IN COMPANY: AN ANTHOLOGY OF NEW MEXICO POETS AFTER 1960, Edited by Lee Bartlett, V.B. Price and Dianne Edenfield Edwards
(University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2004)
It seems intellectually dishonest to mention, as the editors do in the preface, that New Mexico is mired in poverty and sparsely populated, without mentioning too the clusters of well-to-do communities there where many of this book’s writers thrived without ever getting any more than a journalist’s glimpse into the third-world conditions of the state. Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey, Val Kilmer, Donald Rumsfeld—all have vacation homes here. It would seem to me that explaining the geographical, socio-political, historical and cultural shape of New Mexico would be the paramount concern of any introduction to an anthology of New Mexico poets (the need for such an anthology is an implicit acknowledgment of the underrepresentation and lack of understanding about the literary history of New Mexico). Instead, the nuances and complexities of our state are glossed over; no attempt is made to provide a context for the poetry, to say what it is that is so special about New Mexico. A reader unacquainted with the state would find no indication of even the most basic facts: that Santa Fe is the capital, and Albuquerque the largest city. And it’s not that these fundamentals are assumed, it’s that the editors don’t ever get that far. The geography is described as desert with mountains. The economic conditions are merely very poor. The population: sparse. Anyone familiar with New Mexico knows how inadequate these descriptors are. And someone vaguely familiar with the region could easily confuse the New Mexico described with any of a number of other states. How, then, do they justify the choice to focus on New Mexico, as opposed to merely the southwest? This lack of vision is a real problem, because it doesn’t offer what is required to correct the blind spot that has left New Mexican poets undeservedly ignored. Also, is there no distinguishing between a New Mexican poet, and a poet who visited New Mexico for any length of time? This anthology is full of both, but labels them all the former.
The prefatory remarks were startlingly bad, and yet strangely reminiscent of my own time at the University of New Mexico because of that. The preface was misleading. The foreword was a long and boorish dedication to the late Mary Burritt Christiansen, whose gift to the university in the form of an endowment indirectly paid for In Company to be published—more lip service than any real gratitude. The introduction was jumbled, hackneyed, off point, and wholly unedifying. There were as many typos as pages. As a freshman in English 101 at UNM seven years ago, I was required to read an anthology of essays culled entirely from the faculty’s publications, as was every other incoming student at the school. They were among the worst professional essays I have ever had the displeasure of reading. It seems time has done woefully little to improve the editorial shortcomings of the University of New Mexico Press, sadly; the poets here (and there are only a few real poets) deserve better. This book’s editing reminded me why I indignantly refused to take the English degree I had rightfully earned back then (full disclosure: I never completed my final required course for a double major—Chaucer—when I came to class the first day and the professor had been changed and there was still no Chaucer at the bookstore—part of a pattern of unpreparedness I’d met a hundred times already).
If this project was a labor of love, like the editors claim, then something is wrong. The University of New Mexico Press, with the sizable Christiansen endowment and the resources of the university at their disposal, are ideally positioned to do meaningful research into the landscape of poetry in New Mexico, to create a touchstone document that would be an invaluable resource to future scholars, to do what is necessary to communicate and trace the lives of these poets (some of whom may not be available much longer for living inquests), to distill the careers of New Mexico’s living treasures like Rudolfo Anaya to their essentials. This anthology misses every mark, and gives lie to the claim that this was a labor of love. Instead it seems that the poems compiled come not from a deep examination of the poets’ works that might be forever overlooked or hard to come by otherwise, but rather from a cursory reading of the most readily available collections. Where are the interviews? The biographies? An opportunity is being lost if this anthology, by its publication, discourages any other real surveys from being attempted in the near future.
I would recommend skipping the introductions altogether.
This, then, is in place of an introduction.
Some accounting: out of the 81 poets anthologized, I had in my library books by 3, and had heard of 11. I came to New Mexico when I was 5, and left when I was 24 (which was last year). I lived in 11 different homes in Albuquerque and in the Sandia mountains nearby. Out of 5 siblings, I was 1 of the 3 that graduated high school, which is roughly in keeping with statistics for the state at large.
New Mexico has been the home to several alien confluences in its history, from the forced migrations of Native Americans victim to ‘manifest destiny,’ to the top-secret gathering of nuclear scientists from around the world in Los Alamos to help create and test the atomic bomb, to the explosion in ranch-house suburban-style settlement by America’s white middle class in the last 50 years, to the packed parking lots of tourists on pilgrimage to reservation casinos. The southwest territory, stolen from Mexico through cynical political maneuvering and a preemptive war in the middle of the 19th century, has had an especially turbulent, if peripheral, history. This land was the outskirts of the Civil War, the earth where Billy the Kid was laid down. Nowhere, outside of New York and Los Angeles, were 2006’s summer protests against crackdowns on illegal immigrants more heavily or wildly attended than in New Mexico, as they shut cities down across the state.
