Mini-Mums

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Permit me to introduce you to my two Mexican mini-mums, in the market square in Oaxaca, with their mini-mums. They sell them at minimum price, a giveaway for tourists who arrive with the all-powerful dollar and yell and holler about how this year’s prices are so much higher than last year’s prices. The flower girls giggle and smile. They have heard it all before. They know where each of the prospective purchasers comes from. They now how they walk, talk, slur their words, cajole, bully, and offer absurd amounts of money, either much too much or much too little. Those tourists: they seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Meanwhile, in spit of appearances to the contrary, the cakes are on sale and the flowers are on sale, but the flower girls, Mano y Petate, and no, those are not their names, those things are definitely not for sale.  “Everything,” the tourists say, “has its price.” True, perhaps, in some circumstances. But people are not things and it’s brutally cruel to put a price on people. Occasionally, a tourist will recognize these girls. They are the ones who decorate the altar in the main cathedral in the square. They have also been known to sing, in Spanish, Latin, and Mixtec, along with their mother, before the high altar in Santo Domingo. Santo Domingo, the church with more than six tons of gold and gold leaf layered throughout its magnificence, a true treasure of humanity and an internationally protected building. Once, though, a long time ago, God’s Dogs, as the Dominicans were then called, ran baying through the Valley of Oaxaca, gathering workers with promises of heaven and visions of paradise. The work, they said, was the Lord’s and the Lord wanted them, the people of the Valley of Oaxaca, to build this temple in his name. And here they would stay, under lock and key, until the Lord’s work was done. El Cristo de la Columna: Christ tied to the pillar, stripped to the waist, and flogged. This symbol stands in every church in Oaxaca, and all the People of the Valley of Oaxaca knows exactly what it means, fr it is the punishment meted out to those very people if they do not work hard enough, long enough, fast enough, at their vision of heaven, their taste of paradise, this building of the Church of a Lord who is not even theirs. The tourists marvel at the church, the gold, the paintings, the statues. They praise the mother and her children singing at the high altar: “what beautiful children, what beautiful voices.” But they know nothing about the blood, and the sweat, and the tears that went into the temple’s building.

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Xmas Baby

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Xmas Baby

Plural, it should be plural really, Christmas Babies. In Oaxaca, Mexico, the cribs lie empty, awaiting the miracle of the Christmas birth. All the cribs, everywhere, in the main square, in the cathedral, in the shop windows, in the schools, in the houses, the homes, the hallways, the bed-rooms. How can the baby be lying in the crib throughout December, when he isn’t born until midnight on the 24th? All those empty cribs, all those foster mothers and fathers, in waiting, so to speak.

Joyous times, full of expectation. The piñatas swinging from the flat roofs of the azoteas, and the puppet masters pulling the strings as the young children, blind-folded, take turns swinging with stick or baseball bat, trying their best to break the papier-mâché and release the Christmas goodies from their shattered container. There are many kinds of birth, and re-birth. Such joyous expectations. So many ups and downs as the clubs are swung and the piñatas are raised and lowered. Then, the lucky strike, and the silver-paper-wrapped treasure trove falls to the ground and the children dive in and collect their long-awaited goodies. Such joy. Such merriment. Such great expectations, and so seldom deceived.

Meanwhile, in the zócalo, the central square, the balloon lady sits in her  castle surrounded by the technicolor splendor of her plastic walls waiting for the children who will arrive, coins in hand, to purchase her wares and take them on their wind-walk through the square. How wonderful to see them, aerial dogs sky-walking with proud owners tethered to the ground below. How sad to see the child’s face as the occasional balloon seeks freedom in the blue sky above the cathedral towers. What pleasure to see the joy restored as another balloon replaces that first one.

Last night, they set fire to the castillos and waves of firework and flame flooded down church walls as rockets climbed to the sky to knock on heaven’s door and demand that the gods wake up and not forget their people rejoicing here in the streets below. Yes, the gods, for Oaxaca is still a pagan land where the old gods roam and devil and angels mingle on the cathedral steps with the witch doctor who lights his fire, burns his copal, and worships the old gods in the good old ways that never perished, in spite of the attention paid to them by the priests of the Spanish Inquisition. They hang on, the old gods, the old customs, the old Mixtec calendars, in barber shops and craft stores and you can purchase them in the market place or in the secret stores where mescal is brewed in the centuries’ old way and the yellow worms wiggle and glisten as they sink to the bottom of the bottle where they lie in wait to sink their hallucogenic teeth into the minds of  unsuspecting tourists.

