INCANTATIONS: Maya Earth Mother Book & el Taller Leñateros

We are the woodlanders who walk in the hills gathering dry branches and deadwood from fallen trees, collecting firewood without chopping down the forest. We come down from the mountains, carrying bundles of wood, of pitchpine and split encino, for the hearths of the Royal City of San Cristobal de Las Casas. We walk through the mist, leading our burros, selling firewood from house to house. We knock on people’s doors, offering pine needles as well, to spread on the floor, moss, flowers of bromeliads and orchids for manger scenes.

—from the website for Taller Leñateros

NOTE: I wrote this piece for the Cinco Puntos Press Blogspot but inadvertently put it up here on my personal blogspot. I went to delete it, but thought, hell, this belongs here as well. INCANTATIONS: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women collected by the remarkable woman and poet Ambar Past is an important contribution to my work as a poet. That's how Lee and I got to be publishers in the first place--she is a novelist and I am a poet. Our first work of writing is the inspiration for our publishing. I'll put more up about Ambar and Incantations in the future. Enjoy.)

In 2002 Lee and I were lucky enough to visit San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. San Cristobal is one of the spiritual capitals of the original people, los indigenas, the Tzotzil Maya and those who came before, the People the color of our Mother Earth. This is where in 1994 the Zapatistas came out of the hills and forests and made war against the Mexican government. Their war was in defense of their ancient homeland, their culture, their language, their vision. Ever since we published La Historia de las colores / The Story of Colors by Subcomandante Marcos and illustrated by Domitila Dominguez we have wanted to make this trip. It was a wonderful, haunting journey. Like a pilgrimage almost. So much of that old city on the southern edge of Mexico made us feel like we had found some sort of home. We were happy simply walking around the streets and visiting the outlying Mayan communities of San Juan Chamula and Zinacatan, listening to Tzotzil and Spanish rub up against one another not quite at ease, sitting in ancient churches and the plazas and feeling the cool highland breezes. Finally we were there, hesitant and awkward at first, but soon we felt at peace and happy.

On the morning of our last day in San Cristobal a friend told us that we needed without fail to visit el Taller Leñateros (“the Woodlanders Workshop), a paper-making collective owned and operated by Tzotzil women. So we followed directions and turned down a narrow cobble-stoned street and knocked on a door. A man opened the door for us. He didn’t speak English, and his Spanish was as bad as mine. He motioned us to come inside. We found ourselves in a quiet, magically real room filled with paper art--hand-made papers, cards, large images, small images, books, all made with indigenous hands and perspective. Their remarkable story of the Leñateros is best followed on their website and facebook pages, but here I want to speak of their mother Maya earth book, the creation of their minds and hearts and hands.

We were enthralled by all that we saw and so happy to be there. Then AMBAR PAST burst into the room full of energy and joy. Yes, she knew about Cinco Puntos Press; yes, she knew this person and that person; and yes, she especially knew about The Story of Colors. She was so happy to meet us. And she wanted to show us the jewel that the Taller had produced--INCANTATIONS. The book she showed us was truly a work of art. The original is such a wonderful book, such an important book. The thick cover is hand-sculpted--the brown face of a woman, the brown face of a mother-god, the brown face of Mother Earth. And inside on thick papers were stunning poems from the Tzotzil women. Chants and prophecy and incantations and curses--words to keep the spirit alive, words to keep evil at bay, words to ward off sickness and death, words to protect children and the sacred corn, words to protect women from drunken crazy men, words of love and love-making. Magic words. Sacred words. Ancient words. And dovetailed within the book are images from these women that speak to the same place in the heart.

Over the years of living and working with the Tzotzil women, Ambar had collected these poems, transcribing them first into Tzotzil which by then she had learned. Next she translated them into Spanish and finally into English. And she contributed two important essays--one that tells the history of the book and the other that discusses the poetics of the poets and their Tzotzil culture. 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. The Taller was selling the books for $200 U.S. Still is, in fact. And they are available through Garcia Street Books in Santa Fe and probably elsewhere. (Again, please visit the website and facebook pages for Taller Leñateros for more information about the women, their goals and the various paper art they are selling.)

I am a poet, and since the 1960s I have been a rabid fan of the pioneering work of Jerome Rothenberg in developing his understanding of ethno-poetics (in particular, his anthologies Shaking the Pumkin, Technicians of the Sacred and America a Prophecy). Reading the poems and Ambar’s essay, I knew immediately the importance of the book, and I yearned for Cinco Puntos to be able of produce a trade edition of the collection. Lee was as excited about the project as I was. We wanted a book that would retain a taste of the original but would make the work accessible to poets and scholars and students and readers. It would require compromises to the original book, but Lee and Ambar worked together over several years to bring about a book that we are all proud of.

Ambar Past is a remarkable woman. She grew up, ironically enough for us, in our hometown of El Paso and even went to the same high school as our three kids. But in 1968, when she graduated from high school, she left El Paso, never to return. First she went to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. It was time for the Summer of Love. But she wasn’t happy there either. She went to Mexico and eventually she found her home-place in the highlands of San Cristobal. She lived among the Tzotzil and studied their ways and their language and their medicines. It was not easy, but she has survived and has been honored by the Tzotzil. She became a naturalized Mexican citizen and has become an important Mexican poet. We, like the Tzotzil, are honored to have Ambar as a friend.