Simon J. Ortiz Essay - Critical Essays

Simon Ortiz


Simon Ortiz has reiterated throughout his writing life that at the core of his poetry is the idea that “Indians always tell a story” because this is the “only way to continue.” His concern for the survival of a cultural heritage that has been threatened with extinction and his deep grounding in the oral tradition that has enabled it to endure in spite of efforts at suppression provide the purpose and direction for his work. Ortiz identifies the oral tradition as the key to the “epic Acoma narrative of our development,” an ongoing expression of the fundamental consciousness of the Acoma hanoh. His poetry has been charged with the energy of a living language that draws on songs, chants, spoken tales, and intimate speech for sustenance, its essence, which he has labored to capture and convey in written forms. While his works have often reflected feelings of anger and despair, they have just as frequently moved toward an appreciation of the physical world and community as sources of peace and hope.

Going for the Rain

Ortiz recalls that when he was working on the manuscript that was eventually published as two separate collections since “I was told three-hundred-page first major poetry collections weren’t a good idea,” he came to the realization that the oral tradition was more than a “verbal-vocal manifestation in stories and songs.” In the largest sense, it “evokes and expresses a belief system, and it is a specific activity that confirms and conveys that belief.” Consequently, he structured his first substantial book of poems, Going for the Rain, as a narrative of discovery, a journey on the heeyaanih (road of life) in which the poetic voice presents a series of incidents that lead toward an understanding of the belief system at the center of the Acoma community.

It is a book of origins, with seven poems exploring the mythic trickster/shape-shifter Coyote, an archetypal figure in Native American cultural history, as well as a record of geographic immersion, with poems located in many places in the United States, and a book of portraits in which the poet describes his encounters with people within and outside First Nations settlements. The journey is divided into four sections, “Preparation,” which is rooted in family life; “Leaving” and “Returning,” a journal of life on the road; and “The Rain Falls,” a kind of summary of previous experience and a tentative presentation of a philosophic position that links metaphysical speculation with natural and ultranatural phenomena. The book is patterned after an Acoma myth that involves a ceremonial trek in which the motion of the schiwana (or Cloud People) encourages the return of the rain, which is necessary for the continuing life of the hanoh.

The poet’s voice is primarily conversational, often addressed to a specific person, sometimes turned inward as a dialogue placed within the narrative consciousness. Ortiz tends to focus on the small details of a person’s existence, finding something vital in the familiar, as in the poem “21 August ’71 Indian”:

Fire burns the thin shavings quicklyand soon dies down under larger pieces.The red coals are weak, have to watchand put smaller pieces on next time.Get knife and splinter larger into smallerand feed the coals, being patient.Will have a late supper tonight;maybe the clouds will part some by thenand let me see some stars.

A Good Journey

The second part of Ortiz’s initial manuscript was published in the following year as A Good Journey, and he describes it as being based on “an awareness of heritage and culture,” with “the poetry in the book styled as a storytelling narrative ranging from a contemporary rendering of older traditional stories to current experience.” As Ortiz says in...

(The entire section is 1706 words.)