The Texas Observer Book Review, 1/17/2003

Book Review: 1/17/2003


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The Eyes Have It

BY DAVE OLIPHANT

 
Eyes to See Otherwise
Selected Poems of Homero Aridjis
Edited by Betty Ferber and George McWhirter
New Directions
312 pages, $19.95.

n 1966 an anthology entitled New Poetry of Mexico appeared with an introduction by Octavio Paz, who would later win the Nobel Prize for his many philosophical writings, as well as his poetry. Among the poets included were Paz himself, José Emilio Pacheco, Efraín Huerta, and Jaime Sabines. But of all the poets in that seminal anthology, Homero Aridjis, who was born in 1940 in Contepec, Michoacán, has, over the past forty years or so, created a body of visionary poetry that distinguishes him not only from his Mexican counterparts but among contemporary poets worldwide. In some ways not even the poetry of Octavio Paz can compare with the production of Aridjis, whose dedication to a style and content that is peculiarly his own has resulted in an ever more engaging use of language and a greater deepening of insight into an imagery that has proved from the first his own special province.

The title of Homero Aridjis’ Selected Poems, Eyes to See Otherwise, edited by Betty Ferber (Aridjis’ wife) and George McWhirter (the latter having contributed most of the translations), is taken from a 1998 collection of the poet’s work. The title is quite appropriate, since the image of eyes dominates Aridjis’ poetry from at least his 1960 volume, The Eyes of a Double Vision. This single image is not simply repeated in the poet’s work over an almost forty-year period, it is central to his concerns and his means of experiencing life and expressing it in his poetry. One of the earliest pieces in the Selected Poems refers to a type of double, and relates to the title of the 1960 volume from which it is taken. The untitled piece begins: "I am what you are / see with your eyes," and it ends with the lines: "Your story the same as my own, / from childhood I feel through your spores / with my absent eyes."

Such an early poem may seem merely enigmatic, for the reference is vague, the "you" remaining unidentified in any specific way. But the "you" may be understood to refer to the poet’s other self, since it too is the subject of the final poem in the Selected Poems, entitled "Poems for the Double." In all but two of the ten sections of this more recent poem, the image of eyes is employed by the poet to develop his theme of the double or other self, as it emerges in various lines: "someone in the distance / looks at you through your eyes," "my tears do not stop falling / rolling down your cheeks," "I opened his eyes / saw / my living darkness," and finally, "when the double has vanished / at the end of the road / all the blackness is mine." The last of these telling lines are also the closing lines of Aridjis’ Selected Poems.

In the selections from fifteen of the poet’s published volumes, dating from 1960 to 2001, the image of eyes is to be found in four of the collection titles and in almost every poem in the fifteen books. A key title in this regard comes from 1975: Living to See, although here the word "eyes" does not appear in the poem itself, but everything in the poem is an observation of an actual person or thing, with the exception of a single simile: "tired men / like flat tires / at five in the afternoon." As Octavio Paz observes in his introduction to New Poetry of Mexico, nationality in poetry is difficult to discover, since poetry belongs more to international movements. Certainly Aridjis’ poetry is given principally to a type of personal fable, revolving as it does around rather intimate scenes that the poet depicts, which only on occasion happen to be recognizably Mexican. Poems on the Aztecs and Conquistadors, on Zapata, a view from Chapultepec in Mexico City or from Altamirano Hill in the poet’s native Contepec do appear in several of the volumes in the Selected Poems. But more often the poet is concerned with the act of seeing itself, as in these lines from another 1975 volume, entitled Burn the Boats: "today the light / that was always here / opens our eyes // now as then God / is in the following day"; "the child of men / like a star / speaks with his eyes / of infinite beings"; "And being of the substance of the mystery / our being opens its eyes / to see the sacred immensity."

None of the poems from which these lines are excerpted here is in reference to a specific scene, with the exception of one piece that mentions the stump of a linden tree where as a child the poet "used to speak with God." In this last poem, Aridjis refers to the rotted wood of his home, his then seemingly unaging parents, and as noted above, the stump of what was once a linden tree, but rather than simply being a bit of nostalgia for a lost childhood, the poem seems to make the point that the same light of those former days still holds out the promise that tomorrow God (meaning) will appear.

