Simon Ortiz’s “Starting at the Bottom”

I’ve finished reading Simon Ortiz’s Woven Stone, though I’ll have to admit that I was so angry and so depressed by the last section entitled “No More Sacrifices,” an interesting combination of essay and poems, almost haibun, that I had to take frequent breaks to finish the book. However, those concerned with the plight of the American Indian or the plight of all workers at the bottom of our capitalist system it’s an enlightening read. I don’t think that “Starting at the Bottom” is necessarily the best poem in the last part of the book, but it touches on several of Ortiz’s major themes.

Starting at the Bottom

The truth is,
most of us didn’t know
much about the unions
at any rate.
A job was a job.
You were lucky to have one
if you got one.
The truth is,
the companies didn't much care
nor did the unions,
even if both of them
were working our land.
When the mines came
to the Laguna and Acoma land,
the men and their families were glad
in a way because
the men wouldn't have to go so far away to work
for the railroad in Barstow,
Richmond, Flagstaff, Needles.
Or to pick beets and onions
in Idaho, Utah, and Colorado.
Or work for the Mormons
in Bluewater Valley
who paid you in carrots and potatoes.

When Jackpile opened up
on Laguna land, some Laguna men got on alright,
at the bottom.
You have to start at the bottom, personnel said,
for a training period and work your way up.
The Acoma men went to the Ambrosia Lake mines
and always got stuck by the space on the application forms
for previous mining experience,
but the mine steward explained,
you have to start at the bottom and work your way up.
So, almost thirty years later,
the Acoma men
were at the bottom of the underground mines at Ambrosia Lake,
and the Laguna men were at the bottom of the open pit at Jackpile,
they were still training, gaining experience, and working their way up.

And weekends, that city jail
was still full.

“Starting at the Bottom,” or, more precisely, living on the bottom is a theme throughout Ortiz’s book. His tribe, his family and he have struggled to survive in modern times, and Ortiz reveals many of the less obvious reasons why this is true. The arrival of industry, from the early trains to the later Uranium mines, has siphoned vital water away from Indian land, making it nearly difficult to even grow subsistence crops. As a result, the men had to take jobs further and further away from the land, creating a whole new set of problems.

I’m sure the mining companies would offer “valid” reasons why the Indians end up in dead-end jobs, but exploiting cheap labor seems to be the real business of mining companies. While reading the last section of Ortiz’s collection, I happened to receive this from PROPUBLICA:

If you don't have to pay the fine for having an unsafe workplace, why provide a safe workplace? Thousands of mines are operating despite owing safety penalties that go back as far as 20 years, according to an NPR investigation. In their years of delinquency, these mines reported injury rates 50 percent higher than mines that paid penalties. In a joint investigation, NPR and Mine Safety and Health News report that federal regulators are either unable or unwilling to get these owners to pay up. "Coal mine regulation is not a high-profile area of law enforcement. ... It's a fairly low priority," said one former assistant U.S. attorney. — NPR via @AnnaBoikoW

It’s hard to dig your way out of your problems when you’re at the bottom of a pit, so it’s not surprising that their frustration and despair causes them to end up in the city jail on weekends.

Ortiz’s View of Nature

I’m pretty sure I’ve made it clear that I’m an environmentalist to anyone who visits here regularly, so it should come as no surprise that I share Simon Ortiz’s Indian viewpoint that Nature is Sacred and that desecrating it is sacrilegious. Of course, I think I also share this with Transcendentalists like Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, not to mention Taoists.

Living in an area where Asarco’s Copper Refinery spewed arsenic and lead into its surroundings to near toxic levels, it’s impossible not to identify with Ortiz’s condemnation of the Peabody Coal Company and Kennecott copper mine:

Long House Valley Poem

This valley is in northeastern Arizona
where one of the largest power centers
in this hemisphere is being built.

Sheep and woman.
The long brown and red land
looming unto the horizon.
Breathe in so deeply.

Tsegi,
a canyon. "Hello" and "Goodbye,'
but always Hello
and smile.

The old rocks, millions of years old.

A Mohawk camper trailer
pulled behind a big white Cadillac.
Tourists,
the crusaders.

A cop car
flashing frenetic orange.
down. I can’t
even remember my license plate number.

And then, suddenly the Peabody Coal Company.
Black Mesa Mine.
Open pit.

Power line over the Mountain,
toward Phoenix, toward Denver,
toward Los Angeles, toward Las Vegas,
carrying our mother away.

A sign reads: Open Range.
Bulldozer smoke and dust rise
from the wounded Mountain

A PLAGUE ON ALL YOUR DAMN HORSEPOWER
A PLAGUE ON YOUR KENNECOTT COPPER BLIGHTS

The old rocks, millions of years old.

