REFLECTIONS IN A SMOKING MIRROR,
Poems of Mexico & Belize

reflections-in-a-smoking-mirror.jpg

The Quiche Maya, native to Guatemala and Belize, tell us that Gucumatz unfolded blue-green wings over the smoking mirror of primal water to bring forth humans who would honor the gods, but also reflect them. The dialogue among mortals, gods and the ancestors involved raising the Vision Serpent from the smoke of burning blood-soaked bark—a metaphor for consciousness that gives new meaning to the phrase “it’s all smoke and mirrors.” What is called forth speaks with a foundational voice from depths that are inaccessible by ordinary means.” In Reflections in a Smoking Mirror, Paul Pines writes of his search: “for what might be reflected in the Smoking Mirror, both as volcanic lake, and metaphor. … I’ve come to understand what I may have done beyond my intention, to let let the ancestors speak in ways that have not always been apparent to me, except for the blood-smoke on these pages.”

REFLECTIONS IN A SMOKING MIRROR

From the first
Moctezuma feared it
and took such precautions as he could
against the end
of his world

Crazy Horse
perceived
they’d all die singing or fighting
or ambushed
in their sleep

Only the Peace Chiefs
among the Crow
Cheyenne and Blackfoot decided to
stand the slaughter
unresisting

in the belief
that even the annihilation
of their race
couldn’t reduce the Great Spirit
and might serve as a lesson
for the minds
of men

To purchase please clinks links to Dos Madres Press or Amazon.

                                                                                                                                                                     ADIRONDACK CENTER FOR WRITING BEST POETRY AWARD 2011

                                                                                                                                                                     ADIRONDACK CENTER FOR WRITING BEST POETRY AWARD 2011

“Reflections in a Smoking Mirror” is preceded by high praise. I found you come back to this parable closely tied to religion in which people believe gods will appear…to terrible consequences. The only other person I can compare this to is Goethe…Powerful stuff!
— Paul Elisha, “Bard’s Eye View,” NPR-WAMC, Albany
Many of the poems seem to take place when seafaring men jump out of their boats with sword in hand, ready to conquer the enemy with the clash of weapons and political demise. Someone has to lose but it is not the verse. These poems are similar to a Keith Jarret Concert. They can rip your heart out and leave the reader defenseless.
— Doug Holder, “Boston Small Press & Poetry Scene”
Infused with an eerily adept understanding of Latin American history and culture dating from the 15th century to modern times, their collective duende, “Reflections in a Smoking Mirror” will come to stand as a monumental work and as a companion piece to the epic Gabriel García Márquez novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” This collection of poems takes on the true power of myth.
— Wayne Atherton
What ties these poems together is Pines’ distinctive voice and the omnipresent guide of his demanding and imposing perspective. Pines makes the past his own and with each subsequent line owns whatever time is spent savoring his poems.
— Eric Hoffman, “Big Bridge #16”
What is perhaps strangest for me as a reader and also what lends a mirrored and smoky depth to this collection are the historical contexts Pines writes from…I keep finding new layers of meaning couched between lines. Maybe it is because poems like “Restaurant Villa Hermosa,” “Vectors,” “Reflections in a Smoking Mirror,” and “Birds of Belize II” grab hold of me and don’t let me go.
— Cameron Scott, “Sugar Mule #39”
“Reflections in a Smoking Mirror” tells the story of the fall of an ancient, vibrant civilization to Spain’s conquistadors under Cortez. Pines’ language is intelligent and refreshing, his ideas provocative, his images striking, and his narrative—however tragic—dramatically thrilling. This book is a smoking mirror.
— Maurice Kenny
These poems seem to be captured out of the mythic ether. They are like a grand illusion in a mirror we cannot stop ourselves from looking into, because the vision in Paul Pines poetry is the smoky reflection of our own spirits. These poems masterfully written with economical precision testify not only to the power of myth as life s eternal narrative, but the way that narrative is ever-present in the synchronicities and intersections of our daily lives.
— Edgar Gabriel Silex
I found this book unexpectedly compelling, because it goes beyond consideration of what’s remembered/what’s lost — it gets you thinking about the depth of human resilience and spirit, and survival of myth in a modern world “driven by time, instead of depth”.
— Jottings of an Ameriquebeckian
Paul’s “Reflections in a Smoking Mirror: poems of Mexico and Belize” is a powerful engagement with the culture of the indigenous peoples, the Aztecs in particular. Part one, titled “Configurations of Conquest”, is exactly what the title suggests: reflections on the Spanish colonization and genocide of the native peoples.
— Louis Proyect, The Unrepentant Marxist

