Actually ‘Red Canyon Falling on Churches’ addresses bigotry, addiction

“Red Canyon Falling on Churches”

By Juliana Aragon Fatula

Underlying many of the poems is the theme of shame or guilt and the relief when it is “eaten” by the sin-eating goddess, Tontzanin, or when mistakes are “burned up” by the fire goddess Chantico. The stars and the sky become a focal point in later poems, marking an expansion beyond suffering.

^pJuliana Aragon Fatula weaves together subjects as ordinary as seeing a “Red Chili Ristra” hanging in the kitchen or making authentic tamales with poems based on ancient Aztec religion and more recent stories of witches and healers. The book addresses bigotry, addiction, illness and natural cures.

^pFatula begins with a poem called “Pobrecita,” poor dear, which laments an older sister’s death. While the speaker of this poem has survivor guilt for having “Frida and Diego on my warm terra-cotta walls; feather bed overrun with pillows,” the older sister, who was born a decade earlier, never failed to carry her ID, afraid she might be seen as an undocumented worker. Despite her sorrow, this speaker commits to surviving. “I owe my family this much,” she says.

^pDeath, or la muerte, is a major theme in this book. “Dance to Death” features Dona Sebatiana, the saint of death, who is often portrayed as a skeleton with white hair. While the opening poem of the book marks the separation between survivors and the dead, the final poem, “Holy Bones,” focuses on the unity made possible through death, where distinction becomes irrelevant.

^pel viento [the wind] breezes through tired ribs.

more funny than scary.

muertos, juntos raices [together, dead roots]

get along when they’re dead,

porque, las calaveras [because, skulls]

are all the same color—bone.

This is a lively and serious book. Fatula views difficulty and daily life in the light of history and myth. She writes unflinching lines about violence and addiction with bold and irreverent humor punctuating the sorrow. This work is never sentimental and often blunt. In a 2012 interview, Fatula says, “my sense of humor is twisted, and I’m very outspoken, so my performances can easily offend the weak-hearted” (www.poetryfoundation.org).

Figures like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera appear several times in this volume. References to CNN news and a tribute to the writer Sandra Cisneros find their way into these pages along with mystical desert creatures and trickster figures. Among the most fascinating poems are those focused on Aztec myth, most of which are connected in some way to contemporary themes.

Chantico—Firebreather

Earth turns

to sparks

of fire storms,

floods and quakes.

Chantico snuffs

out the flames,

lures death

into the vault

of the sky,

consumes

all of man’s

mistakes.

In this book, something like redemption is apparent, but not in the expected way. There may be illness, violence, and pain, but in the end there is release and occasionally transformation. As Fatula says in her preface, these poems “teach forgiveness and healing through tears and laughter.”

“There are no victims,” she says, “only survivors.”

“Red Canyon Falling on Churches,” is one of three finalists for the High Plains Book Award in Poetry

Tami Haaland is the author of two books of poems, Breath in Every Room and When We Wake in the Night. She chairs the Department of English, Philosophy, and Modern Languages at MSU Billings.

Tami Haaland is the author of two books of poems, Breath in Every Room and When We Wake in the Night. She chairs the Department of English, Philosophy, and Modern Languages at MSU Billings.