My Father's Song

by Simon Ortiz

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Themes

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Language
Phrases such as “actions speak louder than words” highlight the notion that to be credible language must be accompanied by corresponding behavior. Ortiz’s poem underscores this point. Although the speaker opens the poem by saying that he misses his father’s voice, he does not say that he misses what his father says. Rather, Ortiz emphasizes the physical qualities of voice such as “the slight catch” and “the tremble of emotion” when his father speaks. What he really misses is his father’s presence, the way in which he interacted with him. By describing his memory of his father showing him the overturned furrow and placing newborn mice in his hands, Ortiz highlights behavior, not words. The link between the speaker’s longing “to say things” and missing his father expresses the link between desire and creativity, for Ortiz does “say things” by the act of writing the poem.

Teaching
The relationship between parents and children is also one between teachers and students. Parents teach their children through example and explanation about the world and themselves. Ortiz describes one such experience, in which his father teaches him compassion for all living things by moving vulnerable newborn mice to a safer place. By first placing the mice in his son’s hands, the father bonds the animals to his child. Significantly, it’s the tactile sensation that the speaker remembers and not the words that his father says. That the memory is so powerful that Ortiz writes about it years later suggests that his father’s lesson was learned. Ortiz keeps his father’s memory alive by making it into a poem. Ortiz comes from a culture with an oral tradition, and one means of passing down information about your family and people is by making it into a story which you tell to others His father’s song, ironically, isn’t a song at all but an event in which the father teaches the son a lesson about life. Ortiz uses singing, in this sense, figuratively. Songs by definition include music and sometimes words. However, the speaker’s father does not sing in the poem. Instead, he shows his son an “overturned furrow” and places newborn mice in his hands.

Nature
The Acoma people are tied to the land, and Ortiz himself has commented that every aspect of his life is related to the natural world. “My Father’s Song” underscores this relationship, emphasizing that one’s own identity and purpose depends on an understanding of nature’s processes and humans’ relationship to other living beings. By choosing the incident of corn planting at Acu to figuratively describe his father’s song, Ortiz zeroes in on that incident’s significance. The feel of the “soft damp sand” and the “tiny pink animals” in his hand and the sight of the overturned furrow reinforce the connection between his own body and the earth’s. Just as the tiny newborn mice need to be protected and nurtured in order to live, so too does the memory of Ortiz’s father.

Poetry
Teachers of poetry and fiction are fond of telling their students that good writing shows readers something rather than tells them about it. Ortiz’s poem follows this advice in both form and content. His father shows him the beauty and preciousness of living beings by placing the mice into his hands, just as Ortiz the poet shows readers his love for his father through description rather than explanation. The concrete images he chooses such as “sand moist clod” and “tiny alive mice” provide readers with a detailed image that sticks in their minds long after they’ve finished the poem.

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