Alebrijes step out from dried wood and stand in the shower of paint that falls from the brush’s tip. Yellow flash of lightning, pointillistic rain, garish colors that mirror those of the códices. The carvings take the form of fantasy figures, anthropomorphic animals, and mythological creatures. Sometimes one individual selects the wood, carves it, then covers it in paint. Occasionally an entire family takes part in the work of making the alebrije. One person collects the wood and prepares it for carving. Another carves and sands it. A third works on the undercoat, and a fourth applies the final patterns of paint. The great debate: does the form in the wood reveal itself to the carver or do the carvers impose their own visions on the wood? In the case of the team, do the family members debate and come to a joint conclusion? These thoughts, exchanged with wood-carvers in Oaxaca, have led to a series of interesting conversations. What exactly is creativity? Where does it come from? Do we, as artists, impose it upon our creations? Or do we merely observe and watch as new ideas float to the surface of our minds? How does the creative mind really function? And, by extension, how much of the sub-conscious creative sequence can be placed into words?
Are they half-grasped dreams that wake, wide eyed, to a new day’s sun?
Or are they alive and thriving when they fall from the tree?
Does the carver fish their color and shape from his own interior sea, or does he watch and wait for the spirit to emerge from its wooden cocoon to be reborn in a fiery block of color?
Daybreak: in a secluded corner of my waking mind, my neighbor’s dog greets the dawn with sparks of bright colors born from his bark.
My waking dream: dark angels with butterfly bodies, their inverted wings spread over my head to keep me warm. In the town square, the local artist plucks dreams from my head and paints them on carved wood.
“Rain, we need rain.” The bruja whirls her rain stick. Rain drops patter one by one, then fall faster and faster until her bamboo sky fills with the sound of rushing water.
An autumnal whirl of sun-dried cactus beats against its wooden prison walls. Heavenwards, zopilotes float beneath gathering clouds. Rain falls in a wisdom of pearls cast now before us.
Scales fall from my eyes. They land on the marimbas, dry beneath bar arches where wild music sounds, half-tame rhythms, sympathetic music like this rainstorm released by the bruja‘s magic hand.
Comment:Bruja: witch, witch doctor; Oro de Oaxaca: mescal, the good stuff; Zopilote: Trickster, the turkey vulture who steals fire from the gods, omnipresent in Oaxaca; Marimbas: a tuned set of bamboo instruments. But you knew all that!
I saw my father yesterday evening. I walked through the zócalo, opened the main cathedral doors and walked in. The doors closed behind me. I looked towards the main altar and there my father stood, motionless. The evening light shone through the engraved glass panels and illuminated him as if he were some long passed saint come back to visit me. We stared at each other, but I couldn’t open my mouth to speak. The hairs on my neck stood on end and my hands shook. When I forced my mouth open, words stuck in my throat. He wore his best grey suit over a light blue shirt and a dark blue, hand woven tie: the outfit in which I had buried him.
Three old women, dressed in black, broke the spell. One stood in front of me and wouldn’t let me approach my father. She held a large bag of knitting in her hands and the wool spilled everywhere as she pushed me away. The second threatened me with a pair of scissors that she held in her left hand and thrust towards my face. The third smacked a tailor’s measuring rod against my father’s head. He nodded, smiled sadly, and they all turned their backs on me and hurried away out of the cathedral and into the square.
Just for a moment, I stood there in silence. Then I pulled the doors open and ran in pursuit of my father. The setting sun filled the square with shadows that whispered and moved this way and that, as if a whole village had come down from the hills to walk beneath the trees and dance in the rays of the dying sun. I stood on the cathedral steps and called out my father’s name, but I could see no sign of him among the cut and thrust of the shadowy crowd.
I ran out into that crowd and pushed at insubstantial people who stood firm one moment and then melted away the next like clouds or thick mist. I came to a side street and saw real people, flesh and blood beings, a group of villagers gathered behind their band. I stopped and as I did the village elder put a live match to the taper of the rocket that he clutched between his thumb and forefinger. The taper caught on fire and the rocket soared upwards with a searing whoosh. The village band marched forward and started to play a traditional dance as the rocket clawed its way into the sky to explode with a loud knock on the door of the gods.
