In the preface to her second collection, Red Canyon Falling on Churches, released by Conundrum Press in 2015, Canyon City poet Juliana Aragón Fatula notes that “Náhuatl, language of the Aztecs, and Spanglish, language of the Chicano, flows like a river through the poems.” Just as English melds with the tongues of her heritage, Fatula’s poems weave together her experience as a contemporary American and the myths of her ancestors, in a voice meant to be heard out loud. As she also notes, “Creation stories reveal myths woven from feminism and rock’n’roll lava.”
She transforms, for example, the creation myth of Coyote, a creature that appears in indigenous stories throughout North America. In “Desert Creatures with Insomnia Waited for the Night,”
The trickster falls asleep,
the crazy creatures
tiptoe into the coyote’s den
and steal all of his stash:
his Snickers, Cheetos,
Ambien, and TV remote.
This is why
the coyote howls
at the moon at night.
Coyote is outwitted, again, but this time he has morphed into a junk-food and pill-stashing American, howling for a new reason now. The poem plays with the controversy over immigration but also, perhaps, with Chicana feminism. Parallel to how Mexicans are too often seen from the U.S. citizen point of view as “crazy creatures,” waiting for their chance to cross the desert and steal the U.S.-American lifestyle, the poem may also be portraying the stealth of Chicana women, sleepless and frustrated, sneaking into the Chicano Coyote’s den to grab their share. Are they tired, maybe, of allowing the Chicano men to hog the “stolen” American treasures, leaving the women unfulfilled? But what treasures are they, really? Comfort food, pills for insomnia and depression, mindless TV entertainment—is this what the “crazy creatures” really want?
A more positive interpretation would be that they are taking the stash away—not using it themselves but freeing the American dream of so much nonsense. Coyote howls in withdrawal.
In “Parable,” Fatula goes further with her recreation:
El coyote dreamt
of Hollywood hot tubs,
woke from his stoned tupor,
grabbed the bloody moon.
He kneaded the tortilla into a woman
with olive-colored eyes
her off to his cave. The desertó creaturas
laughed at the fool with his masa wife,
heard el cabrón howl all night.
Here we have clear feminism—Chicana women laughing at how their men, stoned with the American dream, think they can knead their delusion into a subservient wife.
Whatever the gender, however, Fatula gives the characters in her poems both strength and serious flaws, especially when it comes to her own mother. Fatula has called herself a confessional poet, and in “The River,” she portrays her mother as a much-beloved but harsh role model:
Mom dressed in stilettos,
her black leather jacket
with the big belt. . . .
I was never as afraid
of the cocoman
as I was of Mom’s wrath,
the crosses on the back of my thighs,
the belt buckle marks on my legs . . . still.
In her recent interview with Ryan Warner on Colorado Public Radio, Fatula discusses the alcoholism in her family, describing her mother as “a wonderful woman when she was sober.”
The first poem above, where the “crazy creatures” are sneaking into coyote’s den, begins with a humorous stanza, where the creatures
. . . can see in the dark,
don’t need night vision goggles;
they like to wear them anyway,
because they look so cool.
They are dressed “cool American,” much like Fatula’s mother would dress, and in her poem “The Shit You Pulled After You Were Dead,” Fatula addresses her dead mother:
When I threw the first shovel
of dirt on your coffin,
I leaned over and my sunglasses
slid down the six-foot hole.
I crawled in the grave with you
and fished them out.
You playing tricks . . .
Her mother is now Coyote, playing tricks from beyond the grave. Maybe she is goading her daughter to take off her sunglasses and see reality: look where being “cool” gets you.
Fatula, proud of her heritage, writes of it most often in a comedic voice mixed with heartache. She is passionate, for example, about her family’s artistry in cooking. In “My Homegirl Don’t Eat Pork,” “‘Orgánico’ tamales/taste like caca.” But she is also honest about the substance abuse, the violence, the patterns repeated in her own life, and her sobriety of over 26 years. Her sacred place is in the title poem, “Red Canyon Falling on Churches,” where
The butterfly’s wing
bitch-slaps my face,
with just a trace
Her father journeyed at the age of ten from New Mexico to southern Colorado, holding a lantern to light the way for his family’s Model T Ford. While “Hanging from the Hood,” he was
. . . searching for generosity
hoping for prosperity
longing for equality
stars bouncing up above.
Starting with the first poem of the collection, “Pobrecita,” when her sister has died, Fatula carries her family’s journey forward, both stardust and pain:
someone has to water
the heirloom philodendron,
pack the apron stained with love.
When her mother “drums at pow-wow” in “You Just Had To Be An Indian, Didn’t You?”—
it’s like a bomb
dropped on your head—
. . .