This book of poems and stark, vivid illustrations is rooted in the female soul of indigenous Mexico. The Tzotzil women of the Chiapas Highlands are the poets and the artists. Ambar Past, who collected the poems and drawings, includes a moving essay about their poetics, beliefs, and history.
In the 1970s, living among the Maya, Past watched the people endure as an epidemic swept through a village. No help came. Many children died. One mother offered her dead child a last sip of Coca-Cola and uttered a prayer:
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.
Incantations like this—poems about birth, love, hate, sex, despair, and death—coupled with black and white dream images, paintings which remind us of ancient rock paintings, provide a compelling insight into the psychology of these Mayan women poets. The Cinco Puntos edition of Incantations is a facsimile of the original handmade edition produced by the Taller Leñateros. The New York Times, recognizing the importance of Incantations as a work of language and as a work of art, published an extensive piece on the original Incantations and Ambar. Read The New York Times article on Incantations here.
At the age of twenty-three, Ambar Past left the United States for Mexico. She lived among the Mayan people, teaching the techniques of native dyes and learning to speak Tzotzil. She is the creator of the graphic arts collective Taller Leñateros in Chiapas and was a founding member of Sna Jolobil, a weaving cooperative for Mayan artisans.
Here is an excerpt from Incantations: TO THE WILDWOOD
Holy Woman in Flower:
Wildwood, Sacred Pine, Holy Oak:
I’m going to build my house.
I must chop you down
and raise you up as my house post
so I'll have a place to sleep.
I'm going to daub my walls with your body.
Don't scold me, don't be angry,
don't fly off the handle, get hot under the collar.
Let us be of one heart when you give yourself to me.
Sacred Mother, Holy Coffer Where the Secrets are Kept:
I’m going to stand on your face.
I’m going to walk on you, Holy Mother Breast.
I am so poor.
I need to plaster my house with your mud, your earth.
Give me your body to make my walls
to keep the rain out, the mist, the frost, Holy Mother.
Otherwise Mother Pukuj will eat me,
Woman of the Woods will frighten me,
Monster With its Feet on Backwards will come to visit,
along with Boogey Man With a Hat Like a Griddle,
Charcoal Cruncher, Meat Stripper,
and snake, jaguar,
owl, night humming bird, bat.
Holy Mother, Sacred Wildwood, I need your tree, your oak,
so I'll have a place to live where I'm not afraid.
Jerome Rothenberg, poet, author of Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin
There has to my mind never been a project quite like this: a collective body of poetry – and women’s poetry at that – coming directly out of an indigenous culture and gathered as a deliberate work of poetry and art by the women themselves. The poems, created and spoken in Mayan Tzotzil by individual poets, then translated by Ambar Past into faithful and readable Spanish and English versions, show how deeply rooted language traditions can transform into vehicles of personal as well as collective expression. Incantations represents a major contribution to poetry in general and to ethnopoetics in particular.
The New York Times
The Poetic Hearts of Mayan Women Writ Large
The Mayan women of the Chiapas highlands in southern Mexico are extremely poor, and many, especially the older women, are illiterate. The poorest own only a few blankets, articles of clothing and utensils. But what they do have is poetry, much to the surprise of Ámbar Past, an American-born Mexican poet who first encountered the Mayan women 30 years ago.
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.”
Now after 30 years’ work, 150 Mayan women from Taller Leñateros (Woodlanders’ Workshop), a paper- and book-making collective founded by Ms. Past in 1975 in the Chiapas city San Cristóbal de las Casas, have produced what may be the first book of Mayan women’s poetry created almost entirely by them, and translated into English.
The book, “Incantations,” is a weirdly beautiful volume made from 295 pages of recycled and handmade paper with silk-screened illustrations. The cover is a three-dimensional rendering of the face of Kaxail, Mayan goddess of the wilderness, in recycled cardboard mixed with corn silk and coffee. Her eyes are excised and she stares out with an eerie power. (It was designed by Gitte Daehlin, a Norwegian artist living in the nearby state of Oaxaca.)
“Incantations” contains spells and hymns tape-recorded by the women and by Ms. Past, who transcribed and translated them from Tzotzil into Spanish and English. As members of a collective, the women share labor and profits.