Tired of grasping at shadows and afraid of this living phalanx of men that marched towards me I went back to the cathedral and knelt at the altar of La Virgen de la Soledad, the patron saint of Oaxaca. Real wax candles stood before her altar, not tiny electric lights, and I inserted five pesos in the slot, took a taper, and lit a fresh candle from an ageing one that had started to sputter. I knelt and, for the first time in years, I prayed. I prayed for the soul I had saved from extinction by lighting my candle from another’s flame. I prayed for my father and my mother and, above all, I prayed for myself.
On the way home to my second-floor apartment where I live alone, I bought two litres of mescal, one to send me to sleep, and the other so I would survive the next morning.
Comment: A Golden Oldie that I had forgotten about. I found it among the drafts of earlier work. Monte Alban is also known as Dani Ba in the indigenous language of the region. Click on the link for more on Monte Alban. And click on this link for another piece on my father and Oaxaca. It’s a funny thing about Golden Oldies: sometimes they stick with us and are ‘unforgettable’, but sometimes they were better off left in the pile that gathers dust, like a forgotten book on a forgotten shelf. Speaking of which, have I told you about the time when …
A once-upon-a-time god struts past the table where I drowse. Once I stole his nose, breaking it from a sacred statue. Now I watch it cross the square: a proud beak nailed to a face.
Casting shadows on the cobbles, zopilote flies over the square. I caught him once, dozing on a local bus filled with love-birds: he begged me to fold his wings and let him sleep forever.
The balloon lady sits in the square selling tins of liquid soap. Released from school, the children charm my days blowing colored bubbles that seek freedom in the skies.
Eight Deer, eight years old, sets out on his conquests. Nine Wind gives birth to his people, releasing them from their underworld prison by carving a door in a tree .
Faces crowd the trees above me, as long-dead friends come back to life, chattering like sparrows in the branches. Roosting time and their voices slip slowly into silence.
Sometimes, at midnight, they scratch at the window in my head and tumble through my half-awake mind. They need me, these dreams, for I bring them to life. Without me, the dreamer, they would surely fade and die.
worshipping Gaia before the great altar Santo Domingo
if the goddess is not carried in your heart like a warm loaf in a shopping bag you will never discover her hiding place
she does not sip ambrosia from these golden flowers nor does she mount this vine to her heavenly throne nor does she sit on this ceiling frowning down
in spite of the sunshine trapped in all this gold the church is cold and overwhelming tourists come with cameras not the faithful with their prayers
my only warmth and comfort not in this god who bids the lily gilded but in that quieter voice which speaks within me
and brings me light amidst all this darkness and brings me poverty amidst all this wealth
Comment: I was surprised to find this article on my poem Gaia while doing an online search for something else last night. It is an interesting interpretation of the poem. I would like to thank the writers and editors who put it together for their careful work and attention to detail. Sun and Moon is available on Amazon.
There are striations in my heart, so deep, a lizard could lie there, unseen, and wait for tomorrow’s sun. Timeless, the worm at the apple’s core waiting for its world to end. Seculae seculorum: the centuries rushing headlong. Matins: wide-eyed this owl hooting in the face of day. Somewhere, I remember a table spread for two. Breakfast. An open door. “Where are you going, dear?” Something bright has fled the world. The sun unfurls shadows. The blood whirls stars around the body. “It has gone.” she said. “The magic. I no longer tremble at your touch.” The silver birch wades at dawn’s bright edge. Somewhere, tight lips, a blaze of anger, a challenge spat in the wind’s taut face. High-pitched the rabbit’s grief in its silver snare. The midnight moon deep in a trance. If only I could kick away this death’s head, this sow’s bladder, this full moon drifting high in a cloudless sky.
Comment: This is the prose version, from Fundy Lines (2002). The prose version was based on an extract from a longer poem that first appeared in Though Lovers Be Lost (2000).Though Lovers Be Lost is also available on Amazon and Kindle.