The poetry of Fray Angelico Chavez can be read here.

By Joseph Charles MacKenzie

Fray Angélico Chávez, O.F.M. (1910-1996) remains the most important poet of New Mexico’s modern history. It is precisely by virtue of this gifted priest, polymath, historian, author, and painter, that we in New Mexico are able to claim a poetical canon of our own, one bearing little resemblance to those “ten most important” lists conventionally proposed in the Anglo-American world. Fray Angélico cannot be meaningfully discussed by comparison with a T.S. Eliot, for example, although this latter had praised one of Fray Angélico’s most original poems entitled, “The Virgin.”

For, Fray Angélico Chávez is sui generis, an attribute one of our nation’s finest essayists has recently assigned to my own work, and not without reason. For, the humble Poverello of Wagon Mound, New Mexico, had cleared a very special path for me, a path I have accepted as my own. The most gifted of our modern poets, to include Joseph Salemi, James Sale, Bruce Edward Wren, and my beloved mentor Samuel Gilliland, have all indicated that this is to be my only path, the path of devotion. Whenever I walk along the banks of our fabled Rio Grande through the timeless bosque of Bernalillo (an old Spanish hamlet founded by Don Diego de Vargas in 1698), Nueva México’s champion is ever at my side in a mystical manner. This is important, because it means that Fray Angélico’s poetical contribution was not without issue, and that our tradition of indigenous lyric verse continues unbroken.

In our deeply Catholic world, no poet can pretend to be anything more than a link between past and present, as innovation unguided by the faith of our padres y madres is seen as a departure from all wisdom, an extravagance in the etymological sense of “to wander away from” something. One is a poet by vocation, it is true, but only by vocation. This is how we have always thought of our individual places in society. Whether one is a santero (a carver of saints and holy images), the hermano mayor of a morada (the leader of a kind of penitente oratory) or a corridista (a singer-songwriter of ballad-like folk narratives), one’s calling must be acknowledged by the Church and ratified by the pueblo (or village).

In his humility, Fray Angélico Chávez understood this, even if the perhaps excessive pride he took in his family’s role in the Conquista was manifest in his historical works.

While only a handful of Fray Chávez’s individual poems appeared after 1950, the five actual collections he published during his lifetime—concluded by the Selected Poems with an Apologia  (1969)—are not only substantial, but substantive, the rarest specimens of uninhibited originality English poetry has ever seen—if, paradoxically, they may be said to be English in anything more than language, given the fine distillations of Spanish mysticism underlying their irrepressible spirit of faith and devotion.

The year 1929 would mark the beginning of Fray Angélico’s long career of publishing exquisite poetry in the St. Anthony Messenger (among other places), an important national publication of the Friars Minor in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he had been formed as a novice to become our first native Nuevomexicano Franciscan priest. While academic histories ignore the very existence of this and other popular periodicals, such magazines allowed readers in other parts of the United States to know and love Fray Angélico’s poems and the Pentitente Land that inspired them.

Even the notice of those whose names occupy our more standard canons was not lacking to Fray Angélico, nor did he shun their kind attentions. However, the price of being truly Nuevomexicano meant that the admiration of outsiders generally ended at the borders of cultural understanding, but for a reason that might seem paradoxical to some. For, Fray Angélico Chávez’s literary knowledge was considerably richer than that of his commentators whose knowledge of the Siglo de Oro poets of Spain, or the canticos espirituales of Mexico, or any of the other antecedents of his poetry, was either lacking or thin.

Of course, the world would have to wait for perhaps the most important part of Fray Chávez’s literary genealogy to come to light through the efforts of the friar himself, namely those precious and mysterious alabados, or songs of devotion which the Penitentes of New Mexico had managed to preserve for some four hundred years. These are our first poems and they endure. Fray Angélico heard them as a boy, at the knee of his father, Fabián Chávez, who was a cantor for a Penitente morada. Through Thomas J. Steele’s magnificent edition of their texts published in 2005 by the University of New Mexico Press, these have become the sun that shines over all my work.

Writing decades after Fray Angélico’s death, I am acquainted with only one living American poet, our best, who knows the works of Luis de Góngora to the point of being able to identify elements of his influence in my sonnets. Fray Angélico found himself in a very similar situation regarding the critical reception of his poems throughout his life. He did not share the literary myopia of the Anglo-American poets who received more press than he, although he was talented enough to master their language and idioms. Fray Angélico’s parochial upbringing in the ancient Spanish hamlets of northern New Mexico, his expansive intellectual temperament, his Franciscan formation, and the singular advantage of speaking English as a second language—as was the case with my own Franco-Hispanic forebears who settled in Las Vegas and Santa Fe—contributed to his almost unsurpassed, cultural breadth.

[to be continued]

 

Joseph Charles MacKenzie is a traditional lyric poet, First Place winner of the Scottish International Poetry Competition (Long Poem Section). His poetry has appeared in The New York Times, The Scotsman (Edinburgh), The Independent (London), US News and World Report, Google News, and many other outlets. He writes primarily for the Society of Classical Poets (New York).

 

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4 Responses

  1. James Sale

    It is always salutary to be reminded how ignorant one is, and I for one have never heard of F A Chavez, and the excuse that I am not American hardly cuts much ice. Certainly, I will keep an eye out to find and read this poet as I deeply respect Joseph Mackenzie’s views on these matters. I did do a quick search on Amazon.co.uk and there seemed to be biographical books and collections of his short stories, but not much on his poetry. Though, I did find one superb anecdote about Chavez: “As an army chaplain in World War II, he accompanied troops in bloody landings on Pacific islands, claiming afterwards that because of his small stature, Japanese bullets always missed him”. One has to like a human being who can retain his sense of humour in such circumstances! Thank you Joseph.

    Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Oh yes, Fray Angelico had quite the personality, it’s true. There is a photo of him in the Govenor’s Palace Archives administering last rites to several soldiers at once. He was evidently quite heroic in being always available to the troops on the battlefield, so the reports of bullets missing him has much to do with how very often he was fired upon.

      As you suggest, New Mexico has been remiss in failing to produce a fine edition of the collected poems.

      Reply
  2. Angus Delgado

    You need a poet, Joseph Charles Mackenzie,
    To raise you to such fame as you are due!
    To chant your name with suchlike pious frenzy
    As you sang Trump and all his godlike crew.
    Enough of sonnets and banal romance!
    In epic you shall live, that cannot die:
    Stretching between New Mexico and France
    To verdant Scotland, where your laurels lie!
    To sound your praises I had filled my lungs–
    Alas! the weighty task soon laid me low.
    A voice of iron and a thousand tongues
    Could not exhaust the talent that you show!
    Still, I await the day that Fate assigns,
    When bards shall grant you more than fourteen lines.

    Reply
    • Basil Drew Eceu

      A droll and agile sonnet in the vein of Pope and Byron, ironically evincing here more talent than oft is met with in the numerous progeny of Richard Flecknoe.

      Reply

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