Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1153

A recurring theme in Pat Mora’s work is borders: the border between the United States and Mexico, where she grew up, and the borders between cultures and people. Like other Chicana writers such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Sandra Cisneros, and Ana Castillo, Mora engages psychically, politically, and mythically with the concept...

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A recurring theme in Pat Mora’s work is borders: the border between the United States and Mexico, where she grew up, and the borders between cultures and people. Like other Chicana writers such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Sandra Cisneros, and Ana Castillo, Mora engages psychically, politically, and mythically with the concept of “border.” In Mora’s work, the border—as an image and as a symbol—holds great power but is more transmutable and conceptual than a concrete barrier. Language, families, and histories, after all, spill over borders without any recognition of statehood.

Mora’s voice emerges full of stories of her past and future, her connection with the natural and supernatural, and her intricate conceptions of women, family, and faith. In Agua Santa/Holy Water, her depiction of a woman who relishes experience, who laughs as she evokes the memories of pain, and who craves the perverse and the sensual, “the aching/ for fruit and hunger for grains of sweet salt,” is an apt description of Mora herself.

Another dominant theme in Mora’s work is the revision of the Mexican role for women as expressed in the concept of marianismo, which extols submissive, chaste, respectful behavior for women and states that the family’s honor depends on a woman’s virtue and strength of character. In the dramatic monologue “Coatlicue’s Rules: Advice from an Aztec Goddess,” Coatlicue offers rules such as “Beware of offers to make you famous” and “Protect your uterus” to women, mixing modern sensibilities and language with ancient mythology to revise and restore the goddess myth. The necessity for revisionist history within Aztec mythology, Christian doctrine, and chronicled history and tradition, particularly that of Chicano culture, informs much of her work.

Agua Santa/Holy Water

“Mangos y limones” is the central axis of Agua Santa/Holy Water, pulling together recurring themes and illustrating the inspiration behind this collection of fifty-two poems: the need to record stories of women, Chicanos, and all humanity. The poem begins, “The story is about swelling and slick slidings,” progressing through a series of musical, evocative passages that depict a woman eating salt-crusted lemons as she tells stories for her friend. As her tale continues, it encompasses “. . . daughters/ and what they know of the dark” and the knowledge of the womb, which “feels the unseen,” as well as sensual images, the “yellow scents [that] pucker her memory” and stem from the storyteller’s life in El Salvador. “Mangos y limones” ends with a depiction of the woman laughing as she speaks, “her mouth full of her own stories.”

Agua Santa/Holy Water contains six sections that follow a physical progression from earth, descending to “Where We Were Born”—the title of one of the sections—and ascending to the realm of the sky, ending with a section titled “Wondrous Wetness.” The image of water in rivers, seas, underground springs, and wombs unifies the book and surfaces as a spiritual metaphor in poems such as “Un cuento de agua santa,” which depicts a female trickster in the act of sculpting earth with holy water, and “Cuentista,” which patterns a goddess figure who “carries a green river in her arms.” Mora also uses the figure of water in poems that focus on the secular realm. For example, “Braided” relates the sound of the rain to fables and other “. . . whispered mother/ daughter murmurs” that appear braided “. . . like rivers, their flowings/ and gatherings, spilling into one another.” In “Ballena” and “Aurelia: Moon Jellies,” Mora pens connections between the natural and the human worlds. In this collection, water spans earth, connecting everything.

The defining aspect of Mora’s style is her musicality, her consistent use and revision of the oral tradition. She frequently uses the structure of different forms of song, from the lullabye to the chant, from corridos to love songs. The most apparent use of a song form is in “Corazon del Corrido,” which employs the traditional Mexican eight-syllable verse ballad (a romance song, or corrido), to sing of Mora’s father and his life struggles. Other poems, though not formal songs, use elements of music to deliberate effect. For example, in “Dear Frida,” the speaker uses “sing-sing stones to break your bones.” This child’s chant wards off La Pelona Tonta, the spirit of Bald Death, who laughs and screams as she dances. The speaker of the poem generates the noise of bones cracking against one another, the knocking of “skulls floating white in your bath,” echoed hauntingly by the refrain “Clakati, clak-clak, clakati, clak.” Mora’s use of onomatopoeia in the final lines parallels this edgy rhythm as Frida’s body “bolts up in the lick of oven’s hungry tongues,/ hair, your hair, around your face, crackles, blazes.”

The poems of Agua Santa/Holy Water demonstrate not philosophy and restraint but rather a tendency to be carried away by a metaphor, as a river that can “gather all spirits,/ deepen and rise.” Rarely do the poems offer closure; instead, they build like waves, until the energy fades, as in “Tornabé,” which begins and ends with the image of waves: “Tornabé on the sand by the sea.” The propensity of the poems to build momentum and move along on this momentum regardless of the journey’s destination becomes reminiscent of a river. In this way, Agua Santa/Holy Water carries the reader like water itself through its images. The book balances the irreverent and profane with the ordained and sacred, weaving images and languages from two cultures.

Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints

Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints is built around the character of Aunt Carmen, an eighty-year-old woman who has cleaned and cared for a church in northern New Mexico for most of her life. In each of the poems, Carmen sings an ode to a saint, calling out the saint’s story in vivid language that remains reverential while recounting mischievous and down-to-earth stories about each person. The style of the poems resembles the Homeric hymns, in which each prayer or ode begins with calling on the god or goddess. For example, “Saint Martin of Porres/San Martín de Porres” begins, “Can I sing you, Brother Martin,/ saint whose hands know work, like mine?”

Though Aunt Carmen is a Latina living in northern New Mexico, her songs focus more on faith and spiritual understanding than on cultural borders. Mora uses the rhetorical structure of the question in many of the lyrical poems, giving the impression of a questioning speaker—one who desires more and more transcendence and more and more understanding of the spiritual realm. Again, as in Agua Santa/Holy Water, images of water, the structure of music, and onomatopoetic language occur throughout the poetry. The theme of faith—not a conventional, comfortable faith, but rather one that desires a relationship between the saints and people’s everyday existence—is the overarching message of the work.

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