NEW MEXICO TRIPTYCH
T. M. Pearce
The New Mexico Quarterly
August, 1940, Volume X, Number 3
Much has been said and written about regional literature in the Southwest. Yet most of the speakers and writers on the subject are individuals who were not born in the region, but have become conscious of its character by contrast with other places where they started out. They see the Southwest perhaps more clearly than people born here. Yet as creative writers they may not really know the psychology of people and place as does the native. As critics they may be tempted to prescribe what the Southwest should produce, given certain ingredients, skillful cooks, and proper recipes found in the annals of comparative literature.
I don’t say one could have predicted Fray Chavez. No formula ever explains the genius for poetry or painting or story-telling, and Fray Chavez has a gift for all three. Yet one can explain and in part understand how the artistic tradition of Spanish New Mexico, the mysticism of Franciscan faith, and the folk-lore and fraternity of village life might, fortunately, join in a young man from Mora, New Mexico, educated at eastern schools of his Order, and stationed in a parish not far from the literary center of the Southwest.
During July , Fray Angelico spoke at the University of New Mexico, reading his poetry and presenting his point of view as a poet. He said that it was love of words that seemed essentially poetry to him, and curiously love of words in English, not all of them English words, however. One has to mine through the words of harsh tone and flat significance for the store of sensuous and meaningful words accumulated from the Classic and Romance languages and almost every speech known to the globe. This artistry in words is not confined to Fray Angelico’s poetry. His prose is apparently simple, effortless, flowing, but I suspect that before he writes a word and after, he sits reflectively choosing to leave or eliminate on the basis of specific quality in sound and color and fitness every mark on the page.
“Hunchback Madonna,” the last of the three stories in New Mexico Triptych, is my favorite. Mana Seda, the central character, is a pious old woman so bent with age that as she creeps about in her black shawl people sometimes whisper, “She is like the Black Widow Spider.” Injured in her youth, she was never considered among the maidens who became queens of the Virgin when her festival was held in May. For many years, Mana Seda has gathered the flowers for the garlands which the girls were to carry in this procession. She remembers, too, long, long ago when an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe intended for the church at El Tordo had been lost when the pack train from Chihuahua was attacked by Apaches.
A reviewer, however, must not tell an author’s whole story. After seventy years of providing flowers for the festival, but never being chosen one of the flower maids, Mana Seda finally gets the reward for her piety. And in the meantime a santero has painted the Virgin on her shawl. “And so Mana Seda led all the queens that evening, slowly and smoothly, not like a black widow now, folks observed, but like one of those little white moths moving over alfalfa fields in the moonlight.”
There are two other stories: “The Penitente Thief,” with more of humor and yet the same pathos; “The Angel’s New Wings,” beautiful and moving. The illustrations have been done by the author, pen and ink sketches, harmonious in line and careful in detail. Fine literature and good reading lie in New Mexico Triptych.