BY NATALIA CALLES
“...[E]verything has speech: the wrinkles in the face of my grandmother, the laughter of the sprinkling rain, the pallor of my dead father, the silence of my mother.”
Humberto Ak’abal, a Maya-K'iché poet and word-weaver, highlights the tools and guides that are present in our everyday lived experiences. Through and with Humberto Ak’abal’s poetry, Mother Nature speaks, and he listens.
An example of Ak’abal speaking with and listening to Mother Nature is in his lyrical essay, “At the Side of the Road,” in which he describes how he exercises his writing process. He explains how his grandfather taught him “...to read the storms, to gauge the wind with [his] fingertips, to interpret the song of the birds, to know the voice of fire and the behavior of animals” (609). His listening skills supported his ability to decipher messages latent in the land, giving him the opportunity to deliver meaning to daily experiences, meaning that Ak’abal recognized as knowledge inherent in daily phenomena and listened to its guidance. Ak’abal recognizes that creativity, and hence poetry, is not solely a product of humans, for humans, rather it is a collaboration, a process of communication with the world. In “At the Side of the Road,” Humberto Ak’abal highlights the power of dreams as an instrument for accessing knowledge inherent in Mother Nature.
Ak’abal explains that he learned that his life would be one dedicated to poetry, when as a child a dream “awoke the poetry” in him (608). A dream in which Mother Nature had a central role providing Ak’abal with the water he sought to quench his thirst—poetry (608). In other words, Ak’abal could decipher the symbolic references which were latent in his dream, references which involved daily activities of interacting with Mother Nature, digging his hands in the earth, “birthing” water, and observing the processes occurring all around within and with the land. Ak’abal’s focus on the role Mother Earth plays in his “weaving of words,” takes a non-anthropocentric perspective of the world. A perspective in which Mother Nature and all her inhabitants have different, but equally vital roles to enact.
This view diverges from the human-centered perspectives generally held, in which humans are at the center of existence, as superiors to the land and its inhabitants. Ak’abal regularly utilizes personification to describe events, experiences, and processes, which then affords animals, stones, and even the wind qualities usually reserved for the human experience. For instance, in the poem “Freedom,” Ak’abal observes how “[b]lackbirds, buzzards, and doves...” exercise “...the complete freedom of/one who knows/that god and justice/belong to the soul.” Generally, the knowledge of God and justice are traits reserved for human conscience alone, yet in “Freedom,” not only do animals (birds) have said knowledge, they are also endowed with a soul. A soul from anthropocentric perspectives is an element which is generally believed to have been granted to humans as a distinguishing attribute from the rest of nature, as a characteristic of superiority. Ak’abal weaves with his words, relations amongst beings, both animate and inanimate, bringing them into a collective and participatory engagement.
Ak’abal’s family, as he describes through his work, includes Mother Nature and all her inhabitants, a family with which he is in regular communication, always listening to, listened by, and speaking with its members. For instance, in the poem, “Mi hermana,” Ak’abal recounts being asked by his grandmother: “Andá y mirá si viene tu hermana.” The reference of his sister is that of “...ella, torrencial,/con truenos y tempestades,/el viento de sus enaguas”--the storm. The awaited family member who in “Mi hermana” is embodied by the storm, brings with her the message that it is time to begin “la siembra.” The storm, the “hermana,” the granddaughter, speaks to Ak’abal and his grandmother, guiding and instructing them on crucial processes needing to take place. “[L]a siembra” represents sustenance, nourishment--life. In a different poem, titled “Seven Poems,” Ak’abal counsels that “[i]t is not that the stones are mute:/they are only keeping silent”, emphasizing that speaking is inherent within inanimate beings, as well. By “keeping silent” the stones are participating in the collective communication occurring within Mother Nature, choosing their silence, rather than it being perceived as representing an inability to exercise their “voice.”
Additionally, in “At the Side of the Road,” Ak’abal shares an instance of when he “...stumbled over a stone; it spoke...,” recognizing “...that everything has speech...” (608, 609). Ak’abal, identifies the autonomy held by Mother Nature and her inhabitants, an autonomy by which they choose to deliver messages to those willing and able to listen. Speech includes silence, it requires pauses to receive messages, to process, interpret, understand what is being said, silence supports this process. Hence, the stones and their silence are a part of a larger conversation taking place within Mother Nature, the poetry being “spoken,” “weaved” all around us, and acts as an ecological process interrelating all.
Poetry, as Ak’abal expresses in the poem, “Learning,” involves “[t]he knolls,/the hills,/the canyons,/the old villages...” and these form part of what he describes as a process of “... ‘spurts’/the urge to write...” (607). An “urge” which hints at external guiding forces who participate in the process of expressing poetry, pressing out the words (re)pressed within Mother Nature. A process which involves a collective, a family, which for Ak’abal includes all who are present in his journey through life, all who speak, pause, silently communicating and guiding him while he is enacting his craft--word-weaving. The storms, the stones, the knolls—the kindreds, are all part of the process of the weaving of words for Ak’abal.
Poetry, then, can be appreciated as an ecological process, one involving relations between the animate and inanimate. Ak’abal denotes the responsibility entailed in the sharing of tales of lived experiences and the interrelated abilities to listen to the speech amongst us. What I mean by lived experiences and interrelated abilities is the experiences that we have with our particular histories and conditions linked directly to the environment we move across and the abilities which are gained through engagement with those around us: the peoples, the plants, the animals, the objects—Mother Nature. Experiences and histories of all beings, different experiences and histories learning from and teaching each other. Poetry as collective and interrelated acts of communication, engaging all who participate in life, respecting all. Acts of communication which assist in the process of healing experiences and histories of those entities often disregarded. Poetry as an ecological process of communication capable of transmitting hope and wisdom, as Humberto Ak’abal invokes in the poem “Oración”:
Que se abra la puerta del sol,
Returning to Humberto Ak’abal’s “At the Side of the Road,” he highlights the power of dreams as an instrument for accessing knowledge inherent in the land. Mother Nature is a reservoir of knowledge, of wisdom he eventually learned to receive through interacting with Mother Nature. In fact, Ak’abal dedicated his craft, his life, to sharing wisdom which had been passed down to him by his elders, by Mother Earth, by practicing an active engagement with the land and utilizing tools at his disposal, such as for the interpretation of dreams.
With his word-weaving gift, Ak’abal created avenues for conversation on the importance of recognizing and respecting the agency of Mother Nature and all her inhabitants. Avenues for conversation which gave communities across the world the opportunity to receive the type of guidance which Ak’abal received from his elders in learning how to speak with Mother Nature, how to listen. Diverse modes of expression, interaction, and process have intersected because of Ak’abal’s work. Indigenous ancestral teachings and guides have been excluded from social paradigms.
Yet, Ak’abal’s poetry encourages a collective conversation on how our diverse histories can participate in identifying processes for healing and with them enact positive change. Processes which, as Ak’abal urges in his work, ought to include Mother Nature’s voice and humans ought to listen.
Ak’abal, Humberto. “Seven Poems” and “At the Side of the Road.” In the Language of Kings: An Anthology of Mesoamerican Literature—Pre-Columbian to the Present. Edited by Miguel León-Portilla and Earl Shorris, W.W. Norton & Company, 2001, 606 – 609.
Humberto Ak’abal K’iche’ (Mayan) Poet. Humberto Ak’abal, 2023.
Letralia 130 | Entrevistas | Humberto Ak’abal: “Si No Fuera Por La Poesía, El Mundo Ya Se Habría Quedado Mudo” | Pablo Cingolani.