Rudy Anaya’s new poetry collection, Poems from the Rio Grande, shares the language, imagery and landscape of his classic coming-of-age novel Bless Me Ultima and his more recent novels Randy Lopez Goes Home and The Old Man’s Love Story. This most recent work is an inspiring homage to New Mexico’s rich Hispanic heritage, its myths, legends and most of all, the vitality, perseverance and humanity of its people.
The poems are fresh, engaging, thought-inspiring and lyrical. They echo themes found in the more than thirty previous works which include novels, a short story collection, plays, essays and a slew of children’s books. In this first major venture into poetry, Anaya once again reveals himself to be a master wordsmith, equally adept at verse as he is at narrative prose.
The poems “A Child’s Christmas in New Mexico,” and “Song to the Rio Grande,” resurrect the llano world of young Antonio Marez, protagonist of Bless Me Ultima, as well as many of the stories to be found in The Man Who Could Fly. A passage from“Song of the Rio Grande” illustrates this.
“You are the road
our fathers followed
to an enchanted land
to plant our roots.
Villages of adobe,
cities so beautiful.
In “The Adventures of Juan Chicaspatas” we are taken on a rambling journey with Juan Chicaspatas and Al Penco, both emblematic of the Chicano experience, as they search history and the present for the true meaning Aztlán, of the Chicano ancestral homeland. On their sojourn, they encounter iconic personages from the Chicano/Mexicano past–la Malinche, Moctesuma, Coatlicue. Their quest echos the issues of identity and empowerment to be found in Anaya’s novels, Heart of Aztlán and Alburquerque, such as in this passage.
“To my jefita I sing
and praise her every step,
her strength, her daily work,
her love, her sacrifice,
so that I, Juan Chicaspatas,
a Chicano homeboy,
can grow into the future.”
This poem accomplishes what was only hinted at in Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez’s classic epic poem, “I Am Joaquin,” – encapsulating the history of Mexican Americans within the context of contemporary struggle fueled by the power of enduring myths, legends and gods. As Anaya puts it:
History has turned and twisted,
and a new time is being born.
Now is the time for the Gods
To return to Aztlán!”
Anaya’s writings in his later years deal with themes of love, loss and death as seen in the novels Randy Lopez Goes Home and The Old Man’s Love Story. These same themes are reiterated in the poem “Forgetting,” Anaya’s reflections on growing old and “Barecelona” recalling an unforgettable trip to Spain with his late wife, Patricia. But perhaps it is in the challenging poem, “Isis in the Heart: A Love Poem for Patricia,” that we find Anaya at his best– structurally complex, lyrical, symbolic, and filled with heartfelt passion that only a lifetime of memories can evoke.
Isis, the Egyptian goddess, was revered as the ideal mother and wife, and is for Anaya, a curandera (healer) par excellence. No accident, then, that Anaya chooses her as the shared memory and metaphor in the love poem to Patricia–in his life an ideal mother, wife and curandera. On a life-altering trip to Egypt, Anaya and Patricia discovered and fell in love with the Isis myth. Anaya became obsessed with transporting the ancient Egyptian myth to contemporary New Mexico, an Egyptian curandera in the land of curanderas. In so doing he broadens the Chicano literary experience beyond the borders of Aztlán. As with all great literature, it takes the specific and elevates it to the universal. Chicanos and Egyptians may speak a different language, but we all have mothers, wives and curanderas that heal the afflicted. As Anaya puts it, “If I could bring [Walt] Whitman to New Mexico then I could also bring Isis and Osiris to the Rio Grande.”
This melancholic yet ultimately uplifting poem, set in three movements, follows Osiris, the brother and lover of Isis, to New Mexico where he, and later she, become metaphors of the ebb and flow of life’s cycles and the seasonal changes over an enchanted land. It is here that we find some of Anaya’s most beautiful lyricism.
He kisses her throat, and a spring of sweet water
Opens in the fissure of the lava rock.
He kisses her lips, and roses bloom on barren earth.
Some poetry critics may call Anaya’s poetic style overly narrative. And indeed the perennial cuentista, storyteller, can’t help but infuse his poetry with story. And what’s wrong with that? Anaya himself admits, “…my poems often lean toward narrative.” Yet, fellow poet Albert Ríos reminds us that “every word has a tremendous story behind it,” and that in writing poetry, “there is absolutely no one way to do it.” Readers looking for simple iambic pentameter or rhyming free verse, look elsewhere. This is poetry wrought by a master word craftsman at his prime.
What becomes clear as one reads this poetry is not just Anaya’s passion for the people and places he writes about, but his love for the transformative power of words. He tells us that in stories and poems, “one catches a glimpse of the Truth, and when the story ends, one returns fulfilled to one’s community.” Thankfully, Anaya is not yet done, either with his prose or poetic works. The last line in this the last poem reassures us.
there is always one more poem
to shape the future’s path.
Copyright 2015 by Jesús Salvador Treviño. Excerpts from Poems From the Rio Grande used by permission of the author. Alberto Riís quotations taken from the video “How to Write a Poem,” copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions and available under the Latinopia Word section of this website. Poems from the Rio Grande is available at Amazon.com or at your local indie bookstore.