Aridjis’ search for God or meaning may be religious in nature or perhaps only a manner of speaking with respect to some higher truth. But in a poem entitled "The Light," the image of eyes and references to God come together as an offering of thanks for being able through light to see "the inexpressible materialized." At one point the poem reads: "Every word in the language is needed / to describe the light, says the poet, / but no word can portray / my feeling at seeing it shine in your eyes." Here the "your" apparently refers to "The One who gave us light and the eyes to see it." But later in the poem the poet specifically declares that "The light is God’s visible thought, / one of his secret names. . . ." As the poem develops from such statements and questions as "The light cannot be painted, the painter says, / scarcely glimpsed, / stammered at, perhaps," and "Who can give light a biographical past," the poet arrives at the declaration that

The light that takes a thousand years to arrive
lasts a moment in the eye.
. . .
This light happening now and yesterday happens
here and there. This light that falls on the foulest places
remains in the pupil unblemished.
. . .
We close our eyelids and continue seeing through its Eyes.

God and seeing also figure significantly in another longer poem, "Sepharad, 1492," a piece on the Jewish diaspora from Spain. Here the narrator speaks of the Jews whose "eyes fixed ahead turn back / with nothing to turn back to" and "the hard road of goodbye has begun, / you dwindle in the eyes of those, stopped / in the doorway of a house, receding/ . . . no exile is worse than the one within us." With this last assertion, the speaker alerts the reader to a moral dimension that is at times quite evident in the poetry of Aridjis. In the sixth section of this poem, the speaker warns:

Don’t puff up in the mirror of yourself,
many waxed ecstatic at shapes they saw
sleepy-eyed, only to raise an eyelid
and see an ass braying in their faces.
Ward off dreaming whilst still awake,
it leads only to shadows of what lives.
Beyond the kings and their provisions,
far from all inquisitors and their human
curse there is a kingdom of limitless love.

The speaker in the poem concludes the penultimate section with a final consolation: "Those who expelled you are mere reflections / in the mirror of That One who is no-place. Only That One, / who speaks not, exists. Only to him, The One I see not, do I look."

An even more moralistic view of the world is presented in such a poem as "Red Light District," in which the speaker follows one of the poet’s ubiquitous angels as it passes "alongside cars, double-parked, / oblivious to police and prostitutes." The angel is unable to conceive the meaning of what he sees, as the poet too obviously finds it difficult to understand mankind’s behavior:

The angel had never drunk liquor nor danced.
It believed the couples hugging in the hall
did it to fly together, or to be made into the one body.
One woman whose mouth had been split open,
it studied closely, and wondered if she could shape whole words.
It couldn’t take in why a little girl was naked in a room
or why the dusky one had had her hair done green
or why females’ legs and breasts had a price on them.
It only gauged the loneliness of the umbrella on the chair.

Aridjis consistently returns to the act of seeing as a means of making contact intellectually, emotionally, and morally with existence. But as with the image of puffing oneself up before the mirror of narcissism, the poet cautions against the tricks of the eye (as in "A White Body Out in the Desert"), which "will imagine anything, but / doubt its own shadow." Likewise, in one section of a long untitled poem, the poet attempts "a definition of the eye in Luis Buñuel," observing that "The ace of diamonds dazzles the dunces," whereas in the following section the poet again values the eye "by the distances / it covers outside it / and the light it’s capable of taking in." And in the section titled "Aphorisms for the eye," the poet instructs the reader: "Eyes that don’t blink, / put no trust in. // A landscape is the measure of an eye. / The eye is a measure of the sun. // Spend your life with your eyes / turned on."

In the 1998 collection, which is also entitled Eyes to See Otherwise, the poet sketches a series of self-portraits from his early life, and once again eyes are crucial, this time to the poet’s memories and his understanding of his formative years. In the poem entitled "Self-Portrait at Age Ten," the poet recalls himself "Standing, wan / and unsociable, atop a stone, / I follow my eyes down into the town. // There is my house. There / I am, pointing a shotgun / at the birds I love so much. // Suddenly, my belly is riddled. / I am the centre of all the beauty. / I’ve written my first poem."

