Moisés Villavicencio Barras, Luz de Todos los Tiempos / Light of All Times, Cowfeather Press, 2013
by Judith Barisonzi
Readers, you are lucky. It is not everyday one gets to meet a new poet, to immerse oneself in a world at once familiar and strange. Moises Villaciencio Barras is a well known writer in his native Mexico, but to most of us norteamericanos, his voice will be new and exciting. Even though he lives and teaches in Madison, Wisconsin, the world of his bilingual volume of poems, Light of All Times/Luz de Todos los Tiempos (Cowfeather Press, 2013), is not that of Madison's familiar streets. It is a mythic, timeless world, the world of the ancestors.
Your first impression when starting to read these poems might be that they tell a familiar story of immigration from Mexico to the U.S—an impoverished rural childhood, a dangerous train ride north, a menial job in the new land. But for the most part, Villaciencio Barras' life is only obliquely narrated. There has been violence, abuse, anger, alcoholism, death. There are caustic though not unsympathetic poems about the poet's father and a long, moving elegy for his mother, and there are references to his Wisconsin life of books, to a wife and sons. But this is not a confessional volume; no narrative story line binds the poems together.
What, then, is the book about? It's about the natural world more than the human one—or, more precisely, about their intersection. Villaciencio Barras' childhood world is seen not in terms of home, school, community, but in terms of prairie and river. It's a world of wildness, of freedom, depicted in strong simple nouns, mostly monosyllables, that stand alone, unadorned with adjectives: grass, stones, streams. It is not a perfect world: “hate/has lived in the house …hate we inherited/from my grandfather and my grandmother” (“Stone Against Stone,” p. 35). But despite the negative aspects of the past, Villaciencio Barras insists, “We were not on the wrong side of life” (“Another Glass of Your Childhood,” p. 57). It is a childhood transformed by memory, a world of
round stones from the river
of your childhood
the iguana’s green paths,
the fish that said your first words” (“Sale” p. 79).
This childhood world is the world of the ancestors: “My ancestors sang/in the prairies where infinity lives” (“Ancestors,” p. 9). It’s a sacred world: “In my childhood the streams brought/sacred beads/that I hung on my chest” (p. 9). It’s a world where
my ancestors ran
from one city to another
with seeds and fish
of terrestrial and natural Gods” (p. 9)
The childhood world is also—as you may have observed in the lines I have quoted—a world of animals: iguana, fox, otter, geese, rabbits, crows, badger, jaguar, goat—and many others. I counted mention of at least 34 different animals in the poems. Many of these are metaphoric. For example, Villaciencio Barras writes that “the silence lies in the grass/like a dying otter” (“While I Run,” p. 51) or “You were the lone hare in the snowfields” (“Another Glass of Your Childhood,” p. 67).
The animals in the poems are at once themselves, keenly observed, and something more, the stuff of fable, reminders of a time when human and animal were not distinct, separate:
Inside your body there is still the aroma
Of those who go out into the night without fear,
of those who wander like a jaguar, like a stream ("Like a Jaguar, Like a Stream," p. 33)
In the world of the ancestors, God is a familiar presence, or perhaps an absence:
I would like you
to enter my grandmother's yard
and shake with all your force
the lemon tree . . .
I would like to see her pull your ears
and afterward send you to the store
to buy the beer (God for my Grandmother, p. 45)
Of course, God doesn’t shake the lemon tree, and Villaciencio Barras wonders why God stands idly by while people, like his mother, endure lives of misery:
I ignore God’s motives, but you were in his territory
of gray polar wells with doors cracked open,
of drops of fire that bleed through,
of so many untuned pianos and lions’ teeth (“Another Glass of Your Childhood,” p. 63).
In God's absence, people make themselves into gods, like Villaciencio Barras' father, a "small god made of clay" (“While I Run,” p. 49):
. . . my father's voice
once again wound
in his airs of god (p. 51).
God seems distant from us, perhaps disillusioned with His creation or perhaps powerless to bring about change:
is enraged with the weak and those with good intentions.
God listens to gunblasts, not prayers, clumsier than a badger crossing the boulevard. (p. 63)
The lost world in which humans, animals, and God exist in familiar harmony is contrasted with the adult world of concrete, with “the cities where pavement is king and the night does not shine” (“Another Glass of Your Childhood,” p. 55). Even the city where Villaciencio Barras lives—Madison, Wisconsin—is
. . . the city that ignores
how you close your eyes when wind strikes,
how you say words suddenly learned. (“Madison,” p. 39),
but the poet also acknowledges that
One has to come close to the city;
it is in the city where we learn hopelessness. (“Wild Cat,” p. 23)
Between the opposing poles of ancestral world and city runs the dangerous train:
. . .that dragon
of iron and smoke,
we felt it strike our eyelids,
strike the earth
with its long tail.(“Crossing,” p. 13)
With its wily coyote, at once human and animal, the train marks the passage from childhood to the wider world, transporting its passengers between past and present, between Mexico and the U.S., between ancestors and the living. Yet again, Villaciencio Barras recognizes that the train has something to teach us:
From a train I learned the agony
of not having territory (“Doves for the Air of June,” p. 81).
It seems, then, that the loss of the Edenic ancestral world is a painful but necessary journey. And no matter how far away we wander from the mythic, ancestral world, we are still bound to it by the essence of our being, by our blood: “Blood walks alone . . . blood/cries like an old fire” (“Blood Walks Alone,” p. 31). “I write,” says, Villaciencio Barras, “so our blood speaks” (“Reasons in the Winter,” p. 87). “I have another voice,” he tells us:
I write so my sons one day know that I have another voice
not the voice that tells them when to turn on and off their eyes,
But rather the voice that you also recognize in the almond trees,
and in the movement of the clouds.
A voice that was born many centuries ago
with rattles and feathers” (p. 87).
You might have noticed, at the beginning of this paragraph, that I used the pronoun "we."
That's what myth is all about. My ancestors didn't live in Mexico, but I know I am connected to them and their world as much as Villaciencio Barras is to his ancestral homeland. That's why these poems that come from one man's life can speak to all of us. At the beginning of the book, there is a photo showing a young man and woman, smiling, with a small child between them, holding its parents' hands, unsteady on its feet. Is this Moises and his parents? Or the poet with his wife and son? Or myself and my parents? It could be any of us. So whether you are an English speaker or a Spanish speaker, a recent immigrant or the descendant of immigrants long ago, someone who lives among foxes and otters or whose home is on a city street, I'm sure you will share my excitement at discovering this poet among us.
Judy Barisonzi has been a Wisconsin resident since 1966, and she now lives among the lakes and woods of northwest Wisconsin. Semi-retired from teaching English at the University of Wisconsin Colleges, she gives workshops in creative writing and memoir writing, participates in several local writing groups, and publishes poems in local and national magazines.