Review of Eyes to See Otherwise (Ojos de otro mirar): Selected Poems 1960-2000

Selected and edited by Betty Ferber and George McWhirter

(Carcanet Press Ltd., Manchester, 2001, 312 pg.)

Reviewed by Dick Russell in The Ecologist, 2002

“The task of poets, and of holy men,” Homero Aridjis has said, “is to tell this planet’s stories – and to articulate an ecological cosmology that does not separate nature from humanity.” Perhaps no other living poet has better fulfilled that task, and certainly none has so transmuted their words into deeds. Mexico’s Aridjis is a prizewinning author of thirty books of poetry and prose, translated into a dozen languages. He is also the leading environmental activist in Latin America, founder and president of the Grupo de los Cien (Group of 100) – the man responsible for saving Mexico’s sea turtles, monarch butterlies, and Lacandón rainforest from annihilation.

Now, for the first time, a collection of Aridjis’s stunning poetry ranging over four decades is available in Eyes To See Otherwise. His work appears both in Spanish and in English translation by such contemporaries as W.S. Merwin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Kenneth Rexroth. As Ireland’s Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney says, “Homero Aridjis’s poems open a door into the light.”

Some have compared Aridjis’s verse to that of the Aztec poets, whose brilliant images often mirrored flowers, trees, and brooks. There are also echoes of Mexico’s mystic Nahuatl songs and the present-day initiation hymns of the Huichol Indians. The earth provides the palette of his poetic landscape:

“I remember… inexpressibly
the old tongue that speaks
with beasts and trees”

Aridjis was born in 1940 in the central highlands region of Michoacán, where every afternoon he would walk to a hill near his home. During the winters, thousands of migrating monarch butterflies would alight on the oyamel fir trees. Later, during fifteen years that he lived abroad as a teacher and a Mexican ambassador to two countries, Aridjis would make an annual pilgrimage home to that hillside. As the trees were cut for firewood, the presence of the butterflies diminished. One of the first crusades of the Group of 100 resulted in the establishment of five protected monarch sanctuaries – but illegal logging has continued. In this volume, Aridjis evokes not only the beauty of the “winged tiger” of his youth, but of the coming of the chainsaw and man “howling his needs and shoving fistfulls of butterflies into his mouth.”

He also pays tribute in two poems to the majestic grey whale. Not only was Aridjis instrumental in establishing a vast biosphere reserve in the Baja California peninsula, it was he who inspired a five-year-long and ultimately successful fight to protect this whale’s last pristine birthing habitat at Laguna San Ignacio from a massive new industrial saltworks complex. In The Eye of the Whale, he evokes the lagoon as the place where

“God created the great whales
and each creature that moves
on the shadowy thighs of the waters.”

While the wonders of nature – and humankind’s desecration of it – provide the book’s central theme, Eyes to See Otherwise offers much more. There are a series of Self Portraits from his youth, and a long poem about his mother’s death called The Amazement of Time. He writes of his father and his daughters, of the Exodus story wrought in the time of the Spanish Inquisition, of Zapata and Moctezuma. He describes in a powerful prose-poem the wondrously terrible Aztec ceremonies of sacrifice: “The wound is luminous, resplendent. Flames flare in his chest. His body, living red, is transparent, like a box of crystal lit from within.” Yet Aridjis also often evokes a lyrical eroticism, arising from the raw material that is the earth:

“Love closes her eyes and the stars are lit
like deer that know the direction of the wind….
In her hands her trees her back
I feel the light trembling on my shoulders”

One of his inspirations is Dante, whom he sees as “a moral poet who took an active role in his time.” Aridjis’s wife Betty adds this caveat: “I also think Homero would like to put certain people in various circles of hell.” In his bimonthly columns for Mexico’s Reforma newspaper, Aridjis continues to expose schemes such as Mexico’s current intent to develop the Baja region with a $1.6 billion chain of marinas and tourist resorts that would threaten some of the world’s most ecologically significant wildlife reserves. Long a thorn in the side of the corrupt, Aridjis cannot even venture to certain parts of his country where “the turtle poachers and illegal loggers recognize me; I am public enemy number one.” For a period in the late 1990s, after a series of death threats his family had two government-appointed bodyguards. “Always there has been, in these crusades, an element of danger,” Aridjis says matter-of-factly.

So it is not surprising that many of his strongest poems are apocalyptic in tone. The Prophecy of Man envisions a future where “clouds hung like grapeskins,” and “trees shrivelled in the mountains,” and the sun is become “a yolk thrown in the mud.” Another poem finds rivers

“reaching their mouth in lethal lakes
and the scarred sea that no longer loves them.”

The Last Night of the World is a fitful longing:

“In the shop windows of men, there were
stuffed animals and plastic fruit,
photographs of earth when it was still blue;
of woods, long before their ruination.”

Yet, ultimately, Homero Aridjis stands before his creator with a warrior’s commitment forged from a deep humility. His greatest satisfactions, he says, come in continuing private visitations with the monarchs, whales, and sea turtles: “Perhaps you are alive because we did a little in your defense.” His life’s philosophy echoes in a poem that ends: “Being is the presence of light.”

In his poem titled Eyes to See Otherwise, written in 1998, Aridjis writes of how

“the eye is valued by the distance
it covers outside it
and the light it’s capable of taking in.”

With these words, a man who has been hailed as the conscience of Mexico encapsulates his own autobiography.