It is clear that from the very beginning of his career, or even before he was aware that he would write poetry for the rest of his life, Homero Aridjis could make a connection between seeing and being, between sight and morality, between knowing the light, The One, and the self and living with the eyes "turned on" and recognizing one’s own blackness or shadow. From this rather simple, seemingly limited set of terms Aridjis has evolved a highly unified yet richly far-ranging body of poetry that is in no way provincially Mexican and yet owes to a grand tradition of Mexican poetry something of its staying power and its universal appeal.

Dave Oliphant is a poet and writer in Austin. His most recent book is The Early Swing Era, 1930 to 1941 (Greenwood Press).

 

Sidebar:

One long-ago Saturday in January, 10-year-old Homero Aridjis was playing in the countryside outside Contepec, Michoacán, when he decided to do a little bird hunting, as boys in the campo are apt to do. He picked up his shotgun, took aim, and suddenly had a change of heart. As he dropped the gun, it fired; Aridjis had accidentally shot—and nearly killed—himself. During his long convalescence, his faithful companions were the books his father brought him to read. That's when he discovered his true vocation: He would become a writer. Better yet, he discovered his two vacations—he would become a writer and an environmentalist, someone totally incapable of shooting another living creature.

More than 50 years later, Aridjis is the author of over two dozen books of poetry and prose, with four more in the works. He has served as Mexico's ambassador to Switzerland and the Netherlands, and since 1997 he has been president of PEN International, the worldwide organization of poets, writers, and translators. In 1985, he co-founded El Grupo de los Cien, a group of intellectuals concerned about air pollution in Mexico City. Today the Grupo is often referred to as El Grupo de los Dos—referring to Aridjis and Betty Ferber, a native New Yorker to whom he has been married for more than 35 years. Together they have fought the good fight on behalf of whales in Baja California, turtles in Oaxaca, and above all the increasingly endangered Monarch butterflies in his home state of Michoacán. Right now Aridjis is also preoccupied with two enormous projects on opposite sides of Mexico: a proposal to dam the Usumacinta River in southeastern Mexico, part of the Fox administration's ambitious Plan Puebla Panama, and a project to develop a series of ports and marinas that would further endanger the Sea of Cortes. Sometimes, he says, it is as if Mexico is being squeezed from both sides.

His role as a public persona has had a price: Shortly after assuming the presidency of PEN, he and his family were subject to a series of death threats. Was it because of his environmental activism? His comments about crime in Mexico City? Or simply because his high profile made him an attractive target for organized crime syndicates? He never found out. Instead, Aridjis was shadowed for a year by omnipresent bodyguards sent to protect the poet and his family by the Mexican government. During that time he completed La montaña de las mariposas, (Butterfly Mountain), a memoir of his childhood in Michoacán. For Aridjis, the Monarch is the symbol of life itself.

In the book, Aridjis tells the story of Nicias, a Greek forced to flee the Turks when the Ottoman Empire disbanded. Nicias was living in Belgium when he heard a group of Mexicans singing their country's praises. He became convinced that he should leave Europe and sail to Veracruz. His first day in Mexico City he met a woman from Michoacán; they fell in love, married, and moved to Contepec, where Nicias sold clothing, ran a movie theater called the Apollo, and gradually lost his ability to speak Greek. Along with stories of aunts and uncles, exile and loss, a boyhood brush with death, and an encounter with his first girlfriend, Aridjis includes a recollection of a long-ago conversation with a campesino who had singled him out because of his name.

"Homerito, I've read your book," the man shouts out at him.

"What book?" Aridjis asks.

"The Iliad, Homerito. They gave it to us to read in high school."

What a dummy, thinks the adolescent Homero: "He doesn't know that there are 3,000 years between that Homer and me."

"I liked your book a lot, Homerito. When are you going to write another one?"

"I'm working on it now," Homero tells him. "It's called The Odyssey."

And in a way, just like Nicias, that's exactly what he's done.

—Barbara Belejack

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