Horses quietly grazing, quietly.
A skinny black one throws his head
at the sky, at the wind.

The Yei
and hogans and the People
and roadside flowers
and cornfields and the sage
and the valley peace,
they are almost gone.

As if it wasn’t enough that the peaceful valley been invaded by tourists with big white Cadillac pulling a “Mohawk” trailer and police pulling over Indians, the invaders build an open-pit coal mine alongside the Kennecott Copper Mine. It’s enough to make a skinny black horse throw “his head at the sky.” Is this the final destruction of the Pueblos who are already nearly gone?

I also share Ortiz’s love of the land, though it’s a very different piece of land. It’s Puget Sound that has always been home to me and will be for eternity once my ashes are spread. My family’s 100+ years here in Puget Sound seem insignificant compared to Ortiz’s family’s 800+ in Acoma, but it’s enough to convince me that we belong to the land as much as it belongs to us.

This Occurs to Me

It has something to do
with intuition and instinct.
a mixture of appreciating
how the physical quality
of dirt and stone exist,
how useful they are,
what you can do with them.
Working with fingers, hands,
the mystery—knowing
it is not a mystery
that you can't possibly
know anything about—
that is yours.
Watching sparrows,
sheer cliff wall,
the effect of light and shadow,
line of stone mesa,
strata of sediment,
touching with foot and hand
the tamp of sand
against cliff wall;
noting the undershadow
of stone ledge.

All these, working in the mind,
the vision of weaving things
inwardly and outwardly
to fit together, weaving stone
together, my father tells me
how walls are built.

The Acoma pueblos have lived in the same place for more than 800 years. Their adobe homes are an architectural masterpiece and they are known for their exceptional pottery, both made of “dirt and stone,” both mirroring and made of the canyons and mesas where they live. Of course, they are also known for their fine weaving so it seems appropriate that Ortiz should tie them together in a poem that clearly reflects the title of this collection of poems.

Though the poem has specific images (i.e. “sparrows,” “sheer cliff wall,” “strata of sediment,” etc. the vision itself, as described in the last stanza, seems strangely undefined, perhaps because “love of place,” the feeling that a particular place is “Sacred,” can never be defined; it is infinite in the same way that any vision is infinite. Transcendent. And, ultimately, undefinable

Any Parent Would Identify With These Ortiz Poems

Although I was originally drawn to Ortiz as a Native American poet, I find my favorite poems are those that could probably have been written by anyone, even a Chinese poet in the 4th century. In other words, I like poems like:

Speaking

I take him outside
under the trees,
have him stand on the ground.
We listen to the crickets,
cicadas, million years old sound.
Ants come by us.
I tell them, "This is he, my son.
This boy is looking at you.
I am speaking for him.”

The crickets, cicadas,
the ants. the millions of years
are watching us,
hearing us.
My son murmurs infant words,
speaking, small laughter
bubbles from him.
Tree leaves tremble.
They listen to this boy
speaking for me.

I suspect that any parent could identify with this poem, even though it veers toward being Native American Poetry at the end of each stanza. Though most of us have “introduced” our children to nature and been amused, and, hopefully, enlightened by their amazement with what we’ve come to ignore, I doubt many Americans would even think of the kind of formal introduction that ends the first stanza. You would have to have a different view of nature than most of us have been raised with to ever think of making this kind of introduction.

Most of us have shared our children’s joy in being entertained by their outdoor discoveries, but most of us would never think that Nature also listens to the boy, much less “tremble” as they listen to him play. For us, Nature is seen as indifferent to our feelings or words.

My favorite poem like this, though, is this one:

Pout

Daughter sits straddle-legged
on the floor. Smiles
as she turns the pages
of a catalogue. Toys,
books, clothes, rocky
horseys. Smiles and mur
murs. And then, watching
her, several pages stick
together, and the crinkle
of a frown edges on her fore
head and her lips purse
and push forward in con
cern. And I smile
and pout my mouth
in sympathy and love.

It’s been a long, long time since I had this reaction to my granddaughter’s discovery of life’s problems, much less to my daughter’s, but I identified with the scene immediately. As they age our worries for them increasingly become “intellectual” where we try to discover solutions to their problems in the same way we try to solve our own problems, but at that age we feel their emotions immediately, unconsciously.

Simon Ortiz’s “Wisconsin Horse”

One of Ortiz’s reoccurring images is first found in “Wisconsin Horse.” Considering his Indian heritage, it’s a rich symbol, one often identified with Indians, though perhaps less so with the Pueblo Indians. The image is usually found in poems where the narrator is commenting on “America building something,” and, in the process, destroying nature.

Wisconsin Horse


It is late at night, lying
drunk on the floor, hearing
a church bell across the
street, remembering that
Wisconsin Horse
this Spring.

One step at a time to return.

