11 February 2019

Travelers in the Desert


The last nights of the year,
            kind, departed spirits return
to Encantado as stars,
    meander
           down dark streets and hallways
                       peer into windows,
congregate around cribs
           again leave glowing glints
of themselves;
      intertwine with our dreams,
shine on bare boughs,
            pines, and cactus spines.

 - "Encantado" by Pat Mora, from Encantado: Desert Monologues, Tucson, University of Arizona  Press: 2018.

On paper one easily draws a line with a ruler and pencil." - Jose Salazar Ylarregui, 1851, on drafting a national boundary between the United States and Mexico

What seemed at a distance to be a featureless wasteland turns out to be a readable landscape to the people who are its familiars.  At night the sky is so dark that stars loom overhead like portents waiting to be read. Although the desert border is arbitrary and difficult to pin down on the ground, generations of border dwellers have regarded the inhospitable terrain as a barrier in itself.   A different kind of line was drawn in 2016 to designate Bears' Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, the cultural home and sacred landscape of  the Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo, and Ute peoples.

Encantado's obvious precursor is Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.  Published in 1915, it was a collective biography of an imaginary town modeled on Masters' home town in Illinois.  Pat Mora is a child of the southwestern desert, born in El Paso, Texas in 1942, whose parents had immigrated from northern Mexico.   Masters tells his tale through epitaphs given by the dead themselves in the local cemetery; Mora through the overlapping voices of a small town peopled by travelers in the desert.

Not surprisingly, Mora's people of the borderlands are a varied lot.  Some are outsiders like Tuan, a refugee artist from Saigon and Fumio, whose entire Japanese family was in interned in California in during World War II.  The lifers include Lydia, newly widowed, who encapsulates her bereavement: "I buy a potato, to practice cooking for one."  Or Jose, a sign painter childhood memories of blossoming:  "I learned English and how to sweep my school  When other children ran out laughing - I delivered newspapers, but a teacher gave me a pencil, a tablet."  And there is Raul, a retired lens grinder of eyeglasses although lacking in formal education, who muses deeply: "A big man always working, and then: nothing.  Bored, I started wandering away from my body."  Death does make an appearance in Encantado, personified as "Reluctant Death" who  whispers to the living when "it's time."  No voices from beyond the grave here
  
For further reading;
1. Encantado: Desert Monologues by Pat Mora, Tucson, University of Arizona Press: 2018.
2. Voices From Bears' Ears by Rebecca Robinson,  photography by Stephen Strom, Tucson, University of Arizona Press: 2018.

About the artist:
Ynez Johnston (b.1920) is an artist from California who has lived in Meixco and traveled to Italy on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952.   Her work combines narrative with abstraction and her own imaginary lands and creatures, human and otherwise.

Image:
Ynez Johnson - Travelers In the Desert, 1956, watercolor drawing, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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