Take a Poetry Pause
Listen to Pat read poems from Chants:
"For Georgia O'Keeffe."
Southwest Book Award, Border Regional Library Association, 1985
Harvey L. Johnson Book Award, Southwest Council of Latin American Studies, 1984
I hear Indian women
I see them long ago bribing
the desert with turquoise threads,
in the silent morning coolness,
kneeling, digging, burying
their offering in the Land
Guide my hands, Mother,
to weave singing birds
flowers rocking in the wind, to trap
them on my cloth with a web of thin threads.
Secretly I scratch a hole in the desert
by my home. I bury a ballpoint pen
and lined yellow paper. Like the Indians
I ask the Land to smile on me, to croon
softly, to help me catch her music with words.
El Paso, the pass to the north, lies between vast stretches of desert. This is a geographic accident. Yet like everywhere, people live, love, marry, grow old and die. They also rejoice and despair. These poems relate all these experiences--but in the magical presence, the teluric force, of the desert. Two women poets sing here, one in the guise of the desert, the other in the figure of Pat Mora. Together they intone Chants.
Pat says: I’m a writer because I’ve always been a reader. In the early seventies, when my three children were young, knowing nothing about publishing, I decided to submit some manuscripts. I became discouraged at the speedy rejections by children’s book presses and magazines and stopped writing, though I continued reading. In the early eighties, I began to devote what time I could to writing poetry for adults. I was then Assistant to the Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Texas at El Paso. At night, I helped my three children with homework and devoted the time I could to writing. Arte Público Press at the University of Houston included some of my poems in its publications. I still remember how I felt when, sitting at my desk at UTEP, I received a call one morning from Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, publisher of AP Press, offering to publish my first book of poetry. I’ll always be grateful to Dr. Kanellos for his act of faith. In 1984, CHANTS, my first book, was published by Arte Público Press.
"The desert's beauty is perceived in the subtle gradations of color and texture, in stark contrasts between light and darkness. It speaks as a magical force, as a lonely woman and, for our patience, offers flowers. Like the desert, Pat Mora speaks with muted tones, weaves incantations; she invests her poetic space with magical figures, yet from her loneliness come as well fear, resentment and despair. But she learns the peaceful solitude of the desert. From their dialogue, words become blossoms, fragile in desert rhythms."—Julián Olivares, Editor, Revista Chicano-Riqueña
"Her poems are beautiful flowers on a painted landscape...chants that hold the reader mesmerized...her poems have a similar style to the similar structure of Willam Carlos Williams and the graceful beauty of Elizabeth Bishop." —Rafael C. Castillo, Nuestro
"Healers, those who restore by bringing together what seems to be separate, often suffer but possess great ‘magic’, and Mora’s is a healing voice."—Contact II
"This collection is rich, spirited and promising, and it makes me want to read more of her work."— A Feminist Review
"...one of Mora’s strengths is her accessibility. She adeptly uses universal themes such as family, love and nostalgia to invite readers in. She’s equally skilled at seducing us with evocative language, as in “Mielvirgen”: ‘In the slow afternoon heat she sits/ … her eyes closed, her tongue sliding/ on her lip, remembering, remembering.’Chants is more than 25 years old, but today’s border and immigration debates make it more relevant than ever because it humanizes those living along the border, one of the most misunderstood parts of our country."—Beatriz Terrazas The Texas Observer, 3/25/11 Read the full review
In 1984, I picked up Pat Mora’s Chants, a collection of poems about the border, and experienced the jolt that comes with reading about yourself. Mora, a native El Pasoan, had an intimate knowledge of the cultures, languages and social mores that make up border life. The book’s resonance for me, as a first-generation American, lay in her exploration of Old World meets New World. Sometimes the meeting births new ways and traditions, but often it’s a clash in which history, identity and relationships are at stake.
Perhaps the most moving example of this clash is the poem “Elena,” about an immigrant mother.“They speak English. At night they sit around/ the kitchen table, laugh with one another./ I stand by the stove and feel dumb, alone./ … Sometimes I take/ my English book and lock myself in the bathroom,/ say the thick words softly,/ for if I stop trying, I will be deaf/ when my children need my help.”
Other poems celebrate our adaptation of tradition. In “Love Ritual,” a spurned woman borrows from Mexico’s Day of the Dead to lure back a lover:“Outside my door I’ll sprinkle yellow/flower petals. Carefully I’ll place/ my picture, the poem I wrote you,/ a sketch of two lovers removing/ each other’s clothes. I’ll light/ green votives, and you’ll be pulled/ back too. And maybe stay.”
This book is no more lost than many other poetry collections. The form’s compression and metaphors will put off some readers. The genre demands that we read with our eyes and listen with our heart. Too often, we lack such patience. But one of Mora’s strengths is her accessibility. She adeptly uses universal themes such as family, love and nostalgia to invite readers in. She’s equally skilled at seducing us with evocative language, as in “Mielvirgen”: “In the slow afternoon heat she sits/ … her eyes closed, her tongue sliding/ on her lips, remembering, remembering.”
Chants is more than 25 years old, but today’s border and immigration debates make it more relevant than ever because it humanizes those living along the border, one of the most misunderstood parts of our country.