Today, however, is Christmas Day. The baby is born. The cribs are filled with his little image. Some shops have a live child, with his mother and father standing there, waving, showing their baby off to the worshiping crowd who cluster, mouths open, at the window. Marimbas play. Village bands march. The State Orchestra warms up. What joy in the land, this Christmas morning as, back home in Merrie Olde England, all the bells are ringing and across the frosty meadows, carillon carols ring out loud and clear.

Guelaguetza

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Guelaguetza
Oaxaca, Mexico

Brass bands, marimbas, violin strings
stretched over turtle shell, conch,
mad march of goat-skinned men,
fierce-gazed, horned and ready,
mirror dance, sun sparking
flint flakes from glass buttons
highlighting feathered flounces
lifting to fancy’s flights …

… beggars hold out chronic hands,
snotty-nosed children baited to hook
your heart from your body,
your money from your purse,
pleading lips, desperate brown eyes
primed to conquer the conquistadors
that still stalk, haughty, the square
where tiny women dance
with angels and devils …

… a backstreet now, an alley,
three men in masks,
one with a gun,
two with knives,
probing for the tourist’s
wallet …

Thursday Thoughts: Downsizing

 

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Thursday Thoughts
05 April 2018
Downsizing

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax,
of cabbages and kings,
and if the sea is boiling hot,
and whether books have wings.”

Downsizing: such a sad time. Over the last few weeks we have slowly and steadily packed seventeen boxes with a part of our precious book collection. We are giving it to the Harriet Irving Library at the University of New Brunswick, our local provincial university. The collection contains several specialist areas including Mexico, the State of Oaxaca, and five pre-Columbian Mixtec codices, the 1492-1992, quincentennial facsimile editions. Today the Mexico collection, minus the codices (which we will deliver later, by hand), departed.

Their departure has left an emptiness on our shelves and a sadness in our hearts. Old friends, they are. We sought for them in Oaxaca, chasing through old books stores, market places, state institutions, and the houses of friends. The result: a steady accumulation of literary gems. Clare, in particular, took a delight in the codices, learning first to read them, then to analyze them. Much of the Mexican collection centres on how to interpret these precious documents, one of which still bears the burn marks where a wise priest drew the manuscript codex from the Inquisitional flames and saved it for posterity.

When the Mexican collection settled down in the boxes, a little space remained and we filled one box with the first set of books from our Quevedo collection. This was La Perinola, the Revista de Investigación Quevediana. I lay awake most of the night agonizing on whether or not I should let this review series go. Then, at 4:00 am, I got up, put on my dressing gown, went downstairs and photographed the Perinola, in all its glory. When this was done. I returned to bed and was finally able to fall asleep.

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The Perinola meant (and still means) so much to me. I still remember the thrill of being asked to sit upon the consejo honorífico, the only Canadian scholar, and one of only two Anglophones to be so honoured, my external reader being the other. To read my name next to that of the external examiner for my doctoral thesis on the love-poetry of Francisco de Quevedo (University of Toronto, 1975) was, and still is, an extraordinary honour. I still get butterflies when I see my name attached to this review. The butterflies settled, bit by bit, as I realized that I could preserve my personal memories with a photo while donating the series to the greater glory of Quevedo Studies in the wider world of Hispanic Academia.

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Friday Fiction: Gringos

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Friday Fiction
23 March 2018
Gringos

            By day, I sit in the shade beneath the grapefruit tree and watch as the sun turns each globe of fruit into a shiny planet. The hummingbirds visit me. They whir their wings, bow their heads, and pay homage with their ruby throats.

            On warm days, the sun decks me out in a shining cloak of sumptuous colors, red, blue, yellow, green. When it rains, my captors quickly confine me in a small dark place: no moon, no stars, no worshipers, no forest canopy, no grapefruit planetarium to shape my dreams. Just night and silence. I tuck myself in and hope for the occasional dream to reach out its hand and extract me from my cell.

