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  • (Re)Claiming AmericaOrtiz's After and Before the Lightning
  • Robin Riley Fast (bio)

In After and Before the Lightning (1994), Acoma Pueblo writer Simon J. Ortiz recounts his struggles to find himself at home on the northern plains during a winter with the Lakota of the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. He records and reflects on his confrontations with extreme cold, with a harsh landscape that challenges Indians and whites alike, with the consequences of colonization, with an America that is both his and alien. In his preface, Ortiz describes the process of writing this book as "putting together a map of where I was in the cosmos" (xiv); it is a cosmos persistently marked by extremes, of weather, landscape, and emotion, a cosmos often characterized by imagery of edges and margins, in which safety is always an issue. Safety is an issue, too, because this cosmos pointedly includes America, with its history of genocidal politics and multiple oppressions, a place that Ortiz claims, and a history that he insists his readers recognize.

Ortiz dialogically engages with a particular place and climate, with himself and others, and with America—the social-cultural-economic-political entity that he both claims and criticizes. The book's dialogism is evident in its blend of poetry and prose and also in its simultaneously cyclical and linear structure as it takes us from November 18 to March 21 and from the last lightning of fall to the first lightning of spring. While the cyclic constitutes context, this structural doubleness allows Ortiz to show us that knowledge of cyclic nature alone doesn't resolve oppression or grief or answer the necessity for struggle, though by manifesting wholeness it may offer a kind [End Page 27] of model for reclaiming or remaking America. This structural and conceptual complexity contributes to a dialogic tension that is foregrounded as Ortiz simultaneously addresses himself, cosmic forces, neighbors, history, and political conditions. He exposes the philosophical and historical violence of Manifest Destiny while he acknowledges, even honors, the struggles of settlers, ranchers, and farmers. Such an acknowledgment reveals both the conflicts and some of the creative possibilities implicit in his act of reclaiming America. Before proceeding to my analysis of After and Before the Lightning, I will locate the book in relation to the one that precedes it, to the history and politics of American naming, and to Native peoples' empowering appropriations of colonizers' languages.

In From Sand Creek (1981), his most recent earlier book, too, Ortiz responds to history, and speaks for change. Writing "from" the Fort Lyons Veterans' Administration Hospital, Ortiz exhorts America to remember the 1864 massacre at Sand Creek of a peaceful Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne encampment by troops from Fort Lyons. The very specific and painful necessity of remembering Sand Creek and memorializing the bleak, alienated lives of his fellow veteran-patients seems to push the book into abstraction and generalization when Ortiz wishes to connect these memories to American political and historical contexts. Ortiz's recollection and witness are dominated by desire and assertion: "There is a revolution going on" (54); "The future will not be mad with loss and waste" (86); a new dream "wealthy with love / and compassion / and knowledge / . . . will rise / in . . . our America" (95). While From Sand Creek both bears witness and prophesies, it doesn't imagine what might make the revolutionary dream possible.

After and Before the Lightning shares the earlier book's acute awareness of history—indeed, it gains some of its power from Ortiz's history of remembering and witnessing throughout his many books. But After and Before the Lightning goes beyond From Sand Creek in at least two important ways: first, it more fully imagines connections across America's violent history and uneasy diversity (especially, but not only, with regard to European settlers and their descendants); second, it continuously evokes the natural cycles that are a major [End Page 28] context for politics and history. In these ways Ortiz gives nuanced density to the dream this book shares with From Sand Creek, suggests something of what might be required for its realization, and suggests, too, the slow, difficult process of creating change. After and Before the...


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