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Pat Mora's 'Adobe Odes' cooks up sensuous, inviting atmospheres

One is reminded just how influential T.S. Eliot remains when confronted with poetry as upbeat and effervescent as Pat Mora's.

Indeed, ever since "The Waste Land" administered the coup de grace to Enlightenment notions of human progress, 20th-century poets simply drew upon newspaper headlines about war or, in the case of confessional poets like Robert Lowell, mined their own personal histories for an excuse to spotlight the darker side of life. Supplanting praise of Grecian urns with grungy despair, today's bards continue to specialize in sadness and grief. And with Iraq in ruins and a U.S. president in utter denial of his catastrophic failure, American poetry will likely stay the depressive course and celebrate little, if anything.

Thank goodness, then, that Mora is having none of it. Her latest collection, Adobe Odes, published by the University of Arizona Press, turns its back on hopelessness and finds a way to delight in our everyday world of food, literature, nature, religion and, yes, people. While her book may not be as spirit-stirring and significant as, say, Eliot's, Adobe Odes acts like a balm upon the soul, calming frayed minds and anguished hearts by taking the reader on a sensuous journey of the ordinary.

Although she's written six books of poetry, Mora is more prolific in the genres of young adult and children's literature. She brings the wide-eyed optimism of these narratives to bear on more than a few of her favorite (yet very common) things. Take, for instance, the second of the book's 49 odes, "Ode to Guacamole":

irrepressible tomato fireworks,
onion's white bite,
proclamations of salt,
streams of lime's tart retorts,
impetuous pinches
of chile

Of course, you need to be in the right frame of mind before you settle in with Adobe Odes. You don't want to approach Mora's work after a marathon session of CNN viewing or in the wake of binging upon The Collected Sylvia Plath. These odes are as quiet, soft and comfortable as a pair of fuzzy bedroom slippers. I'm not making light of Mora's lightness; rather, I'm urging you to drop the existential posturing for just a moment and allow these cozy poems to tickle your fancy.

In "Ode to Chocolate," the ultimate foodstuff is rendered as a gorgeous drug. Mora's internal rhymes and alliteration urge the reader to drop the book and drive to the corner grocery for a quick candy bar:

Rural and royal cooks and confectioners
still scheme the dusky layers of possibilities--
an addiction
sweet and bittersweet--
frosting, fudge, flan, tortes, truffles, kisses,
devil's food,
thick, lickable ríos,
the tongue's slow dance.
Day and night, mouths dream
America's unassuming, dark bean.

It's not all about food, although food constitutes the book's major section. "Ode to a Church Bell" and "Ode to Jesus Laughing" are instances in which religion is treated with the dignity and sweetness that have long been missing from Christianity. The natural world, too, is imbued with divine power, as in "Ode to a Cottonwood": "Gold flame / of faith, / light-filled sanctuary, / autumn plume, / you sway / a melodic whisper, / soothing as oil." In addition, human expressions of hope, courage and desire are also admired at length.

But perhaps Mora's finest moment is "Ode to Pablo Neruda." Neruda's own book Odas Elementales (translation: "Elemental Odes") provided the inspiration for Adobe Odes. Here, Mora's passion for reading in general and for poetry in particular shines through with her fresh language:

Miner of Jeweled Consonants,
you reach into the pockets
of your baggy pants
and offer us chunks of bread, warm
plums and una cancíon verde.

Unafraid to mix English and Spanish, Mora, who was born and raised on the U.S.-Mexico border, celebrates everything under the sun--or at least everything that's worth celebrating. It's difficult to replicate within a newspaper, but she takes the added step of breaking up the lines of her stanzas so that they resemble adobe roof tiles. Visually speaking, this enhances the book's theme of the life's rich layers.

Heck, after reading Mora's odes, maybe we can all dump our Zoloft prescriptions. We'll need something as we watch Dubya transform Iraq into a wasteland.

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