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June 23, 2002|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

EYES TO SEE OTHERWISE: Selected Poems, By Homero Aridjis, Edited by Betty Ferber and George McWhirter, New Directions: 312 pp., $19.95

Illiteracy is the only adequate excuse for not having read the poetry of Homero Aridjis, one of Mexico's most famous poets, next to Octavio Paz. It is often said that poets are the conscience of their countries, but Aridjis, who is one of that country's leading environmentalists, is also Mexico's eyes.

Reading this collection, written from 1960 to 2000 and translated by Betty Ferber, W.S. Merwin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth to name a few, is like floating through time; it evokes a childhood and a child's vision. Aridjis, born in 1940, is inspired not only by his own childhood spent in the mountainous town of Contepec in Michoacan, where the monarch butterflies winter each year, but also by literature and paintings and by Nahuatl chants and Huichol songs.

In his earliest poems, Aridjis begins spinning his cosmography. The Earth he describes seems new, full of shapes like spirals and stars and fruit. Light moves in and through the objects in these early poems with no barriers; wheat, water, rocks and branches are all illuminated from within:

The time of poetry

forms a fruit of light

which falls to earth

trembling on its shadow.

Light and shadows play through these poems as if the air in them were clean and pure. Aridjis frequently describes the same scene at different times of day, not unlike what Monet did in his painting at Giverny.

The poems of the late '70s are more earthbound. The pronoun most commonly used is "I" or "he," referring to a slightly disenfranchised, distanced man: "he wasn't feeling well in truth he never felt well ... / he had a wine glass in which he kept algae

Slowly, death creeps into the poems, and one feels as if one has been kicked from the Garden of Eden. There is revolution, ancestors, grandchildren, peasants and donkeys, daggers and poems; generations telescope down to destruction:

What street to take

that doesn't lead to the tyrants plaza

where to turn

where his portrait isn't

on what bench to sit

without his eyes watching.

By the 1980s, Aridjis' poetry is full of the smell of gasoline, rotting food and mud. The light is trapped. Movement is shackled:

We put bolts on the eyes,

locks on the hands,

limits to the lightening.

But life keeps its distance

love to its word

and poetry comes up where it can.

There is distance and death:

Tomorrow we will die twice over

Once as individuals

a second time as a species.

A reader misses the "you," a guardian angel, a pure being.

Then, in the poems of the 1990s, there is the pronoun "one," that most august of pronouns, distant but part of, spanning all time, all vision. These poems fly again over years and in cycles, back to the author's childhood. They defy forgetting. They are full of eagles and serpents and whales. They include poems to the poet's wife and daughter. There is little question in these poems that by remembering we can save even that which we have destroyed.

Even "you" comes back, "running down the street / wrapped in a shabby raincoat." Aridjis plays among the gray whales the way he played among the monarch butterflies as a child, seeing through their eyes and also God's:

there is no splendor greater than a grey

when the light turns it

silver ....

And the whales came up

to spot God over

the dancing gunnels of the waters

and God was sighted by a whale's eye.

What a privilege to read selections from a life's work, to see through Aridjis' eyes, to swim and travel through his visions and defeats. Try, even if you do not read much poetry, to read it like a novel. Don't stop over words, don't say to yourself, "I really don't know what he meant there," just let your eyes move restfully over the pages. You will come to the end. "Ever since I was very young / I learned to eat air," Aridjis writes. Learn to eat air.

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