            Fine weather today. I sit beneath the grapefruit tree and the gringos buzz around me. They push grapes, raisins, bananas, crusts, cigarette butts through the bars of my cage. I scorn them. Gringos, I cry with contempt. Gringos. They clap their hands. Bray with laughter. Sway from side to side splitting their sun-red faces with gold-capped teeth. I eat very little of what they offer. An occasional grape. A chunk of banana. I never take food from their fingers: the temptation to bite the hand that feeds is far too great.

            I am learning their language. The compound guards who allow the gringos in and out of the gates that lead to the outside world teach me gringo words. I can now say gringos go home and this makes for much merriment. The gringos slap their sides and double over with strange cackled cries of laughter. Sometimes tears come to their eyes.

            I drowse in the sun and recall my childhood on the building site. The workers took me from my forest home, placed a chain on my leg, and tethered me to the broken branch of a leafless tree. At first, I couldn’t understand their speech, but they persisted and bit by bit, I picked up their words. When I repeated them, they laughed. Now, I rarely use them and when I do, the compound guards throw a blanket over my head and carry me back to jail.

            I am very careful with what I say. Gringos go home. That is fine. But I rarely say what I really want to say. I want to tell the world how much I love the sunlight as it pierces the leaves and filters down to me, sparking fragmented colors from my frame. My greatest desire is to move in a cloud of many colors, all my family together. I love being part of the crowd-cloud, a voice among voices, all of us in counterpoint and tune. Instead, I sit here, isolated, alone, pining for my brothers and sisters.

            Gringos, I want to say, gringos, let me go home.

          Today, a great event. One of the gringos has picked up my prison and moved it from under the shade of the grapefruit tree to a new spot beneath the balcony. I now sit directly beneath the geraniums. The gringa who lives long-term on the second-floor waters her flowers regularly.

            The gringa grows old and forgetful. She knows she must not water her plants during the day, especially when I am around, but today she is out in the sunshine, forgetful, without her hat, dressed in her dressing-gown and grizzled slippers, with her hair in steel curlers, and a watering can in her hand. Water. It is the symbol of my baptism. It is the element that will release me from my bondage. Water will quench my thirst and free my soul.

            I hear the water, the blessed water, falling on the flowers. I hear the water filtering down through the flower pots. I feel the water bouncing off the geranium leaves threading its way down to settle on my back. My mind returns to the building site of my youth.

            I remember my childhood friends. Their faces flood back and grow like flowers as the waters flow and I remember every word those old friends said as they ran from the building site to take shelter from the rain that stole their money, stole their livelihoods, and stopped them from working.

            Fucking rain, I screech, as the water hits me. Fuck this fucking rain. Fuck this mother-fucking rain.

            I hear the sound of running feet followed by voices.

            “Gertrude’s watered the parrot as well as the geraniums. He thinks it’s raining.”

            “ Quick, fetch his bloody blanket. Shut up, you foul-mouthed parrot.”

        Alas, my moment in the spotlight is over. The play is done. The curtain falls. Darkness descends. I tuck my head beneath my wing and before I fall asleep, I squawk one last feather-filled word:

Featherless-muffer-fuckers.

Gazunda

Gazunda

Gazunda
for John Sutherland

John and I were talking about the rare Gazunda tree the other afternoon. I had forgotten that I had indeed written abut the Gazunda trees that flourish in the zócalo in Oaxaca, Mexico. Oaxaca is a magic place, full of mystery and myth and the myth of the Gazunda tree is not well known outside the confines of the city. I was so pleased to discover this account, written many years ago, when I first became associated with the Escuela de Idiomas attached to the Unversidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca (UABJO).

Much remains to be written about my experiences in Oaxaca and I hope to have a collection of prose poems completed fairly soon. They are golden oldies, but like many golden oldies, they are also golden goodies. The Gazunda trees are very welcome when it rains, but they should be avoided, for obvious reasons, during thunder and lightning storms. Then, nobody Gazunda them. By the way, if you do visit the zócalo in Oaxaca, or anywhere else in Mexico, after heavy (or light) rain, be sure to test the seat of your chair before you sit in it. If you don’t, you will soon find out why all the waiters and waitresses have that open, friendly smile the tourists love so much.