Days of the Dead...and a Labyrinth
I don’t know when I first discovered the celebration of Dia de los Muertos, but it seems now as if I've always celebrated it, was born into the tradition.
Day of the Dead is a Mexican Holiday that takes place on the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2). There is probably a connection to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess called Mictecacihuatl.
One of the traditions is to build a private altar honoring those you’ve known who have died, using sugar skulls, marigolds, and favorite foods and drink of the dead. There is also a visit to graves - eating, drinking, and talking with the dead.
John Berger once said in a conversation with Michael Ondaatje (Lannan Foundation Podcast): ‘What makes us human is the ability to live with the dead.’ The dead are all around us. How is it possible NOT to see them?
Where mega-capitalism and micro-technology meet there is incredible speed. The combination promises a fast ride to a glorious future. Much of mainstream US culture is about the future. The future - a favorite word of US politicians. Everything will be fine...IN THE FUTURE (an example would be Obama’s last State of the Union address and his stunningly vacuous rallying cry of 'winning the future'). The joke everyone already knows is this: the future will always be 'in the future'. A race to the future is futile - you constantly have to pick up the pace because it’s forever receding into the distance.
Speaking and listening to the dead is something that happens outside that swirl of chaos. The dead are outside of time. 'Racing toward the future' is just another attempt to outpace death. There is such a pathological fear of death in mainstream US culture that acknowledging the dead in this way – not in some untouchable past, but as peers, living in the here-and-now – can help alleviate a bit of that culturally-induced paranoia. Eating, drinking, and talking with the dead puts me in touch with a continuum, helps me understand that I am in a lineage – there are those who have gone before me, those who will go after me. It helps me understand that I am involved in an ‘unsolvable’ mystery that is constantly going on all around me. Birth, death, birth, death...the continual turning of the wheel…
With that in mind, I leave you with a seven part prose poem written in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the week after Dia de los Muertos in 2006. It’s an odd piece. So, a bit of background:
I worked at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Santa Fe (if you’re from Santa Fe, it's known as Saint Victim’s), and from the back parking lot you can see the Jemez mountain range (where Los Alamos is located). For two years I spent a couple of minutes every morning looking at that range before going into the hospital. Over time, I began to feel that my maternal grandmother, a great storyteller who had died in the early 90’s, had become part of that mountain range. Or maybe she was that mountain range. I don’t know why. Later that year, when burning dried herbs on All Souls’ Day, I felt that same presence in the area around my apartment. She was no longer a mountain range, had become something different (those spirits…always changing, shape-shifting...go figure).
Santa Fe is located near many of the facilities involved in the making of nuclear weapons: Los Alamos, Sandia Labs, Kirtland Air Force Base, and, much further south, the White Sands missile range. What is so frightening about the production of these weapons is that it is so invisible. Much of the economy in the surrounding area, and all over the country, is intricately linked with Department of Defense weapons production.
Santa Fe is a town of Labyrinths. Literally. There’s a labyrinth in front of the Cathedral, one out at the museum of international folk art, and there is a Labyrinth Resource Group that has built labyrinths at eight different elementary schools in Santa Fe (how can you not love a town that does that?). Whenever I walked down Griffin Street in the evening, I would always walk the three-circuit labyrinth at Carlos Gilbert Elementary school.
The poem is meant to be somewhat like walking a three-circuit labyrinth. In a three-circuit labyrinth the way in is the same as the way out - there is only one path. In the poem, the labyrinth is Santa Fe, the labyrinth is my mind; my mind and Santa Fe, linked.
So, three turns in, arrival at the center, and three turns out. Sections 1 and 7 are the entrance and exit, echoing each other (there is a play between my grandmother as ‘guide’ and the final spider in the hospital bathroom - a reference to Spider Woman or Spider Grandmother, the one who weaves the stories that hold all the worlds together).
Sections 2 and 6 are the same turnings – but one is going in and the other going out (nuclear weapons production in contrast with a storm). Sections 3 and 5 are related in the same way, so there are echoes between them also (the ‘chatter’ mentioned in Section 3 comes from a moment when I was sitting in the park next to the cathedral and a businessman walked by, talking into a headset, and, because the technology was new and I had not seen it before, it looked as if he was just another crazy in the park muttering to himself).
Section 4 is the center, taking place at Heron Lake, a small lake on the New Mexico/Colorado border, north of Santa Fe.
Enough. It begins with the burning of dried herbs. A spirit appears out of the smoke…
Labyrinth: Days of the Dead
The way out is the way in
Sage-smoke weaves around yellow leaves, wraps a black trunk. Heat-crack from a hollow stem. You appear, half-blind (but this is not you as I once knew you, this is you as you are now - half-formed, half-smoke).
I want to return to that dim-lit kitchen, watch your bent hands knead dough; white dust down your apron (but this is not you as I once knew you, this is you as you are now - vague guide, weaving something new).
Tonight, I’ll follow you anywhere. Back through the dead elm leaves that follow me home (I don’t care if it’s not you as I once knew you, I know only you – whoever you are – can thread this world together now – merge dry leaf, burning leaf, crack of the heated space inside a hollow stem).
