Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women by Xpetra Ernandes, Xalik Guzmán Bakbolom, and Ambar Past

Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women edited by Ambar Past, Xpetra Ernandex, Xalik Guzmán Bakbolom. Cinco Puntos Press. Paperback, 296 pages. $26.
The cover of Incantations: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women

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.