Tuesday, May 10, 2005

I was so moved by this article at the New York Times today: The Poetic Hearts of Mayan Women Writ Large. Ambar Past--a wonderful name, yes?!--a Mexican poet born in America, has been soaking in the poetry of Mayan women in Chiapas for the last 30 years.

Ms. Past, 55, came to Chiapas in 1973 as a self-described hippie and renegade housewife, escaping an unhappy marriage. She stayed with some Mayan women and taught herself Tzotzil, one of the local Mayan languages.

As she listened to the women, Ms. Past said she realized that they sometimes spoke in poetry, in couplets and in gleaming metaphors.

"I was so deeply moved hearing in these mud huts these breathtakingly beautiful verses, sometimes echoing verses and phrases spoken or written 500 years ago," she said. Some words resembled ones in the Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation story.

"They live with no comfort," Ms. Past said during a visit to New York in April. "Yet poetry is an essential part of their daily life."
Past and a collective of Mayan women have crafted a limited edition book titled "Incantations"--the first collection of Mayan women's poetry. It is transcribed from hundreds of hours of tape recordings, translated into English and Spanish, and printed and handbound on handmade and recycled paper, scattered with silkscreened illustrations. The Times calls the books "weirdly beautiful." The first numbered 200 copies will sell for $200; the rest of the print run will cost $100. I may have to start saving for a copy--they sound amazing.

Past first became aware of the women's poetry when she was at a funeral for a child.

The mother offered her dead child a last sip of Coca-Cola and uttered a prayer, which Ms. Past still remembers:

Take this sweet dew from the earth,
Take this honey.
It will help you on your way.
It will give you strength on your path.
Reading this reminds me of the power of poetry. Sometimes in our deepest grief, poetry is the only thing we can turn to. The Mayan women's poems are full of grief and anger. Joy, too. I am grateful to Ambar Past for collecting these voices and sharing them with the world.

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