Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1178
A discussion of the meaning of "Anasazi" must include mention of its style, as the form of the poem—its rhythms, its sounds, even its look—is intrinsic to what it tells us. The first two lines appear to be only a repetition of the title. In fact, they are. And, yet, these two one-word lines also set the tone for the poem's celebratory effect. Read aloud, they should be read slowly, allowing each syllable equal voice in the incantation: ah-nah-sah-zee, ah-nah-sah-zee. On an obvious level, they simply describe the subject of the poem, but they also imply the author's feelings about that subject. In essence, he prepares us for the "song of praise" that follows.
Line 3 of the poem refers to the cliff dwellings that the Anasazi people constructed on the steep sides of the mountains, particularly in the Mesa Verde, Colorado, region. They eventually built hundred-room villages in the cliffs and caves of this area, and many of these remarkable structures still stand today. The cliff houses were blocks of rectangular living and storage spaces, tucked into rocky walls, providing shelter from inclement weather as well as aggressive enemies. As the people themselves moved into the cliffs, so did their livelihoods, and they used their excellent stone masonry skills to construct cliffside granaries. As line 4 indicates, the Anasazi also planted their crops on the mountains and were able to grow "strict fields of corn and beans" even on such unlikely terrain. The word "strict" here is not used as in "austere" or "harsh," but in the "absolute" or "accurate" sense. Maize horticulture had been the driving force behind turning the ancestors of the Anasazi from a hunting-gathering culture into the more settled crop-growers, and it became a mainstay of their economy. The addition of beans and squash pro vided a nutritious supplement to their diet, and re maining evidence indicates that they were very precise and skilled farmers.
Line 5 of the poem may be interpreted both literally and figuratively, for the Anasazi sank "deeper and deeper in earth" in more ways than one. In the actual sense, the Anasazi people of 200 to 500 A.D. stored their goods (as well as their dead) in deep pits in the ground. Over the centuries, the Anasazi increased the size of partly underground spaces until they became their actual living quarters, now known as pithouses, consisting of several rooms. When the people began to move up into the cliffs, the earth dwellings did not disappear, but, rather, took on a new significance in the culture. By 900 A.D., the pithouses were completely subterranean, and they were used in the ceremonial role of the village "kiva." Kivas are prominent throughout the history of all Pueblo tribes and are typically underground chambers used especially by men to hold council and to perform religious ceremonies. In this literal sense, then, the Anasazi did sink "deeper and deeper in earth." Line 5 may also be seen as a metaphor for the deep ties these Native American people had with nature. They grew their food in the earth, lived in the earth, and worshipped in the earth, requiring an obvious respect and love for the land.
Lines 6-8 carry the metaphor a bit further by highlighting the rituals often performed in the kiva and addressing in particular the intertwining of natural elements in a celebration of life for all. The "Gods" are of the earth, and eagle feathers become headdresses; the dancing of "knees and elbows" appears like lightning, and the eyes are "full of pollen" because pollen represents fertility and growth. All these natural entities—eagle-down, lightning, knees, elbows, eyes, pollen—blend into the poem to help create its praise of nature and of the people who themselves had such a strong alliance with the natural world. In his essay, "Gary Snyder: The Lessons of Turtle Island," critic Michael Castro describes the poet's response to the common overuse and misuse of natural resources in the industrialized world: "Snyder pointed to Indian societies as models of human organization that do not self-destruct by exploiting and exhausting their resources. Their relationship to the land is characterized by protection rather than production." And although pollen may indeed represent reproduction and growth, it is not used here to indicate an explosive and overriding increase, but one that lives in harmony with the earth and its creatures.
These lines (as well as all the remaining ones) may be viewed as chunks of imagery that depict the Anasazi lifestyle and its interdependence on and with natural surroundings. "The smell of bats" reminds us that these people lived in caves and on steep cliffs and shared their dwellings with other mammals who made their homes in the rocks. "The flavor of sandstone/ grit on the tongue" refers not only to the cliff houses, but to the pottery created by the Anasazi for both utilitarian and decorative purposes. These Native Americans were very adept at masonry and working in clay, and stone was so prevalent that it must have gotten into their mouths, as well as their eyes and noses.
While these lines may seem to imply a terrible hardship in the lives of Anasazi women—giving birth to their children in the night at the bottom of steep ladders which they had to climb to their houses—it is not written in a bemoaning style or with a harsh tone. Instead, there is a softness in its simple statement, made more evident by the two-syllable, one-word lines: wo-men/ birth-ing. Line 15 again reiterates the remarkable dwellings the Anasazi constructed and tells us how they had to enter and exit their homes.
Lines 16 and 17 give us a panoramic view of the natural setting in which the Indians lived. The imagery pulls us away from the people themselves and takes us to the "trickling streams," the "hidden canyons," and the "cold rolling desert." Although brief, these phrases paint a vivid picture of the natural beauty that surrounded the Anasazi. Since the desert is "cold," we must assume it's nighttime, and, therefore, the lines provide an idyllic connection between the childbirth "in the dark" addressed in the previous lines and the beginning of a new life with the cliff dwellers cited in the next.
The Anasazi were not only skilled potters, but fine basket weavers as well. They found many uses for their baskets, including hauling corn and carrying babies. If lines 18-19 were turned into a complete sentence, it may read something like, "The red and wide-eyed newborn was carried to his home in the cliffs in a corn basket." The effect, of course, would be greatly diminished.
Snyder ends his poem the way he began it. Not only does the repetition of the word Anasazi bring a sense of "roundness" or of coming full circle to the work, but it reemphasizes the "sound" of it. Speaking the name of the people one more time, slowly—ah-nah-sah-zee—completes the song of praise on a peaceful and very resonant note.
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