Poetic irony

An English-language debut for Homero Aridjis sits uncomfortably with the role of Vancouver in the
assault on Mexico’s natural environment


Solar Poems
Homero Aridjis, translated by George McWhirter
2010, City Lights Books
261 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

EVERYONE makes firewood of the fallen tree, Homero Aridjis reminds us in “Brief Life”, a reference to the Turkey-buzzard Ash, the tallest and oldest tree in the poet’s picturesque village of Contepec in Michoacán.

“Like a cathedral, it marked the entrance to the butterfly hill”, he writes, referring to the fir-covered mountain rising above the village once draped for the winter by a blanket of black and orange monarch butterflies.

But let cold Mexicans burn the Fresno del Zopilote as firewood, for the tree is no longer needed: the regal colony of butterflies that flocks to the town has dwindled and retreated from the lower slopes further up the mountain.

In part, they are escaping illegal loggers destroying their precious mature oyamels whom the celebrated Aridjis – a champion of the Mexican environment that is the heartbeat of his poetry – has spoken out about. They can also smell the poison used in the extraction of gold, silver and lead as part of a mining bonanza in Mexico that has spilled into Michoacán’s monarch sanctuaries: that bonanza is being fuelled by competition in a scramble for riches from Mexico’s subsoil led by Canadian mining corporations – many based in Vancouver. But in part, the winged colony is dying anyway, victim to the powerful herbicides that rain down upon genetically altered corn and soyabean thousands of miles away in – guess where, their Canadian summer mating grounds – which kill the flowers they feed upon and the milkweed upon which they lay their eggs.

There is little poetry in this destruction, and Canada – the summer home of the iconic North American butterfly whose cause has been championed by the Group of 100 that Aridjis will forever be associated with – bears a significant responsibility for it. But there is much poetic irony in the fact that it is Vancouver’s Poet Laureate, George McWhirter, who brings us the first English translation of a single volume of poems by Aridjis: the city’s prosperity is fundamentally linked to the activities of those mining corporations whose assault on Mexico is only now being fully recognised. For too long, Canadian miners have hidden their activities behind the image of a country that cares.

Ecological passions

Solar Poems reflects the ecological passions of Aridjis, if not the full scale of his activism – and it is the latter for which he is most recognisable, although here and there in the collection he alludes to foolhardy destruction by mortals with a material conviction. There is no question about his role in Mexican and Latin American poetry – it speaks for itself, a vast, corpus of work that pulsates with the blood and chlorophyll of Mexico and its landscape. The sun – an ancient Mexican symbol and preoccupation – is the theme that the poet employs in this collection to explore the boundaries between life and death.

McWhirter’s translation is technically skilful, if occasionally his search for purity desensitises him. In “Love inanimate things”, for example, toying is turned into juggling.

But we cannot separate art from politics, especially in the context of Latin American poetry. And just as the work of Aridjis is suffused with the mystical relationship that Mexicans seem to have with their land, this is a land that is suffering in silence from the greed of its northern neighbours.

It may be unfair to McWhirter, but this debut in the language of the oppressor for a poet synonymous with Mexico’s natural environment seems, sadly, to miss this point.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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