REVIEWED

Sugar Mule # 39   Reviewed by Cameron Scott

In his new collection of poems and narratives, “Reflections in a Smoking Mirror,” Paul Pines writes from the elusive edge of cultures, landscapes, and people during times of change. While conquest and revolution might be considered main themes, a deeper personal thread runs through this assortment of historically based stories, poems, and personal poems.

While Pines is writing about very specific places and time periods in Mexico and Belize, poems like “Restaurant Villa Hermosa” and “Punta Gorda” reveal the human condition so powerfully well I sometimes feel like I could be reading about the neighbors next door.

In “Restaurant Villa Hermosa” Pines writes the following of La Duena, the cashier: “with the memory/ of loveliness/ she pins back her hair:// she knows that feelings become extinct/ when we cease to use them// how we change as creatures/ once they are gone.” In these lines Pines captures that “elusive edge” couched in a simple tip of the hat towards growing old.

In another poem “Punta Gorda,” Pines writes “Now a new generation has sprung/ from Cat Landing// to find/ a way out//or discover/there’s no escape/ from a place.” A succinct stab at humanity’s teenage years? Pretty much a direct hit.

What is perhaps strangest for me as a reader and also what lends a mirrored and smoky depth to this collection are the historical contexts Pines writes from. In his afterward of the second section of his book “My Name is Nakuk Pech,” Pines writes “Nakuk’s CHRONICA is a personal and cultural swan song.// In this version of it, I’ve tried to capture his voice.” And earlier in the afterward: “…we sense the fragmentation of a once great civilization, the tensions between feudal families that had undermined it by the time the Spanish came.”

Overall, this is a collection worth returning to. Perhaps it is because I keep finding new layers of meaning couched between lines. Maybe it is because poems like “Restaurant Villa Hermosa,” “Vectors,” “Reflections in a Smoking Mirror,” and “Birds of Belize II” grab hold of me and don’t let me go. But mostly, I keep returning to “Reflections in a Smoking Mirror” because I just enjoy the way Pines writes.

 

Eric Hoffman in Big Bridge:  Reflections in a Smoking Mirror: Poems of Mexico & Belize  A review of the book by Paul Pines (Dos Madres Press)

 

Paul Pines' new collection, Reflections in a Smoking Mirror, includes both poems and short narratives that weave their way through various eras and landscapes, notably fixing its gaze on moments of transformation, capturing the tangled energy these upheavals bring. Pines' focus is on the various countries of Latin America, cultures whose character have been shaped by its many conquests and revolutions. A lyric poet, the various historical ruminations are filtered through Pines' unique perspective and careful, articulate voice. This lends the poems a distinctiveness as well as an air of familiarity, for while Pines writes knowledgeably and insightfully about these vastly different cultures, he manages to lend them a universality that allows the reader of any background the shock of recognition and the experience of what it must felt like to be among these people at such times of crisis.

