If you were to visualize an ideal book of poetry by an American Indian author, you’d look for a number of themes. Among them would be a balance between the old ways and the new culture, respect for the old language even while writing in the new one, sharp descriptions of the physical attributes of the homeland, and peoples’ spiritual manifestations (or lack thereof ). All these can be found in Where Clouds Are Formed, a graceful and moving work by Tohono O’odham poet Ofelia Zepeda.
Her poem Do’ag Weco is a fine melding of all of the above themes. The story of a trip to the sacred mountain Waw Giwulig (Baboquivari), much of the poem is in the Tohono language. It exhibits a great clarity between new and old, physical descriptions, and respect for old ways in new times:
“We stand below the mountain and look upward.
We look up in humility, in prayer.
From the tops of the mountains come memories...
We walk along a mountainside knowing
ancestors’ bones sit in the mountains.
They watch us as we pass. We are not afraid.”
The morning dampness described in the poem touches on another important leitmotif of the book: water. The O’odham are and were desert people, and like all desert people they tend to be acutely aware of the precious fluid. Thus in these poems, even in the book’s title, water is an ever-present topic. There are references to male and female rain, mist, condensation, moisture, water bottles, blue flags that mark the location of water reserves, natural water tanks, water mirages, and even the far-off ocean. In one poem, the narrator mentions that she did not learn to swim until she was 35.
Zepeda, Tucson’s poet laureate and editor of the Sun Tracks Indian literary series at University of Arizona Press, is the author of a book on Tohono O’odham grammar, as well as the co-founder and director of the American Indian Language Development Institute. She is a skilled worker in verse, and although her lines are occasionally prose-like, she usually writes in a beautiful style that alludes to many important things: birth, home, prayers, family, plants, words, memory, spirituality, desert landscapes and travel.
Ride along with Zepeda on this linguistic and spiritual journey. You will enjoy it.
by Ofelia Zepeda
Smoke in Our Hair
The scent of burning wood holds
the strongest memory.
Mesquite, cedar, piñon, juniper,
all are distinct.
Mesquite is dry desert air and mild winter.
Cedar and piñon are colder places.
Winter air in our hair is pulled away,
and scent of smoke settles in its place.
We walk around the rest of the day
with the aroma resting on our shoulders.
The sweet smell holds the strongest memory.
We stand around the fire.
The sound of the crackle of wood and spark is ephemeral.
Smoke, like memories, permeates our hair,
our clothing, our layers of skin.
The smoke travels deep
to the seat of memory.
We walk away from the fire;
no matter how far we walk,
we carry this scent with us.
New York City, France, Germany—
we catch the scent of burning wood;
we are brought home.
I am ready.
My bundle, my power bundle,
hidden, but present.
My rosary is in the side pocket of my purse,
strung around sticks of gum,
the pen from the last hotel I stayed in.
The beads are poised to hail Mary.
From Where Clouds Are Formed by Ofelia Zepeda © 2008 Ofelia Zepeda. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press.