2. Dark Corridors
It moves around here at night, a thief over dry leaves in dream. Los Alamos, Sandia, Kirtland, White Sands. Through the bathroom vent, a sucking wind, cluck of an old woman, fingers boiled phosphor-blue. Beneath her nails, a shock of black in the blood. Daedalus: Copernicus: convoluted folds of the brain, a map through: the solution moves away, gets close: Galileo. Newton. Fascinating hole that creates itself. Crush and release. Einstein: suture of time, space: Oppenheimer, Teller, Szilard: inertial confinement fusion: rune of angular momentum: a new world safe: nonlinear tantra equation:
To reveal the secret at the heart by making it.
The razor wire fence walks through the night. A hum behind the wall. No source. How it continues with or without you…
3. Lost Cells
Chatter into headsets the schizophrenic’s dream of eternal ethereal partners for all perpetual motion jaws no bird call no wind against dead leaf no symmetry of cathedral stone
No one will miss stone
Chatter laugh chatter text chatter lights chatter button chatter pricks the chatter skull aluminum foil chatter hat can’t stop chatter signals nothing but chatter across stars lost inside chatter
I will miss stone
(there’s a high, thin rattle of leaves, like mouse bone chimes or dried sugar-skulls, rolling toward their own kind. Can you hear it? Leave the last pay phone receiver dangling. Let the dead talk to the dead:
4. Circle of Scrub Oaks, Edge of Heron Lake
Auburn-gold leaves soon-to-be-brown they ring a bleached juniper trunk they ring wind in waves down the dry hillside swallowing broken stone they ring the half-moon beat of black wings beneath the heart they ringher empty sockets watching red soak up the last light they ringmy hands holding a tiny mouse bone they ringher promise of death so close against my cheeks flamed by cold they ring the dead silence after waking suddenly from a deafening dream of coyotes they ring a sepulcher of shale reeds fossilized nail-polish bottles they ringthree blue birds in the morning squirting juniper seed shit into the cooking pot they ringher empty eyes her blessed empty eyes haloes of dark matter giving birth:
an osprey divesinto the blue
5. Salvation Army
Football radio-chatter cuts off. All of us suddenly dropped through the silence between jean-rack and rack of old sweaters, past macramé plant hangers, flower plate patterns, discarded corporate team-building seminar T-shirts, and faux-gold candle-holders (so many candle-holders).
His thin brown fingers slow-cinch a cracked leather belt around a tiny, shrunken waist. Her face, a face that will never close (cracked open, revealing black ash swirling through falling snow).
The born-again woman behind the register (pancake make-up, heavy rouge) smiles at a woman with four children in tow, coming in from the cold.
Soft white flash folds the city in half, south-end pressed north. Rune of angular momentum. An audience of shock-blue faces stare through the bedroom window: lost ancestors who will still not accept the end. Water drums the roof loud as coyotes keening Time back to its origin:
chaos (non-linear tantra equation of lips at the back of the neck) chaos (fingers curl, uncurl) chaos (a new syllable startled out of the mouth)
A terrible skeleton tapdance: snakeskins clang against yellow leaves, mouse bones slip into the mouth of rolling broken bottles, condoms swallow spider husks - all the forgotten scattered things gathered into one swift river
cheek to thigh
Thunder against the wall vibrates like ginger on the tongue
how it burns sweet
7. Spider in the Hospital Bathroom
She clings to tile, feels the table-flat underside of desert clouds, juniper hills, last yellow chamisa bloom on the road’s shoulder, cold web-shadow across sandstone
(there is no water in the way she moves quick down white strands to his throat she is a necklace of quills. the end of his abdomen a bobbing mouth, empty gourd
his one free backleg struggles, kicks
she pulls him deeper, underneath the white canopy, and they hang together)
The entire world inside her. The old secret, again and again:
a trickle of sandstone dust sifts over sun-cracked green lichen
into my hands
November 2-8, 2006Santa Fe, New Mexico
Booklist Starred Review for A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind
A Fish Trapped inside the Wind.
Like the most finely cadenced, beautifully fanciful works of surrealism, this novel beckons with its subtle nuances before it leaps into a dazzling mastery that will ensnare even the casual reader. The town of Villon, Belgium, is experiencing an extremely odd phenomenon. Dead fish are strewn everywhere. Flung over yards and stoops and fields, the fish puzzle the residents no end as they speculate on the significance of such a bizarre happening. Other intersecting events include a rally meant to protest a decision to use local quarries as toxic dumps and the festival of St. Woelfred, who fled into the wilderness in the seventh century to live out her days reflecting in prayer. A rumored set of lost Rimbaud poems propels the action in ways unimaginable at the start yet utterly convincing by the conclusion. Gholson skillfully interweaves the individual stories of six main characters: a magician, a priest, a Rimbaud scholar, a journalist, a seer, and an aging lothario, who connect and conflict with one another in ways that ring true as each grapples with the choice of “walking through the mirror” of illusion—or not. Building to an extraordinary crescendo of an ending, Gholson’s poetic, purely magical, yet resoundingly human tale deserves a wide audience. — Julie Trevelyan