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The Tree is Older than You Are

Naomi Shihab Nye, ed.


Naomi Shihab Nye extracted the title of this volume of bilingual poetry from the first poem.  The poem (by Jennifer Clement) and the anthology title set the tone for the anthology.  "Remember," the poem admonishes, "the tree is older than you are and you might find stories in its branches (11)."


The reader indeed finds stories in this anthology of poems - and much more.  Divided into two sections (People; Earth and Animals), the poems skirt a range from quirky to emotion-, and nostalgia-evoking to the joys of daily living. Alberto Forcada's short poem, Sweater (36), is in the "quirky" category:



I'm cold;

can you knit me

some wrinkles?


So, too, is Raúl Aceves' Homage to the Cookie Islands (59), where the poet will go to great lengths to visit - and eat - the Islands, even if they aren't on the map.


Monchito's Little Car by Margarita Robleda Moguel (43) celebrates everyday living.  The poem describes the virtues of Monchito's car in a rhyming game, comparing the car in size to an elephant and an ant, in hardness to a pillow and a hammer but finding that the car was none of these.  Instead, "Monchito's car is the most / beautiful in all the universe / because it belongs to Monchito."


In addition to the poems, the anthology contains two folktales from Zinacantec Indians (The Three Suns [66] and The Toad and a Buzzard [72]);[i] Fire and the Opossum (75), that is a "verbatim transcript of a tale as told by a Mazanteco elder to an interviewer (106);" The Pilgrim Dogs (90-1) that incorporates "the ancient Náhuatl language of Mexico and Central America (106);" a Mayan poem (Prayer to the Corn in the Field [71]); and a Mayan story (The Rabbit's Ears [82]).


Many of the poets in the anthology are well-known, such as Octavio Paz (Last Dawn [33]; Objects [46]; Water Night [51] and more).  Even the poets, however, come from a variety of backgrounds - environmentalist, feminist, politician, physicians - and an eight-year-old, Jesús Carlos Soto Morfín (The Poet Pencil [31] and The Moon, a Banana [67]).  Regardless of their poets' background, the poems are remarkable, with each page a new adventure.  As one reviewer noted, "Each page holds the promise of a small jewel, poems that transform ordinary experience into extraordinary insight."[ii]


This same reviewer noted the presence of illustrations that "appear every few pages as illuminations."  While at first the illustrations appear to be randomly placed, this is not the case.  The works of art included in the anthology are juxtaposed with poems to which they are tied - not as illustrations - but as further illuminations of the thoughts contained in the poems.  For example, Objects (by Octavio Paz [46]) reads:


They live alongside us,

we do not know them, they do not know us.

But sometimes they speak with us.


Beneath this poem is Ilian Fuentes R.'s painting, Homage to Frida and Diego (46).  The painting is of a shelf unit with a surreal collection of objects placed on it:  an equal number of heads and fruit; a frog, etc.  Do the objects "speak with us" as Paz suggests?  For those familiar with the life and work of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the answer is probably, yes!


Another example of poem/painting pairing is Adriana Díaz Enciso's Morelos Park (55), paired with a painting by Julia López called Coyote Song.  While the titles do not seem to be connected, lines of the poem and the painting's action are connected.  The poem contains the lines "Joy is felt in skin that kisses air / and in breeze-waving hair."  López' vibrant painting contains, in addition to several coyotes, two long-haired girls who appear to be swaying in dance in a beautiful, flower-filled forest clearing.  The viewer can sense the girls' feeling of joy in their environment.


Translating poetry is certainly a difficult art, and Nye gives great credit to the translators, calling them the "quiet heroes of this volume (106)."  There is one caveat with which I agree: "…the translations do not always succeed in breaking through the language barrier to convey the music of the original words."[iii]  With side-by-side Spanish and English versions, it is easy to compare - and wonder - why the translator made certain decisions.  In the poem called La libertad / Liberty (by A. L. Jáuregui [49]), for example, the word libertad is used in both the title and a line of the poem.  One wonders why the translator chose to change the word's occurrence in the poem to freedom:


La libertad                        Liberty


Lo que yo más amo,                        What I love the most

es la Libertad;. . .                        is freedom; . . .


Note, too, the capital letter "L" in Libertad in the line of the poem.  Was this for emphasis?  Did the translator undermine the emphasis by changing the word?


Other than the languages in which they are written, the poems have few cultural markers:  food (almendra [almond], almeja [clam]); piñata; places (Washerwomen at the Grijalva [32, "a river in the state of Chiapas, Mexico"]; and poets' and artists' names.  Although the poems are from Mexican poets, this book is more about examining our common human roots.  It is about respecting the past and cherishing the pre

[i] Both Romin Teratol (The Three Suns) and Reymunto Komes Ernantes (The Toad and a Buzzard) wrote their poems in their native Tzotzil, from which the poems were translated.  Ernantes wrote his poem when he was only twelve years old (103).

[ii] Italiano, Graciela. 1995. Review of The tree is older than you are: A bilingual gathering of poems and stories from Mexico. School Library Journal 41 (October): 150. 

[iii] Vasilakis, Nancy. 1996. Review of The tree is older than you are: A bilingual gathering of poems and stories from Mexico. Horn Book 72 (2): 218.



The tree is older than you are: A bilingual gathering of poems and stories from Mexico with paintings by Mexican artists. 1995. Selected by Naomi Shihab Nye. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0-689-80297-8.



This review was written as part of a graduate course in Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.

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