Pines' presentation of the material is definitely non-linear, and follows a pattern of thinking that remains somewhat intuitive; poems lead into one another based more on an emotional content than on strict theme. It is obvious Pines has given the structuring of the book great care. I am reminded of Paul Blackburn's careful structuring of his works, most notably The Journal poems where the poems are both individual works, unique in content, but also discrete parts of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The poems jump around not only in space but in time—a poem taking place outside of time, in the speaker's consciousness, can be followed by a poem taking place in something like the present, while the following poem traces events taking place decades before. Rather than causing confusion, this unseating of linear time—a "crazy quilt" as Pines describes it in his introduction—underlines what I believe to be Pines' larger implication: that all places and all times, both personal and historical, are subject to such upheavals, and our survival is always threatened, always uncertain. What ties these poems together is Pines' distinctive voice and the omnipresent guide of his demanding and imposing perspective. Pines makes the past his own and with each subsequent line owns whatever time is spent savoring his poems.

And there is much to savor. Among the most notable poems is "Restaurant Villa Hermosa" in which Pines observes the stark beauty and distinct elegance of a simple woman working as a cashier in a restaurant: "with the memory/ of loveliness/ she pins back her hair:// she knows that feelings become extinct/ when we cease to use them// how we change as creatures/ once they are gone."

The poet's journey is made the reader's journey. Pines' ultimate goal in the poems is apocalyptic in the Greek definition of the term: the lifting of the veil. The first section of the work is a rendering of this veil. Entitled "Configurations of Conquest," the poem entitled "Timepiece" is representative:

What the Maya knew
was that every twenty years
                       their calendars
                       failed to mesh

   as if the sun and moon
   were gears disengaged
                       on the cusp
                       of life and death

   where even the gods
   fear a force beyond which
   there is no force

                       a vector
                       nothing accounts for . . .



   what else can explain
   the concept of zero

                       in a jungle
                       where orchids spill
                       in flaming abundance
                       from giant mahogany

as if to say
here

we cannot speak
of absence

The veil has started to lift. The second section, "Synchronicity," features a polyphony of distinct voices from the ancient past. Pines only came to a recognition of these voices after having completed a journey started in Mexico City in 1962 when he first encountered the work of a descendent of one of the first Conquistadors, Nakuk Pech, whose name, Pines claims, sounded vaguely like his own. Pech later collaborated with the Spanish invaders and it is through his eyes that we see in unflinching detail the massive devestation the conquerers wrought, the unforgiving blindness of power and the sick indifference of the world or of the Gods to the natives' plight. Pech is an unblinking witness of these violent and catastrophic events, and he "place[s] them here like heart beats," writes Pines.

The book's final section returns to the 21st century, to Belize. In the poem "Dangriga" the reader encounters the often crushing weight of history on the present, how each moment, sprung wild from its fixed fated place, offers us the liberating moment of choice, and how even the lowliest among possess at least that skill to dream beyond our limitations, perhaps finding some opportunity to break free from the imprisonment of our own lack of imagination, our nihilism, our narcissism, our greed:

The Maya of Santa Rosa Wear long faces
come to town
still suffering from
a shock
                only half
                remembered

while Carib girls pace
the streets

                coal black
                in tight slacks
                hair in corn-rows

smile at me
by the River Front Hotel
where I wait for the truck
to Mango Creek,

                smile back
                and reconsider
                the conquest
                of the New World.

Pines' book includes helpful notes on the poems as well as a "partial" glossary; a welcome gesture of accessibility in this otherwise profound, and profoundly enlightening work.

Jottings of an AmeriQuebeckian

WrFebruary 9, 2012 Reflections in a Smoking Mirror

 

                               Reflections in a Smoking Mirror

 

                                                         From the first

                                                             Moctezuma feared it

                                                         and took such precautions as he could

 

                                                               against the end

                                                           of his world

 

                                                                           Crazy Horse

                                                                        perceived

                                                               they'd all die singing or fighting

                                                                    or ambushed

                                                                        in their sleep

 

                                                         Only the Peace Chiefs

                                                              among the Crow

                                                                  Cheyenne and Blackfoot decided to

                                                                            stand the slaughter

                                                                         unresisting

 

                                                                             in the belief

                                                                       that even the annihilation

                                                                  of their race

                                                           couldn't reduce the Great Spirit

                                                                    and might serve as a lesson

                                                                         for the minds

                                                                              of men

 

~ ~ Paul Pines

 

Paul Pines' newest book, Reflections in a Smoking Mirror: Poems of Mexico & Belize, arrived at a time when I was bombarded with work and so I put it aside to read when I got the chance.  Its true impact didn't manifest, however, until after I'd read the book in its entirety - and then gone back and read it again.