Robert M. Laughlin, a curator of Mesoamerican and Caribbean ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution who has published two Tzotzil dictionaries, said of “Incantations”: “There is very little publication about Mayan women’s lives in their own language, and this gives a whole view of the culture that’s been unknown before.”(Mayan men in Chiapas also incorporate poetry into some of their formal and religious discourse, but that group has been well studied, Mr. Laughlin said.)
The Olmec and the Maya were among the first literate societies in the Western Hemisphere. Evidence of Mayan writing goes back to the first century A.D. Murals and ceramics from the height of Mayan civilization, A.D. 600 to 900, depict male scribes holding pens and brushes, making “Incantations” even more significant.
There are four surviving Mayan codices, bark-paper books that unfold like accordions, dating from the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century. Spanish bishops ordered other books burned.
Ms. Past first became interested in Mayan weaving, which is often highly symbolic, and in traditional natural dyes. She became aware of the women’s poetry in 1975, when an epidemic swept through Magdalenas village, close to where she lived. She said that she went to San Cristóbal, the nearest large city, for help, but no doctors came. Many children died, she said.
In the cemetery, she said, she saw a woman carrying her dead baby lying on a board and wrapped in a shawl for burial. 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.
One reason “Incantations” took so long to create, said Ms. Past, who became a Mexican citizen in 1985 and has published 10 books in Mexico, is that some incantations last for days. She transcribed hundreds of hours of tape, from which she culled essential verses. In fabricating “Incantations,” the women soaked recycled paper with palm fronds, making a pulp in a blender, dyeing it black with soot and campeachy wood. Mayan men helped with the offset printing.
The poems in “Incantations” incorporate ancient metaphors with the harshly contemporary. One poem, by Xpetra Ernándes, is “Witchcraft for Attracting a Man”:
I want him to come with flowers in his heart.
With all his heart,
I want him to talk to my body.
I want his blood to ache for me
when he sees me on the way to the market.
Another, by Petra Tzon Te’ Vitz , is “Lullaby”:
Go to sleep little baby, go to sleep.
Your daddy’s drunk
and if he hits me,
I’m running to the woods.
Tonik Nibak has an angry piece, “Hex to Kill the Unfaithful Man”:
Let 13 Devil Women, 13 Goddesses of Death, snuff out his name.
Let a wind that starts in his head, in his heart,
blow his candle out.
Let him die on the road.
Let him be run over by a car.
By a bicycle.
Break his leg.
If he dies, I’m going to be laughing.
The first edition of “Incantations,” Tzotzil translated into Spanish, was in 1998.
So far, 1,850 volumes of the English edition are printed. The first 200 numbered copies cost $200 each, and half have sold, Ms. Past said. Another 1,650 are being bound, and will sell for $100. The workshop also publishes a literary magazine, La Jícara (The Gourd), which, Ms. Past said, has been called “the most beautiful magazine in Mexico.” The magazine is mainly in Spanish, but has an English section and always contains literature in Amerindian languages.
In 2002 the collective published “Mayan Hearts,” two books of Tzotzil metaphors translated by Mr. Laughlin into Spanish and English. That book’s thick black cover is made of agave fibers with a heart cut out to reveal red endpaper.
“I am in love/ My heart aches,” one line reads.
“You perfume my heart/ you give me pleasure,” says another.
- By Dinitia Smith, May 11, 2005
Los Angeles Times
"These incantations were dreamed by Mayan women in the Highlands of Chiapas in southern Mexico," writes Ambar Past in her introduction. "The Tzotzil authors of this anthology claim their spells and songs were given to them by their ancestors, the First Fathermothers, who keep the Great Book in which all words are written down." Everything about this book is saturated; the ink is dark, the words look rich and thick on the pages. On the cover, the face of Kaxail, Mayan goddess of the wilderness, appears simple and complex, childlike and wise. An incantation for a newborn girl by Rosa Xulemho is characteristically simple and evocative: "When you grow up, / when you can speak, / you will work in the cornfield, / you will weave, / you will earn money / 'to buy your salt."
