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poetry, Hawaii, U.S.A.
Train Depot in Chihuahua|
At dawn we sit on a bench outside,
My family and I,
In the quiet among trees.
Silently form over nearby hills.
In the hum of our own ears
We wait for the ticket office to open.
The depot, draped with families
Who rest on blankets,
Forms a patchwork
On the weathered platform
Alongside the lifeless train.
A father, in serape
And straw cowboy hat,
Whispers to children cuddled by his side
In tones more soothing than the hushed breezes
That drift down from the mountain gullies
As the mute sunrise finger paints
Above the eastern ridge in rows of roses.
Time, like a soundless accordion,
Bellows out our memories
Of yesterday´s walk through the plaza
Past vendors of elote, tacos and balloons,
Indigenous women selling handmade crafts,
Past shoeshine stands in the shade
Where clients read the daily news
While boleros shined their boots
For a few pesos and a tip.
We fade in and out of yesterday's stroll
And today's scroll of colors across the sky
With moments for dozing off in between
That seem to last weeks.
A small man with a large mustache
Opens the ticket window with a sudden clack
As if to say that dawn
Has officially turned to day.
A startled baby´s cry breaks
All of our daydreams
In one shriek moment.
Arts Dialogue, December 1998, page 13.
When I was a youth, my family and I occasionally traveled to the Pawnee Buttes on the plains of eastern Colorado. Far from the snowed-crowned mountains that have made Colorado famous; far, too, from the red-tinted earth in the southern part of the state that inspired early Spanish explorers to name the territory Colorado (red), these wind-blown prairies near Nebraska continue to suffer from the erosion caused by poor farming and grazing practices by the European settlers of the early 1900's. The "Dust Bowl" of the 1930's lingered into the 1970's.
During one visit in my youth, I walked along a dry riverbed with my sisters. The wind whistled over our heads. No matter how blue the sky or how sharp the piercing bolts of sunlight might be, the wind always raged on over the Pawnee grasslands.
Chris Cholas, 2002, Honolulu.
Suddenly at my feet I discovered a small, gold rock amidst the white clay of the gulch. As the endless wind whipped by above me, I stooped and picked up the stone and in that moment I felt a sudden, cosmic connection with history. My hand held an arrowhead made by a native-American hunter, perhaps a Pawnee or an Arapaho warrior, from a century past. Here was a remnant of an arrow that most likely had missed its mark and become lost in the river that once had cut a snake-like path through waste-high grasslands. I pondered whether the arrow had been meant for a deer or a member of an enemy tribe. Now it was mine, a tangible curio connecting me to a past moment cradled in time.
We live for such moments: mysterious, deep and enlightening. Such moments tell us that we are alive in the immensity of time and space. Such rare crossroads in time unveil momentarily the depths of our immortality on the one hand, and the insignificance of our being "before the revelation of Thy splendor," on the other.
I no longer possess that arrowhead, but the moment of its discovery in the gulch has stayed with me all of these years.
When I was newly wed, my wife and I visited her village in New Mexico. As we walked along a dirt road between the adobe homes, we passed several men standing around a wall of a partially destroyed, abandoned home that looked particularly ancient. One of them was pointing to something in the adobe clay bricks. We ventured closer and saw that they were studying a small handprint of a child baked into the adobe.
One of the men looked at us and said, "This house is three hundred years old!" That dated it back to the time of the Pueblo Indian revolt of 1680, when Pueblo native Americans banded together against the Spaniards in a last attempt to rid their lands and people of the fierce oppressors. Surprised by the sudden violence by the usually peaceful Pueblo people, the Spaniards fled south toward El Paso, Texas. My wife's village, Isleta, was divided into two groups: those who resisted the Spaniards and stayed on their sacred soil, and those who fled (either by choice or by force) with the Spaniards to found a new village in Ysleta, Texas. The Spaniards later returned to conquer and subdue the Pueblo people, but for a brief time the original inhabitants along the Rio Grande could boast their freedom.