The power of words on a page, to tease or repel--or to invite to return for a deeper look.  The words drew me back, whispering there's more to this than one might imagine.

I'd only very recently discovered the work of Paul Pines and found that certain of his poems instantly resonated with me.  His latest publication, Reflections in a Smoking Mirror, especially piqued my interest.

This book appealed to me on two levels:  one was its creative (almost experimental) format, i.e., you're reading a group of reflective poems about myth and conquest and journeys retraced; thenmid-book find yourself gently speed-bumped back in time.  The poet-voyager with whom you've been traveling recedes into the background and another, centuries' older voice emerges.  Presented with the translation of an ancient manuscript, you pause to examine its contents -- suddenly you're living a piece of history.  Then blip! - you're takenback to the 21st century to rejoin the poet in Belize, with poems that accentuate the mesh of change and continuity.  New meanings emerge, the fog clears ...  you begin to really see.

 Its second appeal was the insight it imparted.  Merely stating that the book proved "insightful" doesn't do justice to the unexpected expansion of consciousness that results from reflecting on these parallel journeys--the poet's as narrator/ one's own as reader, "mirroring".  The poems themselves become the vehicle that awakens (or enlarges) this consciousness.  Granted, I'm relating a very personal, subjective response here, but I am not alone in noting that this book contains more than just--as its title suggests--a compilation of poetry and reflections.

The story of how this book came about is itself quite interesting.   Imagine you're wandering by a bookstall in Mexico City in 1962 and happen upon a copy of an account by a sixteenth-century cacique (provincial governor) whosename translated into English sounds like your own - and five years later you inadvertently find yourself in what's left of his "once proud city, now just a few huts, reading his words" and that because of these seeming coincidences you embark on a decades' long journey that will open worlds of perception you never thought possible.

As the book opens, we find Pines at the Restaurant Villa Hermosa as he orders scrambled eggs, fried tortillas and Nescafé.  He observes "La Duena/ a beauty gone to seed".  She "sits by the register in a blue dress/ features flickering/ with the memory/ of loveliness/ as she pins back her hair":
                                                                                                

                            she knows that feelings become extinct

                            when we cease to use them,

 

                            how we change as creatures

                            once they are gone.


In Section One, Pines reflects on the Configurations of Conquest.  I especially liked the poem,
entitled"Timepiece" :

Gucumatz, the Quiché Maya serpent god. 

 

 

 

 

                          What the Maya knew
                          was that every twenty years

                                               their calendars

                                               failed to mesh


                          as if the sun and moon

                          were gears disengaged

                                              on the cusp

                                              of life and death


                          where even the gods

                          fear a force beyond which

                          there is no force

 

                                             a vector

                                             nothing accounts for . . .

 

Lady Xoc.  Photo byDayna Bateman

                          what else can explain

                          the concept of zero

 

                                             in a jungle

                                             where orchids spill

                                             in flaming abundance

                                             from giant mahogany

 

                         as if to say

                         here

 

                        we cannot speak

                        of absence


In Section Two:  "Synchronicity,"  Pines lets the ancestors themselves speak.  It is only at the end of his journey, he writes in the preface, that their voices have reached him "in ways that have not always been apparent, except for the blood-smoke on these pages."

Through Pines' translation we get to meet his alter-ego, Nakuk Pech (baptismal name, "Pablo") , descendant of the first Conquistadors of Maxtunil, as Pech relates how they--he and his father--joined forces with the Spanish conquerors. A conquest by conversion, in Pablo's case; he watches the power of power, to subjugate, render powerless.

