"The story goes its own way": Ortiz, Nationalism, and the Oral Poetics of Power
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"The story goes its own way":
Ortiz, Nationalism, and the Oral Poetics of Power

In the four "Lightning" poems that frame Simon Ortiz's 1994 collection After and Before the Lightning, he charts the internal agonies of the winter of history. By the finale, an emergence with all the labor pains of spring, there is not only survival, but an affirmation of power. And power, for Ortiz, pulses in the land.

We do finally know why we don't turn from danger or beauty or sadness or joy. How completely we feel the tremoring and shuddering pulse of the land now as we welcome the rain-heart-lightning into our trembling yearning selves.

(133-134)

Those feelings, that yearning, the give and take of that power of the land, remain a constant affirmation throughout his work. In an earlier 1980 collection, Fight Back, he writes,

This land yearns for us. The people yearn for the land. Loss and separation are hard to bear.

(62)

His work is dedicated not only to bearing that loss and separation, but somehow to reversing it, reuniting the people, and as he says, "not [End Page 34] just Indian people," with the land (Fight Back 73). He maps that process in the historical and political spheres and increasingly in the inner territories of the mind and heart as well. Ortiz is generous in showing his readers how to overcome fear of that "danger or beauty or sadness or joy," and even how we "finally know why we don't turn" from that danger. He writes,

Choosing words is a waste of time. Let the words choose you, let them choose their own place, time, identity, meaning. [. . .] They have their own power, their own magic, wonder, brilliance. Where and how they fit, that has nothing to do with us. The only thing we can do is recognize, admit, and accept that. Let words choose us. Let language empower us, give us beauty and awe. We cannot do anything about it. When we think we can, when we choose words, it is a waste of time.

(After and Before the Lightning 51)

His assertion of the "power [. . .] magic, wonder, and brilliance" in words celebrates the multiplicities of language and human discourse as the creator of our expressions of experience and ourselves. This view is in direct contrast with romantic literary nostalgia over the so-called "death of the author." The life or death of the author is not the core issue as long as the stories continue. Instead of some "prison of language," he sees a celebratory source of life in language, with the author dancing along.

If what makes a poet is openness to that power in language, one of the particularly magnetic qualities in his writing is the fearless way that Ortiz maintains such openness in the midst of a devastating history. This warrior courage is based on love of land and community and on faith in life itself. Faith is always elusive and can be misread as optimism. In a remarkable, reciprocal logic of encouragement, we can read this faith in simply "life and its continuance" through this passage from Fight Back:

We must have passionate concern for what is at stake. We must understand the experience of the oppressed, especially the racial [End Page 35] and ethnic minorities, of this nation, by this nation and the economic interests, because only when we truly understand and accept the responsibilities of that understanding will we be able to make the necessary decisions for change. Only then will we truly understand what it is to love the land and people and to have compassion. Only when we are not afraid to fight against the destroyers, thieves, liars, exploiters who profit handsomely off the land and people will we know what love and compassion are. Only when the people of this nation, not just Indian people, fight for what is just and good for all life, will we know life and its continuance. And when we fight, and fight back those who are bent on destruction of land and people, we will win. We will win.

(73)

Those fighting words are filled with...


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