Current demographics from the last census show a Hispanic plurality in the population (the highest percentage of Hispanics in the U.S.), followed by Native Americans (the second largest Native American community in any state, after Oklahoma) then German-Americans.
Tourist campaigns, which have given us a state cookie (the biscochito), a state question (Red or green?), a state attire (the bolo tie), make me cringe; they overlook the real gifts of our Tierra Encantada (the Carlsbad Caverns in the south, the Lawrence Ranch nestled in the Sangro de Cristos to the north and the Ghost Ranch above Santa Fe where Georgia O’Keefe stayed, a hundred different eternal creation myths passed down from pre-history, some of the earliest and most beautiful Catholic churches in the country), and ignore the dire conditions of the state: dying rivers, isolated villages decimated by drug traffic, desperately contrived gang violence, the ambivalent inheritance of heroes (like Kit Carson and the conquistadores, who made their reputations by murdering native populations, from the time of Spain’s slave-labor haciendas to the brutal ‘Long Walk,’ and whose public monuments are forever being vandalized). All these real concerns, and more, are answered by the poets in the anthology.
The most famous poets in this anthology are not represented with their best work. Winfield Townley Scott, Witter Bynner, Robert Creely, Charles Tomlinson, Arthur Sze, Gene Frumkin, Nathaniel Tarn, N. Scott Momaday, Joy Harjo—though their selections are easily the strongest in the collection, are hardly memorable when they have work that is much better. After them, things go down hill. Among the hundred anonymous names, there was nothing impressive, and by the time I was almost halfway through I had lost patience and degenerated into a haphazard survey of the poems of the second half. The editors, with their connections to the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University seem to have largely just raked through the dregs of the college M.F.A programs in the state to fill out the end of the anthology. At this point, I had already given up hope—so I will say in the anthology’s defense that a good poem or two might have been swept up with all the garbage, by accident.
A few redeeming notes:
Rudolfo Anaya’s long narrative poem “Isis in the Heart” reveals his cultural agenda as he transplants ancient Egyptian myth in the New Mexican desert. We get local and exotic color done subtly and with a sure hand. Anubis is juxtaposed to La Llorana. Osiris is made into an alien Kokopelli as he carries his dis-membered phallus on his back. Anaya, a visionary writer of the traditions surviving in communities along U.S.-Mexican borderlands, shows off what he’s learned from his long tenure at the University of New Mexico. He demonstrates (maybe too explicitly) his comfortable grasp of the history of western culture, and how he’s been influenced by the modern American poets like Ginsberg and Bynner. Anaya makes himself a textbook example of how New Mexico’s writers have been affected by outsiders from the east. He relishes beatnik-like bi-lingual obscenities, exposing Osiris and Isis as incestuous lovers, and describing their cosmic fellatio. But he also has a deep respect for place and for the local legends he was raised on. His mission is conservative, aimed at the preservation of old customs. The poem moves among the old villages of Española and Los Altos, Puyé, Las Cruces. The effect of this confluence is sincere and meaningful:
History repeats itself.
Keep well in mind the law of repetition.
We live in the ancient Egyptian time.
Their myths are ours.
The Rio Grande is the Blue Nile.
They sought to prolong life. The soul
returned to seek the flesh, they thought.
We seek to prolong life,
We have fallen in love with the flesh
and believe it will last forever.
In Albuquerque, we all read Anaya’s fantastic bildungsroman Bless Me, Ultima in high school. He’s our unofficial laureate, and “Isis in the Heart,” though uneven, is a worthy testament to the spirit of New Mexican poetry.
At least, until it is compared to Nathaniel Tarn’s “The Great Odor of Summer” which attempts to explain its own revisionary mythopoetics as a natural process:
I am interested in those who begin at the beginning
philosophers in caves playing with light and shadow
while we select the America we are dreaming
and the great elegy that the world is writing for itself
in silence somewhere
Tarn’s imagination for remaking America gives us something infinitely richer than Anaya’s, and is the closest this anthology comes to great poetry.
J.H. Stotts is a writer and photographer living in Boston and starting a family. His essays, poems, and translations have been published in Circumference, Hanging Loose, The Atlantic, and numerous e-zines. He's exhibited his photography and paintings in Boston, Russia, and Mexico. What he can't publish elsewhere he posts on his blog, The Fugue Aesthetics of J.H. Stotts. He finished an 'inauspicious' shotgun anthology of Russian poetry, from Fet to Esenin to Ryzhii, in formal and experimental translations and is currently at work on a selected poems of Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, to come out in '09 from Whale and Star Press.