We went drunk on 'pinole' because everything seemed bitter and they ordered us about like masters of the earth.  For six months they rode and we followed on foot.  Many witnessed these events.  I am writing down for my children and those to come until death takes this land for its own.  Until then ...  I do not pay tribute--nor will my sons and daughters. 

Pech records the events as they happened.  "I place them here like heart beats,"   he says.

Just as Pablo Pech invites readers centuries later to understand what it was like to share his particular experience, so his contemporary alter-ego, author/poet Paul Pines, invites readers to join his journey of discovery and share his reflections connecting the past and the present, what has been preserved and what forgotten.

In the third and final section of the book, we are back in the 21st century again, this time in Belize, continuing our voyage along with Pines, in amirror travel where "half-way down the coast/ the Coxscomb Mts bleed into the sea".

                                                      

                                                                  I know the integuments

                                                                  of the soul are spun

                                                                  from images the eye

                                                                  records and nourishes

                                                                  to weave us back

                                                                  into the world ...


[Excerpt from the poem "Coastwise on the Fury"]

The impact of the fading threads of memory in the face of change is keenly felt, by participants and observer alike, echoed here in the poem "Dangriga":
   

                                                    The Maya of Santa Rosa

                                                    Wear long faces

                                                    come to town

                                                    still suffering from

                                                    a shock

                                                                      only half

                                                                      remembered

 

                                                   while Carib girls pace

                                                   the streets

 

                                                                     coal black

                                                                     in tight slacks

                                                                     hair in corn-rows

 

                                                  smile at me

                                                  by the River Front Hotel

                                                  where I wait for the truck

                                                  to Mango Creek,

 

                                                                     smile back

                                                                     and reconsider

                                                                     the conquest

                                                                     of the New World.


In sum, I found this book unexpectedly compelling, because it goes beyond consideration of what's remembered/what's lost -- itgets you thinking about the depth of human resilience and spirit, and survival of myth in amodern world "driven by time, instead of depth".  The author himself best describes, far better than I could, what readers slowly become aware of throughout:  images taking shape in the mind, "as in a polished obsidian mirror--smokey at first, then clear."  [p. 49].  A book worth reading - and then going back and reading again.

Reflections
In A Smoking Mirror
Poems of Mexico & Belize
Paul Pines
Dos Madres Press 2011
ISBN 1-933675-60-2

Many of the poems seem to take place when seafaring
men jump out of their boats with sword in hand, ready to conquer
the enemy with the clash of weapons and political demise. Someone
has to lose but it is not the verse. These poems are similar to a
Keith Jarret Concert. They can rip your heart out and leave the reader
defenseless. So we have the ancients and the jazz musician combo:

“...Ollin
saw him coming
and warned his orchestra

-when the wind speaks
don't answer or you're lost

Robed in yellow red & green
they sat in silence...

until the Wind
began to sing

and they couldn't help
but accompany him

the above poem is a hymn that traverses the early story telling, chorus
and ancients collide on the page with a combination of mighty warrior
and old hags:

“a hag among young whores”

or

“descended
to find Mother Earth
a many – limbed monster
moving over water...”

Ahh. Not much changes. We kill and confiscate, claim as our own
the spoils of war and his 'him' dominates:

“Two days
after Blizean Independence
and almost all foreign visitors
have left...
in fact
there were so many
a West Indian P.M. Kept asking
where the Belizeans were
(many of whom had been reduced
to peeping through the fence)
It rained on Saturday
as the Belizean flag was raised
to a 21 gun salute
fired by a frigate
off shore
but the firework display
was scrubbed
after attempts to light it
failed
and it was clear
most of the population
had stayed home...

The poems are well written, informative and many readers will
revel in their myth and reality:

“...while Carib girls pace
the streets

coal black
in tight slacks
hair in corn-rows

smile at me
by the River Front Hotel
where I wait for the truck
to Mango Creek...”