Thursday, February 9, 2012

Reflections in a Smoking Mirror

                               Reflections in a Smoking Mirror

                                                         From the first
                                                             Moctezuma feared it
                                                         and took such precautions as he could

                                                               against the end
                                                           of his world

                                                                           Crazy Horse
                                                               they'd all die singing or fighting
                                                                    or ambushed
                                                                        in their sleep

                                                         Only the Peace Chiefs
                                                              among the Crow
                                                                  Cheyenne and Blackfoot decided to
                                                                            stand the slaughter

                                                                             in the belief
                                                                       that even the annihilation
                                                                  of their race
                                                           couldn't reduce the Great Spirit
                                                                    and might serve as a lesson
                                                                         for the minds
                                                                              of men

~ ~ Paul Pines

Paul Pines' newest book, Reflections in a Smoking Mirror: Poems of Mexico & Belize, arrived at a time when I was bombarded with work and so I put it aside to read when I got the chance.  Its true impact didn't manifest, however, until after I'd read the book in its entirety - and then gone back and read it again.

The power of words on a page, to tease or repel--or to invite to return for a deeper look.  The words drew me back, whispering there's more to this than one might imagine.

I'd only very recently discovered the work of Paul Pines and found that certain of his poems instantly resonated with me.  His latest publication, Reflections in a Smoking Mirror,  especially piqued my interest.

This book appealed to me on two levels:  one was its creative (almost experimental) format, i.e., you're reading a group of reflective poems about myth and conquest and journeys retraced; then  mid-book find yourself gently speed-bumped back in time.  The poet-voyager with whom you've been traveling recedes into the background and another, centuries' older voice emerges.  Presented with the translation of an ancient manuscript, you pause to examine its contents -- suddenly you're living a piece of history.  Then blip! - you're taken  back to the 21st century to rejoin the poet in Belize, with poems that accentuate the mesh of change and continuity.  New meanings emerge, the fog clears ...  you begin to really see.

 Its second appeal was the insight it imparted.  Merely stating that the book proved "insightful" doesn't do justice to the unexpected expansion of consciousness that results from reflecting on these parallel journeys--the poet's as narrator/ one's own as reader, "mirroring".  The poems themselves become the vehicle that awakens (or enlarges) this consciousness.  Granted, I'm relating a very personal, subjective response here, but I am not alone in noting that this book contains more than just--as its title suggests--a compilation of poetry and reflections.

The story of how this book came about is itself quite interesting.   Imagine you're wandering by a bookstall in Mexico City in 1962 and happen upon a copy of an account by a sixteenth-century cacique (provincial governor) whose  name translated into English sounds like your own - and five years later you inadvertently find yourself in what's left of his "once proud city, now just a few huts, reading his words" and that because of these seeming coincidences you embark on a decades' long journey that will open worlds of perception you never thought possible.

As the book opens, we find Pines at the Restaurant Villa Hermosa as he orders scrambled eggs, fried tortillas and Nescafé.  He observes "La Duena/ a beauty gone to seed".  She "sits by the register in a blue dress/ features flickering/ with the memory/ of loveliness/ as she pins back her hair":
                            she knows that feelings become extinct
                            when we cease to use them,

                            how we change as creatures
                            once they are gone.

In Section One, Pines reflects on the Configurations of Conquest.  I especially liked the poem,
entitled  "Timepiece" :

Gucumatz, the Quiché Maya serpent god. 

                          What the Maya knew
                          was that every twenty years
                                               their calendars
                                               failed to mesh

                          as if the sun and moon
                          were gears disengaged
                                              on the cusp
                                              of life and death

                          where even the gods
                          fear a force beyond which
                          there is no force

                                             a vector
                                             nothing accounts for . . .

Lady Xoc.  Photo by  Dayna Bateman
                          what else can explain
                          the concept of zero

                                             in a jungle
                                             where orchids spill
                                             in flaming abundance
                                             from giant mahogany

                         as if to say

                        we cannot speak
                        of absence

In Section Two:  "Synchronicity,"  Pines lets the ancestors themselves speak.  It is only at the end of his journey, he writes in the preface, that their voices have reached him "in ways that have not always been apparent, except for the blood-smoke on these pages."

Through Pines' translation we get to meet his alter-ego, Nakuk Pech (baptismal name, "Pablo") , descendant of the first Conquistadors of Maxtunil, as Pech relates how they--he and his father--joined forces with the Spanish conquerors. A conquest by conversion, in Pablo's case; he watches the power of power, to subjugate, render powerless.

We went drunk on 'pinole' because everything seemed bitter and they ordered us about like masters of the earth.  For six months they rode and we followed on foot.  Many witnessed these events.  I am writing down for my children and those to come until death takes this land for its own.  Until then ...  I do not pay tribute--nor will my sons and daughters. 

Pech records the events as they happened.  "I place them here like heart beats,"   he says.

Just as Pablo Pech invites readers centuries later to understand what it was like to share his particular experience, so his contemporary alter-ego, author/poet Paul Pines, invites readers to join his journey of discovery and share his reflections connecting the past and the present, what has been preserved and what forgotten.

In the third and final section of the book, we are back in the 21st century again, this time in Belize, continuing our voyage along with Pines, in a  mirror travel where "half-way down the coast/ the Coxscomb Mts bleed into the sea".
                                                                  I know the integuments
                                                                  of the soul are spun
                                                                  from images the eye
                                                                  records and nourishes
                                                                  to weave us back
                                                                  into the world ...

[Excerpt from the poem "Coastwise on the Fury"]

The impact of the fading threads of memory in the face of change is keenly felt, by participants and observer alike, echoed here in the poem "Dangriga":
                                                    The Maya of Santa Rosa
                                                    Wear long faces
                                                    come to town
                                                    still suffering from
                                                    a shock
                                                                      only half

                                                   while Carib girls pace
                                                   the streets

                                                                     coal black
                                                                     in tight slacks
                                                                     hair in corn-rows

                                                  smile at me
                                                  by the River Front Hotel
                                                  where I wait for the truck
                                                  to Mango Creek,

                                                                     smile back
                                                                     and reconsider
                                                                     the conquest
                                                                     of the New World.

In sum, I found this book unexpectedly compelling, because it goes beyond consideration of what's remembered/what's lost -- it  gets you thinking about the depth of human resilience and spirit, and survival of myth in a  modern world "driven by time, instead of depth".  The author himself best describes, far better than I could, what readers slowly become aware of throughout:  images taking shape in the mind, "as in a polished obsidian mirror--smokey at first, then clear."  [p. 49].  A book worth reading - and then going back and reading again.

Reflections in a Smoking Mirror is available at Dos Madras Press.  To visit Paul Pines' website, click here.