My Father's Song

by Simon Ortiz

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Lines 1–6
It seems at first that the speaker is missing his father because he expresses a wish to say things to him. However, in line 3, it becomes apparent that it is his father’s voice the son misses. He remembers it as a physical thing coming from his father’s body. His father’s voice becomes through the image of his “chest” a solid physical entity stronger than that “thin chest.”

Line 7
This line provides a powerful transition between the two stanzas. The father’s voice in the first stanza is speaking to his son, and what is to follow is the persona’s “song” to his father, the poem that tells the story developed out of the memories. The two words, however, “son” and “song,” by their closeness to one another in sound and sight, communicate that the persona himself understands that he is, in a way, his father’s “song” by being his “son.”

Lines 8–10
The storytelling technique of repetition functions in an almost incantatory fashion here to lead readers into a place where memory is real. Lines 8 and 9 both begin “We planted,” and lines 9 and 10 play on the word “time.”

It is characteristic of the oral storytelling mode that the teller talk his or her way into the tale, not leaving out the steps to getting there. Western storytelling, in contrast, generally values a more finished story product. Readers follow the persona in this poem through the general statement of line 8, to an explanation that this planting was one of many plantings, finally closing in on the one particular story or memory he wants to relate.

Lines 11–12
There is a digression here, as there often is in the rhythms of natural conversation. The persona is telling the story to the reader in line 11 but almost addressing his comment to his father in line 12. The rhymed couplet at the conclusion of the stanza emphasizes the tactile image of the sand.

Lines 13–17
The image of the sand brings the persona to the beginning point of the story, which is signalled by the stanza break. The father bends over the sand, pointing out to his son a place where the plow has overturned a nest of mice. The assonance of the vowel sounds of “overturned furrow,” “unearthed,” and “burrow,” as well as the rhyme of “furrow/burrow,” draw together the strands of this image that is spread over three lines. The effect is of patience, as the father clearly has with his son and the nest of mice and of focus, which is required for anyone to pay such close attention to tiny mice while plowing— or even to a child while doing adult work. The image of the sand, which houses the nest, closes this stanza and parallels the closing image of sand in the son’s hand in the final line of the second stanza.

Lines 18–23
In a gesture that contrasts with the strong hand necessary to plow a field, the father lifts the surprise of these small creatures for his son “to touch.” It is interesting to note that it is not enough for the father that the son see these animals; he directs him to touch the mice so that he can feel the life even in something so small. The carefulness of this small gesture is then enlarged upon as the father and the son together move the little animals out of harm’s way, out of the hot sun which would scorch them, and back under a clod of cool sand at “the edge / of the field.” It...

(This entire section contains 876 words.)

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is again the physical memory of the sand that closes this stanza.

Lines 24–25
Line 24 characterizes the memory the persona has just related, referring to the gesture of the father, his gentleness toward the mice and to his son. The “softness” from this line moves forward to the tactile image of “cool” and “warm” and movement remembered in the son’s experience of touching the mice.

Line 26
The effect of “softness” in the opening line of the fifth stanza is felt in this closing line as well, through the poet’s careful lineation into the statement “I remember,” then into the tactile image of mice, and finally into remembering the “softness” of the father’s voice.

The poem comes full circle here, and the reader realizes with the poet that it is the voice of his father teaching him—“saying things” about tiny baby mice, about the importance of protecting little animals— that he misses. The tradition of passing on stories, information, about life from one generation to the next is the focus here. While it is typical Native-American oral tradition, hence the emphasis on the father’s voice, Ortiz enlarges upon this tradition in his poem. He is not merely relating what he knows to a generation that comes after him, he is presenting the tradition as a valuable lifestyle for everyone.

The poem communicates the understanding that even in the midst of busy adult life with its purposeful action, there must be time to honor even the smallest manifestations of life, even those that innocently get in the way. Ortiz the poet has effectively become the song his father sang to him, which he sings to the reader in this poem.