There in the ancient wall from that turbulent upheaval of the past was a handprint of a child, like a bookmark denoting a unique chapter in history. Again, as with the discovery of the arrowhead several years earlier, I felt a deep connection with the timelessness of human endeavor. There, of course, was no record about the identity or life of that child who dared to mark time by pressing a palm against the yet soft adobe. Even as the sun had baked the handprint into the clay, the mystical link I felt with that child became baked into my memory.
Over the years since becoming a Bahá'í in 1969, I've developed the habit of taking two or three travel teaching trips a year, usually to visit isolated Bahá'ís who seldom receive Bahá'í visitors. These journeys have been a fountain of great spiritual upliftment for me, and they have been the source for much of my writing. Combining a visit to a Bahá'í family in a remote town in Mexico, for example, with movement through nature's diversity has served to stimulate my spiritual yearnings and to provide me with rich moments and rarefied images that sometimes evolve into poems.
The themes for my poems come from varied surroundings -- from meditating on the death of the Purest Branch while looking across the Gulf of California to sitting in a dusty marketplace in Chilpancingo, Mexico watching people pass by.
I've found old hotel rooms to be great places to jot down the initial thoughts in a journal at the end of a day. Old hotel rooms capture the real mood of a place, whereas modern hotels often disguise the locale with imported frills and a superficial foreign flavor fit for comfort-loving tourists and traveling salesmen.
I've stayed in many old hotel rooms. Among them I remember one where I had to ask the manager to heat up the water with firewood each time I wanted to bathe; one where mice carried off my last piece of soap; and one where one of my crutches broke through the rotten wood of a second floor balcony as I tried walking to the bathroom. Despite such inconveniences, I've found older hotels generally more conducive to writing than comfortable newer hotels, where I tend to doze off to restful repose and dream rather than write.
(And there is something special about saying morning prayers under a squeaky ceiling fan that an air-conditioned room cannot equal.)
The first fragments of lines become the germs for potential poems written and refined later, maybe months later. Seldom do the initial jots in the journal, as intense with feeling for me as they might be, become a poem in tact without any rewriting.
I've often thought about "the hidden gift" mentioned by Bahá'u'lláh in prayers for the Fast: "Number me not with them who read Thy words and fail to find Thy hidden gift which, as decreed by Thee, is contained therein, and which quickeneth the souls of Thy creatures and the hearts of Thy servants."
Perhaps these hidden gifts scattered throughout the Holy Writings are also buried in nature and in rare moments like finding an old arrowhead in the gulch or a handprint in the adobe.
Through the scarlet bandana,
red feather of Agathla Peak,
numinous women walk near hogans.
Hair like paint strokes brushed on Black Mesa.
Sandstone cheekbones shade dispirited trances,
plush mescal lips, eyes of coral,
hearts of lodestone, indigo sky of pollen,
sway dance of Mexican Water.
They dissolve in a silent wind
towards sheep hard as rocks.
-- C.S. Cholas, 1976, Kayenta, Arizona.
IN THE MILPA
"For the forming of the earth
they said 'Earth'. It arose suddenly,
just like a cloud, like a mist, now forming, unfolding..." Popol Vuh
From the air this country looks
like a green, floating garden in a white frame.
The sky's special shade of blue makes one feel
that paradise is near; giant puffs of white proclaim
joy across the open air.
Yesterday's rain charged the earth,
crashing hard upon banana leaves,
as if a war had begun: the roar muffled our voices.
Afterwards, toads rejoiced in bellowed coos
that kept us awake until daybreak.
Along the lane lined by cane, rain water
has brought heaven to dragonflies.
Puddles spot the white, clay road like a map of lakes.
That Mayan couple turns into children when they wade
among their corn and squash. Growth is a glow
for them, a love affair that keeps them young.
