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  • Simon Ortiz and the Lyricism of Continuance:"For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land"

I started out to write this piece honoring Simon's work by taking a close look at his widely anthologized, much loved, early poem, "My Father's Song." I wanted to show how such a deeply personal short poem expressed that preeminent value, continuance, which he invokes to focus native tradition and resistance beyond mere survival. But along the way I got ambushed. I got ambushed by his father, by poems and statements about his father and his father's influence on his work. I was easy to ambush because in an eighteen-month time period a year and a half ago, I lost four fathers: First, my wife's father, then, thirty-seven days later, my father, eight months later, my mentor, the philosopher Henry Bugbee who brought me to Montana, and six months later, Buster Yellow Kidney, the Blackfeet elder and my friend. So Simon's statements about his father would not leave me alone. And the continuance (a word I initially resisted due to its abstract quality) that he invokes so eloquently probably has no more direct and forceful path than through the parents and grandparents, in this case, through the father.

I want to look at his father as a stone-worker, as a carver, as a singer, and at the influence of these on Simon as a writer. There is an early poem, "A Story of How a Wall Stands," in which his father explains the care, the mystery, and the mastery of weaving stone into a wall for a graveyard at Aacqu. The picture we are offered of this stone-working craft is created by his father's hands as he shows Simon the motions these hands must make in the making of stone walls. [End Page 20]

At Aacqu there is a wall almost 400 years old which supports hundreds of tons of dirt and bones— it's a graveyard built on a steep incline—and it looks like it's about to fall down the incline but will not for a long time. My father, who works with stone, says, "That's just the part you see, the stones which seem to be just packed in on the outside," and with his hands puts the stone and mud in place. "Underneath what looks like loose stone, there is stone woven together." He ties one hand over the other, fitting like the bones of his hands and fingers. "That's what is holding it together." "It is built that carefully," he says, "The mud mixed to a certain texture," patiently "with the fingers," worked in the palm of his hand. So that placed between the stones, they hold together for a long, long time. He tells me these things, the story of them worked with his fingers, in the palm of his hands, working the stone and the mud until they become the wall that stands a long, long time.

(Woven Stone 145) [End Page 21]

What's crucial about this particular wall is its support of hundreds of tons of dirt and bones on a steep incline—for 400 years—its being the wall for containing the bones of the ancestors at Aacqu. The craft skills, the understanding, the qualities of patience and carefulness, reside in his father's hand-bones as their movements tell the story of the wall—stones woven together with mud. The story of how a wall stands might also be the story of how a people stand, on the steep incline of history. For any wall, especially one on an incline, is a balancing act, stones standing amidst the forces of time and gravity and shifts in the ground that might bring them down. The bones inside his father's hands know this story and these forces; and they know the supreme value of a certain texture of mud that must be mixed if the stones are to hold together, in time and space, and with the people, the ancestors, the unborn. The title of Simon's volume collecting his first four books of poetry...


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