Red Earth: desert poems resurrected

  • Red Earth book scan

  I’ve seen her pass with eyes upon the road —
An old bent woman in a bronze black shawl,
With skin as dried and wrinkled as a mummy’s,
As brown as a cigar-box, and her voice
Like the low vibrant strings of a guitar.
And I have fancied from the girls about
What she was at their age, what they will be
When they are old as she. But now she sits
And smokes away each night till dawn comes round,
Thinking, beside the piñons’ flame, of days
Long past and gone, when she was young — content
To be no longer young, her epic done ...

— Excerpt from “Una Anciana Mexican” by Alice Corbin in Red Earth: Poems of New Mexico

Alice Corbin moved to Santa Fe in 1916 when she was 35, thinking she would die in a tuberculosis sanatorium. Instead, she and her husband, artist William Penhallow Henderson, helped shape Santa Fe into the outpost of artists and poets and literary rabble-rousers it has been since the early 20th century.

Prior to her pilgrimage to the desert, Corbin was associate editor of Poetry magazine and an outspoken critic of university professors, who, she wrote, were isolated from “modern life.” She scolded them for “divorcing” life from art, and called their students “bleaching celery, banked and covered with earth; they are so carefully protected from any coloring contact with the ideas of the living present.”

In Santa Fe, living among the city’s Spanish-speaking population and learning the folk songs and myths of her neighbors and of the nearby pueblo tribes, Corbin washed herself in the desert and its cultures: She was among the first Anglo poets to draw on — and give credit to — Southwest cultures.

Now, Lois Rudnick and Ellen Zieselman have reissued Corbin’s book, Red Earth: Poems of New Mexico, which was first published in 1920, and paired her poems with images from Santa Fe’s Museum of Fine Arts. Artists include not only Corbin’s husband, but also Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfonso Roybal, John Collier Jr. and Howard Norton Cook. Although Santa Fe would be unrecognizable to Corbin today, her poems are as important now as they were almost a century ago.

Red Earth: Poems of New Mexico
By Alice Corbin. 112 pages, hardcover $16.95.
Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003.
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