By Emmaly Wiederholt
In 1972, the quintessential New Mexican author Rudolfo Anaya published his best-known novel, Bless Me, Ultima. In it, he depicts his early childhood on the rolling flatlands of the desert outside Santa Rosa, known as the llano. Bless Me, Ultima and the many novels, essays, plays, short stories and children’s books Anaya later authored have come to be as definitive of New Mexico’s essence as our red-hued sunsets or unraveling expanses.
But did you know Anaya is also a poet? 2015 marks the release of his first book of poetry, Poems from the Rio Grande. “I’ve written the poems over the years. Though I’m not a poet, so to speak, I’ve always read poetry and been drawn to poetic instinct,” says Anaya. “My editor was waiting for my new novel, and he asked what else I had. I told him I had drawers full of poems.” The poems span both time and place, drawing on his childhood llano and from contemporary experiences. For example, “Isis in the Heart” is a love poem to his wife based on their travels to Egypt. It combines Egyptian mythology with New Mexico’s own mythological landscape. “My poetry, fiction, essays and plays have to be understood in the context of New Mexico,” Anaya asserts. “I was born and raised here, and have lived a very charmed life here. I remember when I started writing Bless Me, Ultima, one of the reasons I wrote it was because all those beautiful people I knew in my childhood shouldn’t be forgotten. The town drunk, for example, should not be forgotten. He was a fabulous mythological man who sometimes hung out with my father. The accidents and death that happened to him seemed to belong in a book. That’s what a book or a poem do… they capture time and put it on paper. They come out of the moments when life is tragic, when life is joyful, when there’s good health, when there’s poor health, when there’s love, when there’s hate… that’s life, and that’s what you have to put down on paper. That’s what a poem is about.”Born from the snows and summer rains, in the Sangre de Cristo your veins were formed. Murmur of waters, happily bubbling, you flow down singing. Splashing!Sparkling! Dancing! Dressed in finery a river stupendous!You are the soul of our New Mexico. – An excerpt from “Song to the Río Grande”
Poems from the Rio Grande stands out from Anaya’s previous books in that it is comprised wholly of poetry. Written in his token Spanish-English pastiche, the poems reveal a man for whom the spell of his land and people is as strong as ever. “There are some poems that are personal and perhaps risqué. People might get into them, or they might be misunderstood, I don’t know. I just compiled them and sent them on,” says Anaya. He continues to explain: “Each genre has a certain voice. When I write novels, there’s the voice of long narrative that must be explored and solved to the end. When I write an essay, I use a specific voice to write about an event or something personal. Short stories come in a different way; they come quick. I write plays and children’s books, and they all call for a different type of writing. So does the poem. It’s just part of my imagination and larger voice, but those words had to come out that way.”
Now in his 78th year, the longtime Albuquerque resident is far from retired. Anaya’s next novel will come out next year, which he describes as being “personal, autobiographical and emotionally difficult to write.” Also recently re-released is his 1995 children’s book, The Farolitos of Christmas, with new illustrations by Amy Cordova. As long as Anaya’s still living, he’ll still be writing; for as he describes, “I’m still writing in my head. That’s just how I am, constantly writing in my mind. All of writing takes place in my mind. And then at some point I sit down and write a first draft. I think everyone is always writing in their mind, just like I am. That’s what’s beautiful about life; everybody has a story to tell. A writer just happens to put it down.”
Photo of Rudolfo Anaya by Christina Frain