of books and CD by Ofelia
Two Poem-Collections by Native American Linguist
Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert (Sun
Tracks, Vol. 32,) Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1995.
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.
with one of Zepeda's poems:
Greenly they emerge.
In colors of blue they emerge.
Whitely they emerge.
In colors of black they are coming.
Reddening, they are right here.
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
|The Song of the Green
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
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
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,