbolize my being his namesake. I am unclear even now, days after, how to articulate what this meant for me. All I know is that the conversation that began with my poem “Gloves”, included i the chapbook, continues to this day, on the page and, now, in ritual and observance.

In the Sexton poem above, what moves me is how the speaker states she is “tired of being brave” as she moves from human action to human action, all the while emphasizing what it means to her to feel human. That being human means feeling “touch entirely.” This concept is contrasted with the stone-like state of the dead. The poems is called “The Truth the Dead Know,” and the speaker’s words come from an awareness, fascination, and even fear of not being able to share in that truth. And the dead, as represented in that stone-like description, are seemingly everywhere, even in the wind.

This meditation on Sexton’s poem and my own experience this week makes me think of something Norma Elia Cantu introduced me to at CantoMundo as she spoke before a reading. As she asked us to think of and express gratitude for those Latin@ writers and artists that came before us, she began to name them. Each name spoken was then followed by the exclamation of ¡Presente! As Norma went on calling names, others joined her, shouting out ¡Presente! I marveled at the act: this simple word, which is what one answers with during roll call, suddenly felt charged each time it was repeated. The very air became heated by the summoned presences everyone in the room was the conduit of.

Names, and words in general, have a power in recitation and reading. A poem can be where other voices and other truths cross over each other and mingle. As Norma and Sexton show us, whether it’s on a stage or on the page, words can be a place where we can “touch entirely.”

***

As I mentioned last week, the countdown to the December 1st release of my full-length collection, Everything We Think We Hear, has begun! Along with prose poems and flash fictions, the collection includes two haibuns, the Japanese poetic form that combines poetry and prose. As a kind of preview, here are links for “Birthdays” and “Walks” as published in Contemporary Haibun Online.

Happy presente-ing!

José

* remembering galway kinnell

Given this week’s news of Galway Kinnell’s passing, I find myself heading into Dia de los Muertos this weekend with him on my mind.

I had the pleasure of attending a reading he gave alongside Phil Levine in NYC. The two great poets chatted at their table before the reading. When the time came to start, Galway walked up to the mic and in his booming, majestic baritone gave a stellar reading of Phil’s poem “They Feed They Lion.” The room was collectively knocked out. Phil then walked up and replaced Galway at the podium, and said: “Gee, that was pretty good.”

They then proceeded to take turns, poem by poem, reading each other’s work. I remember how well the two voices complimented each other’s work, Phil adding some lyric subtlety to his reading of Galway’s “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of the Christ into the New World,” and Galway delivering the grit and grace behind Phil’s poems.

Grit and grace are two solid words to remember Galway Kinnell by, words exemplified in the meditation in the poem below.

* el maestro *
* el maestro *

The Man Splitting Wood in the Daybreak – Galway Kinnell

The man splitting wood in the daybreak
looks strong, as though, if one weakened,
one could turn to him and he would help.
Gus Newland was strong. When he split wood
he struck hard, flashing the bright steel
through the air so hard the hard maple
leapt apart, as it’s feared marriages will do
in countries reluctant to permit divorce,
and even willow, which, though stacked
to dry a full year, on being split
actually weeps—totem wood, therefore,
to the married-until-death—sunders
with many little lip-wetting gasp-noises.
But Gus is dead. We could turn to our fathers,
but they help us only by the unperplexed
looking-back of the numerals cut into headstones.
Or to our mothers, whose love, so devastated,
can’t, even in spring, break through the hard earth.
Our spouses weaken at the same rate we do.
We have to hold our children up to lean on them.
Everyone who could help goes or hasn’t arrived.
What about the man splitting wood in the daybreak,
who looked strong? That was years ago. That was me.

***

Happy stronging!

Jose

* some news & milosz

First off, I want to announce the release of the latest issue of Foothill, which includes my poem “The Accordion Heart” here. Check out the rest of the great work in this issue here.

Next, I’d like to share the news that my poem “Don’t Look Now I Might Be Mexican” has placed 3rd in Blue Mesa Review’s 2014 Poetry Contest, judged by Carmen Gimenez Smith.

To celebrate, I went out and bought this guy:

* calavera, yo *
* calavera, yo *

As Dia de los Muertos comes around again (next week), I find myself aware of the honoring one does on a daily basis, whether directly or indirectly, of those who have passed. Even in the words one writes, the dead mix with the living and make up a whole other life. This week’s poem by Czeslaw Milosz lives in that in between space.

Secretaries – Czeslaw Milosz

I am no more than a secretary of the invisible thing
that is dictated to me and a few others.
Secretaries, mutually unknown, we walk the earth
without much comprehension. Beginning a phrase in the middle
or ending it with a comma. And how it all looks when completed
is not up to us to inquire, we won’t read it anyway.

***

Happy secretaring!

Jose