The baby is given the tools of women's work: a spindle, carding combs, weaving sticks, a grinding stone and a tumpline for carrying firewood. Weaving, cooking, making love and dancing are the most common subjects. "The force of the word can cure or kill," Past explains. The soul can be made to wander off from the body. There are portals to the Underworld. Each person has an animal companion, or "wayhel," "a word grown from the root (way) of the verbs to sleep and to dream." It's a witchy book. Be careful.
- Susan Salter Reynolds, July 26, 2009
Posted on BookForum.com, by Eileen Myles
Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women by Xpetra Ernandes, Xalik Guzmán Bakbolom, and Ambar Past
As Ernesto Cardenal asserts in Incantations, poetry has a wider latitude for power in a culture where it is understood to be "the first speech." It proposes joyfully that what's read this afternoon at the Bowery Poetry Club shares a magical link to this book's poems by illiterate women in Chiapas. The urgency of such a connection (for them and for us) is what animates for me this inaccrochable collection of poems by Mayan women.
Some history, perhaps? In 1973 Ambar Past, an American woman in her twenties, traveled to Mexico to live in mud huts for thirty years collecting poems and stories in Tzotzil, a Mayan language spoken by indigenous people in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Over time she helped establish Taller Lenateros, the group that produced, in 2005, the original printing of Incantations (and by produced I mean made the paper, the original ink drawings and the masks adorning each copy). Now, thanks to an El Paso press we can get our hands on this trade-book version of that event.
On the occasion of the initial publication, 150 authors went to Mexico City for a raucous and unprecedented event involving spreading pine needles on the floor of the museum auditorium, lighting candles and incense, and chanting for hours (if you want to get a flavor of these chants, go here). Many of these poems have a way of both feeling and addressing a dilemma at once. In one, by Petu Xantis Xantis, an eclipse is candidly spoken to: "Your flowery eye is shut, Father." Kajval, the collective name of all the protectors (the sun, the moon), and Cristo (as in Jesus), too, are petitioned. In "Prayer So My Man Won't Have To Cross The Line," Xunka'Uz'utz Ni' speaks:
Take into account, Kajval, / that I am speaking to you /… Take into account, Kajval,/what you are going to give me.The others have horses. / They have sheep. / They have hens. /Trucks. /…I don't want to work on a plantation. / I don't want to go to someone else's house. / I don't want to work far away. / I don't want to go to Los Angeles. / I don't want to work in Florida.
When native peoples are torn from their lands by global development we generally tend to think of them as silent (we always see them photographed that way); the women, of course, are the most silenced of all. Indeed, in their own culture Mayan women and men speak little before marriage (though the older women in this book bemoan that such divisions are breaking down, and that youth are beginning to do things their own way).
But the word speak in Tzotzil also implies "to have sex." And when they do speak, these healers, poets, and seers forge a connection to all their subjects that constitutes a kind of visceral verbal intimacy. This kind of fealty to recording includes everything: clouds or a night of drinking with friends. The first sex in a woman's life has a name, and it means "the bite of a bat."
The expediency of this language is that it performs what is done to the speaker (it bites). This word also means rape (of which there is an abundance in Chiapas), which gets represented fulsomely in these poems by a sudden onslaught of bats swooping down from the skies. In Tzotzil the word for painting and writing is the same word, and to speak a poem about even the most violent circumstance is to invoke the act of creation. Even the pictures hurt.
Incantations as a document reveals a culture that holds at its core a strange faith: Though downtrodden in daily society, not even considered worthy of education, women are the healers, and they write the necessary poems. The narrative entwined around the poems in this book tells a remarkable tale. Both women and men historically in Chiapas trust in the indomitable power contained by women's bodies, to the extent that many times in history, a chanting army of warriors approached their enemies in battle fronted not by horns or flags or banners but by naked and painted women, some held aloft on pallets and others bearing weapons and marching alongside the men, everyone believing that such beauty and vulnerability could stop the conquistadors.
The importance of these incantations is that they magically preserve both the violence and the moment just before it. These poems arrive like a book you read in a dream, and this is the central belief about naming and writing in Tzotzil, a poetry both preserved and disseminated orally. Despite the destruction of the Mayan codices five centuries ago, and all the violence that has occurred since then, Incantations performs for us how a culture lives.
Eileen Myles is a poet and novelist. Her most recent book is The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art.