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Review of books and CD by Ofelia Zepeda

Two Poem-Collections by Native American Linguist Ofelia Zepeda

Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert (Sun Tracks, Vol. 32,) Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1995. 89pp.

Jewed 'I-hoi / Earth Movements: O'odham Poems, (Chapbook/CD), Tucson, AZ: Kore Press, 1997. 36pp.

In her classic ethnographic study, Papago Woman, Ruth Underhill reports that among the Papago of southern Arizona and northern Sonora, the most valued accomplishment of adulthood is the ability to create songs. "Making songs is the Papago achievement par excellence, all outward acts being considered merely as preparation for it. ... It is a sine qua non for success in life" (34). In the accounts of both Underhill and her Papago informant Chona, songs permeate the activities of the people. They sing as they harvest the juice of the saguaro cactus and then again when they drink it as wine. They sing as they throw the gambling-sticks and as they ready themselves for war. They sing to drive away sickness and also to make the corn grow. They sing down the rain. Chona says, "... our way to cure everything and to take care of everything is to sing" (51).

Most of the song-lyrics that Underhill provides as examples in her text are extremely short, usually consisting of only four or five lines. Chona provides a remarkable explanation of such brevity: "The song is very short because we understand so much." Here, eloquently stated, is one of the principles that underlie poetry's ability to do so much while saying so little. In other words, the fuller and richer our background-knowledge, the less need be said to bring new conceptual relationships into our consciousness. Happily, this age-old tradition of song is still alive, and now, in these two publications by linguist and poet Ofelia Zepeda, it is being shared more directly with the world outside the world of the Papago, or, as we now should call them, the "Tohono O'odham." (As has happened recently with a number of Native American groups throughout the hemisphere, this people and their language have undergone a long-overdue name-change.)

Although they are not songs in the strict sense, or at least are not presented as such, a number of Zepeda's shorter poems conform in both theme and tone with many of the songs reported in Chona's and Underhill's narratives. A few of Zepeda's poems resonate so closely with some of the songs quoted in Papago Woman that it is clear that some significant part of the older tradition is still alive in her worldview and in her poems, which can be seen to have arisen out of a spiritual and psychological framework in which the elemental aspects and forces of the world have retained their essential values. For example, compare this short song from early in the century:

There is a white shell mountain in the ocean
Rising half out of the water.
Green scum floats on the water
And the mountain turns around.
                                      (Underhill, 50)

with one of Zepeda's poems:

Cloud Song

Greenly they emerge.
In colors of blue they emerge.
Whitely they emerge.
In colors of black they are coming.
Reddening, they are right here.
                                     (Ocean Power, 15)

Two tracks on a phonograph-record in my collection contain O'odham songs from an intermediate period that display similar brevity and concentrated poignancy. One of them is translated like this:

The Song of the Green Rainbow

A green rainbow was moving toward me.
So here I was dancing under the rainbow
and making the rain wet the whole earth.

About half of the poems on Zepeda's CD and a number of others in Ocean Power are of this traditional O'odham type: brief lyrics made up of only a handful or so of lines which efficiently encapsulate an essential attitude of the O'odham people toward some highly valued aspect of their natural world. As with the songs of earlier times, Zepeda's poems often speak of the desert landscape and the advent of the wind, the blessed rainclouds, and the succoring rain, and of the other beings that share that starkly beautiful realm: the bat, the scorpion, the various lizards, the hummingbird, and the butterfly.

