- Prairie Songs and Poor Prayers
When I first met Simon Ortiz back in the early 1980s, a friend and I had gone to visit him at his home outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. We brought with us a tree, a sapling, as a gift to honor Simon's newborn son. Now that son and that tree are grown, but memories of our first visit linger.
Simon asked me if I knew him, and I said no, except for knowing his work. He balked, as if offended, and said something about how knowing his work is knowing him. Then Simon asked my friend to tell the stories back to him that Simon had told him the last time my friend had visited. Bo was chastised for not being able, or not having the courage, to retell the stories, and Simon began again, telling us many of the stories that identify him as human, as Aacqumeh.
That evening Simon would lie down for a while and we would visit with his wife, but just as we were about to leave, he would be up again, ready to talk, to tell stories. I love him for that night. I can't exactly say why, except to say that people are most believable who have a deep belief—not as obvious of a thing as it may seem.
Although Simon does not drink now, he was drinking at the time, drinking the way my mother used to drink and the way I have drunk myself, to obliterate sorrow while at the same time remaining aware, even intimately in touch with people, places, ideas. Believe me, I don't romanticize alcohol addiction or glamorize the longing and loss it entails, and neither does Simon. No. I speak of those three things together—being known through one's words, the importance of remembering stories, and climbing on the beast called Grief, a.k.a. Sorrow, [End Page 101] determined to ride, to let 'er buck! They are the truth and fierce beauty I associate with knowing Simon J. Ortiz Jr.: a child, a tree, a story, a lesson, a life, a sorrow, a joy, and a raging grief.
Simon knows the howling winds of my own prairie homeland, and knows them as if he were born there. In "The Prairie's Song," Simon writes,
More than anything else what we want to feel and finally know is the prairie's song. With this cored tightly always and forever enduring in ourselves, we can know all manners and dimensions of grief and we will not fail ourselves(83)
We pray our "poor prayer," as he calls it, when eloquent words fail us and when our pitiful selves know keenly how pitiful we are.
I love Simon for his insistence on enduring, "cored tightly always and forever." Those who love Simon's words understand how that can be because his "before" and "after the lightning" become more than a season. He invokes a ceremonial space of grace and forgiveness, healing and remembering and being beyond all those abstractions into sky gazing and wondering—a gratitude for being alive.
Kathryn W. Shanley (Assiniboine) is chair of the Native American studies department at the University of Montana. She has published widely in the field of Native American literary criticism on issues of representation of Indians in popular culture as well as about authors such as James Welch, Maria Campbell, Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, Thomas King, and N. Scott Momaday. She recently edited Native American Literature: Boundaries and Sovereignties (Delta, 2001) and has a forthcoming book on the writings of James Welch.