WE HAD MORE TO SAY
Poems from the Pilgrimage Road
Three early poems in Ray Ortiz’s excellent collection, “We Had More to Say,” set out the motifs that will be woven in and out of other pieces throughout the entire book. “How Many Miracles” explores the importance of ancestry, the workings of chance or fate, the elements of ocean, air, light, and darkness, and the miraculous emerging of the microscopic with the universe. “Death and Life” points ahead to a number of deaths that must be faced, honored, and resolved, until finally in the “heaven of memories,” father and mother “gaze upon you / from the eyes of your children.” Then in “Irises” the color purple, once associated with the passion and sensuality of an O’Keefe painting, is transformed into the “hard purple draped over caskets, / over love buried in the ground.”
In “Journey Around the World” birth itself is a “passage out of the tunnel,” as is the last transition in death, and, of course, all the experiences in between: the movement from one life stage to another, as well as the detours and dead-ends. The use of the ghazal form provides a satisfying completeness in each stanza, while adding a layered effect by the end of the poem. A recognizable body of images attends the journey motif in this and other poems: rivers separating and converging, mountains and canyons, arrivals and departures, longing and discovery.
A certain kind of travel becomes the sandpaper that rubs away the commonplace and the habitual. The journey provides the freedom to think and feel in new and innovative ways. When we leave the safeguards of habit and the ordinary, we begin to pay attention, to see with both eyes and heart. In “Passages” the poet takes stalk of his journeys and reminds the reader that the novelties of travel can arouse the search for “more intimate places / where I feel grace pulsing in my blood, / where I see the faces of God everywhere.”
Ortiz’s poems reveal how the ordinary pathways of life are transformed into the wonder and awe of the sacred pilgrimage. A narrow definition of “pilgrimage” suggests a journey made by a pilgrim to an established religious shrine, such as Lourdes in France or Our Lady of Guadalupe north of Mexico City. But Ortiz’s poems expand the idea of pilgrimage to include those experiences which touch some profound dimension within, when connections are made with what might be called “soul” or “spirit,” when the tourist becomes the seeker, and sight-seeing magically turns into soul-making. The sacred journey takes us to those liminal places where one dimension touches another. As a place of many edges, New Mexico has such potential for the spiritual journey, where one terrain blends into another, where desert meets mountain, and canyons give birth to rivers and lakes.
Ortiz understands how the quest is impeded by the heavy weight of experience that we carry around inside, how in “Friends” we carry sacks and sacks of metaphorical rocks that must be emptied before we are light enough to follow our dreams. It is possible to lose one’s way, as in “Sometimes We Wander Away” when “for years and years, we take our direction / from semblances, misconceptions, fantasies, mirages,” but then after the fog and dark valleys, we find a new direction “inspired by wind traces, / drawn by the scent of water and mountain light....”
Pilgrimages are difficult, filled with suffering and surprises, those unexpected corners where the pilgrim confronts the inner reality of loneliness and doubt. As the poet admits in “Fifty,” “I am in darkness reaching for light.” And in “How Long?” the question: “When / does the darkness of coal awaken to the clarity of a diamond?” With “To My Child Never Born,” the residue of pain attends each line, but what is admirable is that the poet moves through grief to a kind of miraculous resolution at the end of the poem: “You are inside me, seeing with my eyes, / vibrant with each beat of my heart.”
The difficulties of passage are redeemed by moments of discovery, where “In a Spring in a Storm,” a remote hot spring becomes a womb world and rebirth:
As my grateful body uncurls out of the water,
I am born again into a different kind of religion,
one of becoming intimate with the earth,
of touching her and being touched...
When in “Vine by the Seashore” a deep sense of sadness leads to a recognition:
There is happiness and there is loss,
intertwined like branches of a great vine
reaching up, supported only by hope
and by gnarled roots deeply set
in the earth of our beings....
Among many skills and themes, this poet favors transformation: extending the commonplace like a quilt, a grave stone, his grandfather’s shovel into the margins between memory and the sacred. There are many love poems in which the present moment shifts into something grand, wide or deep. The poems in We Had More to Say are also a vivid testimony to how grief or loss can be turned into a blessing, when the “you” in a poem seems to shift from lover into a deity, when in “Finding My Father” his father, permanently scarred by war, is finally “taken by the kind reaper of death / who visited after you had already died a thousand deaths.” The poems shift and blend, and meld into another dimension. People move in and out of reality, as the uncle in “Floating” who floats in and out of dreams transformed into a vision:
I see you rising above the crowd, focused,
intense, seeing what others could not see;
releasing a busy life in the city,
guiding yourself to a serene monastery,
isolated in a mountain valley,
vowing to be closer to God, who is inside.
—David M. Johnson
Professor Emeritus, English and creative writing at University of New Mexico