A "Touching Man" Brings Aacqu Close
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A "Touching Man" Brings Aacqu Close

You have to not only see color but you must touch it, in a sense become that color, know it, let it become part of you. I think that old man knows. I like to watch him. He pushed his steel rim glasses with bony knuckles back up the bridge of his nose. I call him Touching Man.

Simon Ortiz, "Two Old Men"

I must have perished with cold, but that, the coldest nights, I used to steal a big bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gnashes.

Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Great distances of time, culture, place, and race separate Frederick Douglass from Simon J. Ortiz, but they are close enough to touch. Both know that they have life-giving stories to tell about the beauties and injustices of their times and places—times and places that are so far removed from most of their readers that they have to find powerful rhetorical strategies that invite those readers to allow the distant to "become part of [them]." Ortiz is especially conscious of this challenge. In the opening pages of Woven Stone (1992) he defines his literary calling as "[m]aking language familiar and accessible to others, bringing it within their grasp and comprehension, [this] is what a writer, teacher, and storyteller does or tries to do. I've been trying for [End Page 68] over thirty years" (3-4).1 "Grasp" is indeed a strong component of his mission. Like Douglass, Ortiz is a master of tactile imagery, and he uses this mastery to transform topics as remote and small as a dry root in a wash and as hidden and apocalyptic as the Jackpile uranium mine into living parts of us. In this informal appreciation—a small catalogue of poem excerpts with brief discussion—I can only skim the richness of this grasping. But my skimming at least suggests the diversity and sophistication of Ortiz's tactile imagery that makes graspable the death and destruction of people and land; the complexity of place and time; celebrations of creation and re-creation; and moving insights into a hope that mingles with loss, a hidden beauty and faith in survival in places of death, and a sense of loneliness that proclaims a deep sense of wonder.

Ortiz is known for his condemnation of technological and governmental forces that wreak havoc in Indian Country. Three of his poems indicate the variety of ways he uses tactile images to voice his protests. In the "Electrical Lines" section of "The state's claim . . . ," he personifies a machine ("it pointed") that tears up the earth:

When they were putting up the lines, there was this machine. The machine had a long shiny drill which it pointed at the ground and drove it turning into the earth and almost suddenly there was a hole

(A Good Journey 256)

In "For Our Brothers: Blue Jay, Gold Finch, Flicker, and Squirrel," the impact of highway construction and cars is brought as close as a touch of fur, mutilated fur:

I touch it [a squirrel corpse] gently and then try to lift it, to toss it into some high grass, but its fur comes loose. It is glued heavily to the ground with its rot [End Page 69] and I put my foot against it and push it into the grass, being careful that it remains upright and is facing the rainwater that will wash it downstream.

(A Good Journey 253-54)

The use of the tactile imagery in this poem is typical; Ortiz often saves powerful tactile images for climactic sections of his poems (in this case squirrel is the last of four road-kill victims) and images of touch are frequently enhanced by synesthesia (here the "smell" of "disintegration" immediately follows the above quoted lines).

Possibly the most potent example of touching the...


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