A Proustian reverie rises from 'Sage's' clean scent

POET'S CORNER

January 27, 2002|By Michael Collier | Michael Collier,Special to the Sun

An ancient role of the poet is to transmit a culture's stories from one generation to the next, a process that once was almost exclusively oral. The tradition of Anglo-American poetry is long removed from its oral roots, though we may hear it at times in secular and gospel ballads, the blues and work songs. When I first met Edgar Silex a decade ago, shortly after he had left his job as a systems engineer for Hughes Aircraft to pursue a graduate degree in creative writing at the University of Maryland, one aspect of his poems that struck me was their story-telling function.

Silex, 43, a visiting writer at St. Mary's College who lives in Laurel, is a member of the Tigua pueblo tribe. He grew up near El Paso, Texas, in a family that is large, fragmented and trilingual (Tigua, Spanish and English). Silex was raised by his grandfather, from whom he learned the myths of the Tigua.

In "Grandfather Buffalo," a poem from Through All the Displacements (Curbstone Press, 1995), Silex recalls how his grandfather taught him to meet humiliation with dignity: "I saw them staring at him / in the mall I was small / holding his granite hand / his skin bronzed / straight blue-black hair / his eyes and nose slightly curved / towards earth."

In the child's eyes, the grandfather's dignity has the power of transforming the terrible and isolating stares into "truth" that "looked like a buffalo / a tall wide block that walks / like a stampede desert soil skin / lungs that puff great mists / and appaloosa legs / that can outrun tornadoes."

The Earth, toward which the grandfather's "slightly curved" nose points, is an important source of power in Silex's work. "Sage," a recent poem, is a Proustian reverie in which the ancient antagonisms of the Earth -- where "the delicate gifts of this desert / are locked in snake venoms" -- are reconciled through a purifying release of sage musk after a rain.

At the heart of "Sage" is an optimism that underlies all of Silex's work. It is an optimism that he learned from his grandfather, who showed him how to transform humiliation into triumph the way the common and bitter sagebrush renews itself with rain.

Maryland poet laureate Michael Collier's Poet's Corner appears monthly in Arts & Society.

READING

Edgar Silex is reading Tuesday at 8:15 p.m. at St. Mary's College in St. Mary's City.

Sage

by Edgar Silex

on a stretch of desert far

as your eyes can bear witness

the oceans rise in spiraling waves

of thermals carrying the mariner

wings of hawks and vultures

who circle and counter as though

sailing into the blueness

without lineations the horizons

the mountains look like the ancient

wanderers the ancestral imagoes

who stood up to die yet their stories

remain in the half-supine eyes

of the corn planters the sheep

herders the weavers and potters

eluviating in the desert's

efficiency here with the wolf

spiders and snakes the sacristan

sage roots in this marginal land

enshrined in its leafy scent

are the promises of rain

and in its delft blue color

you can see the inexhaustible

days I remember planting it

in a childhood garden and tasting

the aquifers in the aromas

of damp soft clays that stuck

to my hands as I spread its roots

down in the nocturnal dews

or in the air of distant thunders

the night wears the fertile fragrance

of sage like perfume I remember

falling asleep in its smells

of Eden of antediluvian stories

nothing stirs my memory better

of our scratched existence

like the sodden airs of rain-

wet sage when I cut it I whisper

my secrets to its age knowing

the delicate gifts of this desert

are locked in snake venoms

in cactus spines in the perduring

people in the threadbare heart

and in my murmurings turning

to cinder and ash when I burn it

what remains is the clean

sweet redolence of ancient rains

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