But elsewhere in these collections - especially in Ocean Power - a number of the poems are allowed a greater expansiveness as they move beyond traditional limitations in theme and form and so bespeak the effectively modern stance and view that Zepeda can at times be capable of. Those of Zepeda's poems that divagate from traditional themes sometimes seem to do so only to point out and underscore the ridiculousness and absurdity of wishing and striving to be other than what one has been given to be. For example, she has included in the CD collection a poem about a young O'odham woman who has affected the "cowgirl" garb of a Patsy Cline and thus become a center of attention for other, more traditional women, who eye her steadily but ambivalently. A number of these longer poems reveal just how syncretized O'odham culture has become in the 60 or so years since Ruth Underhill conducted her field research. Interspersed with deer-dances and rain-dances and the making of tortillas are 45 rpm records and trips to McDonald's. Yet by leaving at least one or two toes (if not a whole foot) in the older world, Zepeda is able to suggest, and sometimes even clearly emphasize, some of the bizarre irony entailed in the odd clash of cultures of which she has become both experiencer and chronicler. Consistent with this cultural melange, a number of Zepeda's poems display varying patterns of bilingualism, including code-switching and immediate interlinear translation, as well as English versions of entire O'odham poems. On the CD, all but one of the poems are presented first in O'odham and then followed by their transformations into English. I use the word "transformations" here because after noting that the poems on the CD were created first in the O'odham language, Zepeda then cautions the listener that their English versions are not strict translations and thus sometimes differ in meaning from the originals.

While listening to the O'odham versions of these poems, I recalled that the first time that I was ever made fully aware of some of the value of listening to poetry in a language that one does not speak or understand was at a reading given by the late Polish poet Zbegniew Herbert at UCLA during my graduate studies back in the 1970s. Exposed in this way to what were in effect the pure sound-values of the Polish language, as distilled and refined and brought to the forefront of consciousness by one of its professed and accepted experts and aesthetes, I was able to sense some of the genuine musical qualities with which the Polish sound-system is naturally imbued, without having to worry about or be distracted by the meanings that were also present there (for some). The same sorts of values and possibilities with respect to Tohono O'odham are made available through Zepeda's CD. The CD is accompanied by a 36-page handstitched chapbook containing the texts of everything that is presented on the CD, including the introduction and all of the poems, in both O'odham and English. The CD-plus-chapbook package has been produced in a numbered, limited edition of 1000. The package includes a total of 11 poems, the last of which is actually a suite of seven short, haiku-like poems about animals. The first one of these is:


With beauty, with beauty,
the pull to be a flower is forever strong.

In the English versions of her less traditional poems, through the use of everyday language, Zepeda produces long lines that move toward their ends with an easy momentum. Usually not straining for special rhythmic or lexical effects, she allows her English to be and act like itself, to do what it naturally does, as if she were telling a story - and in some cases, such as in the poem "The Man Who Drowned in the Irrigation Ditch", this is exactly what she is doing. Occasionally, however, there develop unique juxtapositions and word-choices that move the poetry into linguistically more transcendent zones. Typically, this takes place in poems that are closer to nature, and thereby closer to traditional O'odham ways of seeing and being in the world. One of these poems, whose theme is so centrally important to the O'odham experience of the world, deserves to be quoted here in its entirety:

It Is Going to Rain

Someone said it is going to rain.
I think it is not so.
Because I have not yet felt the earth and the way it
holds still in anticipation.
I think it is not so.
Because I have not yet felt the sky become heavy with
moisture of preparation.
I think it is not so.
Because I have not yet felt the winds move with their
I think it is not so.
Because I have not yet inhaled the sweet, wet dirt the
winds bring.
So, there is no truth that it will rain.

To give some additional sense of the kinds of verbal juggling that Zepeda occasionally executes, let me share here also the last line of the poem "Musical Retrospective", which is about a woman who listens to her collection of Bob Dylan records: "She didn't know they would be what would begin to tell her what she remembers." (Try diagramming that!)

Ofelia Zepeda was born and raised in Stanfield, Arizona, quite close to the Tohono O'odham and Pima reservations in the southern part of the state. She is a professional linguist, an Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona, and the author of a number of books and articles, including some on the Tohono O'odham language. She recently was awarded a grant from the Endangered Language Fund for work on a dictionary of Tohono O'odham. Zepeda says that she intends her O'odham poems as literature for the burgeoning community of literate speakers of the language. It is clear that these poems will allow these people to better see and comprehend their own situation in a place where cultures meet and mix. Taken all together, the poems in the two collections also allow us others a rich and authentic glimpse into a different world, one that too often and too steadily we are prevented from experiencing or even noticing because of the distracting clutter of our own busy, "modern" lives.