In dark overalls with a rifle slung upon his back,
this farmer is more boy than grandfather.
His eyes flash: "this is a way of life."
Mapaches-raccoon-- compete for corn.
They call them kuluk in Maya.
The lady says there is a calabasa in the sunlight
on the vine, right there, alone,
like a diamond begging freedom from the earth.
When the sky humbly bows to dusk, I lean on my car
and tell them, "I can take you home now,"
to their village nearby, but the man points to the sun
barely above the western horizon,
"We have another hour of light; we'll stay here until night
and walk back after work is done."
I leave them to their love affair with the land.
I wave before I drive away, but they have already
vanished behind the corn below the pink sky
and the myriad dragonflies.
-- C.S. Cholas,
Corozal, Belize (October 1989)
THE DESERT HUNTER
"The state in which one should be
to seriously search for the truth is the condition of the thirsty, burning soul desiring the water of life..." -- 'Abdu'l-Bahá
At dawn he sits in the arroyo;
his face like a bubble, skin like cork.
His lungs and throat evaporate
into fumes that burn in the sun,
now a hoop of fire on the desert edge.
Teeth gnash on all sides
of the venue of cliffs and crickets.
The sun's scorpoid fingers now clasp every pore
and he begins to ride across the pelvis of time,
his bones like burnt joss sticks.
In silence, alone, he starts the chant.
-- C. S. Cholas, Colorado, 1973.
Thus, the artist, like a seeker of the Hidden Gift, like an explorer into links of history or like a discoverer of rare moments, restlessly travels, magnifying glass in hand, through fields of immortality hoping to bring to light something overlooked by others. For the writer the magnifying glass is the pen; as it is the brush for the painter, or the camera of the photographer.
If the artist be humble, the purpose is to share, not to boast; to uplift, not to degrade; to serve, not to dominate. Humility is the vehicle that transports the artist to the remote quarry where the hidden gems can be mined, whether that quarry be whales surfacing in the sea, or the vague smile on a face in the marketplace.
Discipline gives shape to the work. Combined with humility, discipline allows the artist to enjoy movement among the creative forces. Without discipline, art descends into mere scribbles, noises and senseless blotches of color. Without humility, art bypasses the soul, and falls into dull pits of ego and passion.
Whether as a Bahá'í, who aspires to mature as a poet; or as an aspiring poet, who begs to become a better Bahá'í, I see firmness in the Covenant as the key to enter into the realms of servitude. There we can bow as servants before the Name of God, the Fashioner, and await our tray of creative fruits to be delivered to humankind.
Arts Dialogue, March 1996
Jizo Making Class
In October calm
The breeze has its love affair
With a wind chime song.
Our hands form wet clay
As small jizo men emerge
To protect our homes.
Hands massage the clay
And clay fashions the senses.
We all smile out loud.
Eyes are hard to make.
I tool out shadows and then
Wipe away the tears.
The dolls stare at us.
As we potters eat our lunch,
Jizos wait for fire.
-- C. S. Cholas, October 1997, Wailea, Hawai'i.
NOTE: Between the death of the last Buddha (the historical Buddha Sakyamuni), and the birth of the next (Miroku) to come, Jizo remains on the earth to save the people. Usually, he is represented by a monk who carries a stick on the left hand and a chaplet on the right. He had been introduced from China to Japan during Heian period. Later, he has been associated with local gods (Dososhin or Dosojin) to become a protector of the children. His Sanskrit name is Ksitigharbha (womb of earth). Source: Free Light Software - language of the world - on-line Japanese dictionary.
- Poem: Train Depot in Chihuahua, Arts Dialogue, December 1998
- Poem: from Clots of Blood, Arts Dialogue, March 1996
- Artist Profile: Arts Dialogue, March 1996
- Poem: Desert Hunter, Arts Dialogue, September 1995
Arts Dialogue, Dintel 20, NL 7333 MC, Apeldoorn, The Netherlands