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OCELOCÍHUATL by Xanath Caraza (Mouthfeel Press, 2015)
The title of Xánath Caraza’s poetry collection, Ocelocíhuatl (Mouthfeel Press, 2015), combines the meaning of Ocelot, a mid-size feline of the jaguar family, with that of Cíhuatl, the Nahuatl word for woman. Ocelocihuatl is the “Jaguar Woman.”
Ocelots are solitary felines. Their vision is as keen in the dark as in sunlight. Comfortably resting on a high tree branch or cooling off in streams, they are air, water and earth creatures. Despite urban encroachment on their diverse habitats, the jaguar species have managed to survive in the tropical areas of Mexico, Central and South America, and the forests of Southwestern United States.
The Olmec, Mayan and Aztec civilizations revered jaguars as mighty hunters and beings who were able to move between worlds—environments—with ease. So shamans conjured the jaguar’s spirit—nagual--to co-exist with theirs as one and endow them with the vision and the skills to survive in two distinct worlds, to protect themselves from the evil of others, and to preserve that which is sacred. Ocelocihuatl is one of those shamans, transformed by her nagual into the Jaguar Woman.
The central poem that provides Caraza’s collection with its title is “Ocelocihuatl”. We see Jaguar Woman at first as the animal in her natural tropical habitat, the place of origin. She feels the humidity in the morning air, then enjoys the luscious green tapestry of the jungle bathed by summer rains. She tastes life’s liquid bounty as she gently bites into the “throbbing unsuspecting heart.” As her nagual begins to transform the shaman, her hands reach for the alphabet of a new day and rip apart the veil of opalescent mist covering the pages. She makes “poetry” hers. She breathes in the scent left by others, those no longer present in her world(s).
Because the poem “Ocelocihuatl” is not the first poem in the book and, actually, comes half way through it, I was intrigued by Caraza’s decision to place such a pivotal poem there. The organization of a poetry collection is the poet’s way to guide us as we enter, move through and exit each poetic space and to lead us to the places where we need to be to grasp the poet’s intention, her vision. With that in mind, I read the poems again, but this time in reverse from last to first poem. I realized that I had been on two journeys, one that took me north and east, the other south and west, intersecting at the place of origin at the moment of rebirth, described in the poem “Ocelocihuatl.”
In terse narrative, incantatory or intensely lyrical poems, Caraza chronicles Jaguar Woman’s odyssey to the sacred places of the heart, in Bosnia, The United States, and Mexico in modern times. We journey with her to faraway places where the spirit—wounded by injustice, strife, violence and death—must take refuge to remember and to heal. There, she grieves for the dead, for those persecuted, banished or “disappeared” beyond hope of ever being found.
Ocelocihuatl also pays homage to the survivors, the Jaguar Women of the world: The activist Aida Omanovic in the once multiethnic city of Mostar, Bosnia, almost devastated three decades before, during the Croatian-Bosnian ethnic conflict. With aching arms and bare hands, Aida-Ocelocihuatl dragged the bodies of 27 of her compatriots and dear friends killed during the conflict. With no other tools than her bleeding fingers, she dug their graves, buried them in an orchard, and planted 27 cherry trees, one next to each grave to commemorate their sacrifice.
Through the liquid eyes of mothers searching for their lost sons to bring them home, Ocelocihuatl looks for the familiar faces of “the disappeared,” the 43 student teachers in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, Mexico, who were taken by a drug cartel in cahoots with the local authorities for protesting their corruption. “The 43” haven’t yet been found, dead or alive. In Missouri, Jaguar Woman makes hers the anger and sorrow of Michael Brown’s mother, relatives, friends and hundreds of people, raising their voices in protest at the systematic killing of African American youth by the police.
Ocelocihuatl returns to the place of origin, the Mexican jungle, to renew. From there she heads south, to recover the ancestors’ footsteps as they journeyed to their temples and other sacred places in pre-Columbian times from trodden paths along the Puuc Route. She does not return to the place of origin this time. Instead, she seeks the company of poets, dead or alive. The last poem in the collection is an ode to the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. “Paz” also means “peace.” The poem is indeed a tribute to the poet. But it is also an affirmation of her belief that peace among peoples is possible.
For Ocelocihuatl, Woman-Jaguar and poet, all winding paths eventually lead back to that secret site, where the poems are the seeds, “dark tide of syllables (that) spreads over the paper” and break through to the “sub-soil of language” to take roots, extend limbs to the heavens, blossom and bear fruit in the sacred places of the heart.
¡Enhorabuena, Xanath Caraza! Encore!
Oakland, California, 2015
Translated by Sandra Kingery
Cover Art by Pola Lopez
For preorders click here: Mouthfeel Press OcelocihuatlOcelocíhuatl by Xánath Caraza (Mouthfeel Press, 2015)
Translated by Sandra Kingery
Cover Art by Pola Lopez