Saturday, June 21, 2008

19. Las Casas - Michael Hofmann

Las Casas describes a Mexican town. Or more than that, unobtrusively describes the contradictions, oppositions and juxtapositions within it. He’s an observer and makes no claims to understand the nuances of the culture – the opening line is, “I leaned round the corner in a Gold Rush town.” There’s the mix of people from Europe, North America, the Ladinos and the Indians, “everyone a source of money to everyone else.” The shops have a weird mix of products on their shelves and well-built houses share space with burgeoning pastel shacks “whose quick spread swallowed the airport.” There’s the noise during the day and the deserted streets after eight o’clock. Fireworks produce “jubilation, and no eyes raised.”

I presume MH is talking about San Cristobal de las Casas in the southern Chiapas region. I’ve been there and, I must admit, I loved the place. It’s painted in the off-the-beaten-track tourist brochures as an ethereal place, and it certainly is a bit dreamy, the mirage of a haven a tourist might dream of settling in. But MH cuts straight through the superficial romance.

I liked his description of the living and the dead both heading to the “aquamarine graveyard” to the sound of music (bright colours, death, and music appear inseparable in Mexico), but my favourite lines are those which close the poem:

the scrape of rockets up the sky, a flash in the pan,
a percussive crash, a surprisingly durable cloud.
Jubilation, and no eyes raised.

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