The horse across the road
stands within a fence,
silent in the hot afternoon.

A mile north is some construction.
I tell the horse,
"That's America building something."

A mile further through a clump of trees
is a river.

The Wisconsin Horse is silent.

The bell clamors
against the insides of my skull,
It has nothing to do with sound
that can comfort.

The clamor wants to escape
its barriers.
I want it to escape.
I have no defenses.

I should be an eager Christian
hungry for salvation,
or at the very least accept smugness
bound tightly in plastic.

Yet, at this single point in my life,
I know only a few bare things:
the floor, the walls around me,
that bell across the street,
that despair is a miserable excuse for emptiness,
that I should echo louder
that call for salvation
which at this point I know
is a need to fill the hollows
and pockets of my body.

Despair is such a poor excuse
to exclude things from my life,
to allow them to slip
from safe places.

But now, and not too soon,
in, this dark night,
having gotten up to write,
I make this offering:
that Wisconsin Horse I saw
standing in that hot afternoon,
staring through a chainlink fence
at the construction going on
only a mile away,
I wonder now if the horse still stands
silent in the dark night,
dreamless and stifled,
having no recourses left
except to hope his silence
will soon go away
and the meaningfulness enter .


This poem has several of Ortiz’s major themes beginning with the opening note. Alcoholism, seemingly a reflection of his alienation and despair, plays a large part in his early poems. The bell that clamors inside his skull seems to be the church bell, the church that wants to convince him that he should be “hungry for salvation.”

It’ s obvious that what he’s really hungry for, though, is some sort of meaning to “fill the hollows and pockets” of his body. At this early stage of his career all he has, though, is an image that has stuck with him. Like the Wisconsin horse, he is fenced in and incapable of articulating what he really feels. All he can do is “hope his silence/will soon go away/ and the meaningfulness enter.”

Simon Ortiz’s Woven Stone

It’s been quite awhile since I blogged about poetry, though I have been reading intermittently. It’s just that I have several volumes partially read and won’t write about them until I’ve finished the entire work. But the rainy season seems to have finally set in giving me more time to read.

After my recent trip on the Columbia River it seemed appropriate that I finish Simon J Ortiz’s Woven Stone, a poet I discovered through reading Joan Halifax’s The Fruitful Darkness . Though I was unaware of his work, Ortiz is apparently a well-known Native American poet. I’ll have to admit that at times I found his Native-American “philosophizing” intrusive and I preferred his concrete, narrative poems where his beliefs were implied, rather than stated, even though I tended to identify with his beliefs.

His best poetry reminds me of Gary Snyder’s poetry. Of course, I probably wouldn’t have made this connection if I hadn’t gone back and read the introduction after I finished reading the poems ( I avoid introductions before finishing a work so I can draw my own conclusions before comparing them to others’ perceptions.)

Because I was pretty impressionable then, when I came across the writings of the Beat Generation, especially those of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, I was struck as if by a revelation. It was "experience" I noticed, the idea of experience, writing from and about experience, and writing as experience. Snyder's poetry particularly had aspects of Zen Buddhist philosophy I related to because they were similar in many ways to Native American spiritual knowledge and belief; reading the poetry and having in mind writing as experience, it was as if I'd know Buddhism all my life. And the revelation that was brought to light for me was that as an Acoma person I also had something important, unique, and special to say. I did not, however, express myself in writing immediately about it; then I recognized it and gladly shared a sense of comradeship and association with the philosophy, literature, and the poet.

Of course, it was precisely this similarity between “Zen Buddhist Philosophy” and “Native American spiritual knowledge and belief” that I admired in Halifax’s book. I’ve actually bookmarked a lot of poems in Ortiz’s book, but here’s one of the earliest ones I’ve admired:

BUCK NEZ

"a birthday pup present for
me from friends; I was
taking him home for my son

Ten miles
the other side of Nageezi,
we stopped a mile south of the highway.

I built a fire big enough
to signal the gods.

You slept against my neck,
curled by my soul. Once,
I awoke to a tiny whimper,
and I worried
that I should feed you
when I had nothing to eat
myself.

It rained that night, and it got cold.
In the morning,
I woke up to find
a puppy, you, yapping
like the original life,
a whole mystery crying
for sustenance.

We prayed.

What I want is a full life
for my son,
for myself,
for my Mother,
the Earth.

What I most admire about the poem is the concrete narrative, concrete details that recreate a simple moment that reveals much about the narrator, probably climaxing with the lines “and I worried/ that I should feed you/when I had nothing to eat/ myself.” It's easy to like someone who puts a puppy's needs before his own.

Personally, though, I would have deleted everything after “ a whole mystery crying/for sustenance” because it undercuts the rest of the poem and seems to be implied in the phrases “like the original life” and “a whole mystery crying/for sustenance.”