Blood and water—the messages: From Sand Creek, the poetry of Simon Ortiz
Few books at any time are necessary. If these days there are a thousand poetry books published each year, there a hundred good ones. It is a ratio that probably has not changed. Are there, however, a hundred recent books of any kind that demand our immediate attention? Certainly. But there are only a handful that are absolutely necessary. So necessary that not to read them is to risk not not being “with it” but to risk not being. Few books that can fill the void which the printed word, word made flesh, was meant to fill. Simon Ortiz’ From Sand Creek satisfies a hunger. And thereby nourishes. Ortiz has not written only to help rescue a whole people—us, white, European Americans—from their past but he has also done that. From his preface:
For Indian people, I would like From Sand Creek to be a
study of that process which they have experienced as victim,
subject, and expendable resource. For people of European
heritage, I want it to be a study, too, but one which looks
at motive and mission and their own victimization. I hope,
finally, we will all learn something from each other. We
must. We are all with and within each other.
We are all with and within each other. It is necessary to emphasize that this is not a mouthing of any of the numerous pop mysticisms North Americans have grabbed onto with such desperation. Neither is it an imitation Walt Whitman that is found so frequently in the academic poetry journals. No fake Leaves of Grass. Ortiz’ first poem begins, “Grief / memorizes this grass.” Grass. He draws from the elementary things, not as metaphors as Whitman did it but to send us to our immediate perception—grass nourishes and grass endures. (White Antelope at the attack on Sand Creek refused to run. He stood ready to die singing his death song: “Nothing lives long / Except the earth and the mountains.” Singing until shot down by the soldiers.) Memory, the memory we need to recover, is attached to things, places, events. Ortiz is allowing us entrance into a frame of mind that opens our perceptions to make access to this memory.
From Sand Creek is very much about language—using, mis-using, reclaiming it—— and memory and names. Starting from “Sand Creek” is instructive as it illustrates, at least in part, the history attached to Sand Creek and where it is that the poet and ourselves are coming from. An excerpt from “An Eyewitness Report of the Sand Creek Massacre, November 28, 1864”:
The main body of Indians rushed up the bed of the creek,
which was dry, level sand with only a few little pools
of water here and there ....
...and I joined them. Before we had gone far, the troops
saw us and opened a heavy fire on us, forcing us to run
back and take shelter in the bed of the creek. We now
started up the stream bed, following the main body of
Indians and with a whole company of cavalry close on our
heels shooting at us every foot of the way ... we passed
many Indians, men, women, and children, some wounded,
others dead, lying on the sand and in the pools of water.
The soldiers concentrated their fire on the people in
the pits, and we fought back as well as we could with
guns and bows, but we had only a few guns. The troops
did not rush and fight hand to hand, but once or twice
after they had killed many of the men in a certain pit,
they rushed in and finished the work, killing the wounded
and the women and children that had not been hurt.
Little Bear told me recently that after the fight he saw
the soldiers scalping the dead and saw an old woman who
had been scalped by the soldiers walk about, but unable
to see where to go. Her scalp had been taken and the skin
of her forehead fell down over her eyes.
—George Brent (Cheyennes)
If we are to go anywhere, meaning that we can move toward a wholeness, a redemption through blood and water, filling the pits of the creek—we need know where we are coming from.
From Sand Creek offers us a map but it does not primarily disclose what the whites did to the Indians —the Sand Creek Massacre— but what we continue to do to ourselves.
But they refused to understand.
Instead, they protested
the north wind,
kept adding rooms.
Their children learned to plan.
Their parents required submission.
Warriors could have passed
into their blood.
Ortiz’ is the radical vision that William Blake presented to us one hundred years before that massacre. He told us, better physical death than crippling children's minds. He attempted to awaken Albion and we preferred sleep. Ortiz is attempting a resurrection. He first measures the loss. Not learning anything from history “the horizons fell behind / without a trace of memory.” The extent of what was lost: “Warriors could have passed / into their young blood.” Instead:
What should have been
important and fruitful
Spots appeared on their lungs.
in their bones.
Truth did not speak for them.
Frontiers ended for them
and a dread settled upon them
and became remorseless
Charles Olson titled his collected non-Maximus poems The Archaeologist of Morning realizing that the language, as well as the image of the poet attempting the mad embrace of the earth as living woman, through the loneliness of that posture and the futility of reaching so far beyond his culture, would force the pun on “Mourning.” Ortiz calls forth, with the emphasis on the loss of the vital principle this also, this exploration and revelation of morning / mourning:
they must have felt
they should get on their knees
and drink the red rare blood,
drink to replenish
their own loss.
Their helpless hands
were like sieves.
Ortiz gains an extra dimension to his work, both the power and the pathos, since he is able to utilize the language coming from a culture that can still speak of Earth as Mother. He is able to uncover an emergent meaning to the title, to show the poet as Archeologist, digging and uncovering what belongs to us, what we already know once it is revealed to us, of a new Morning.
These poems, and on opposite pages a short prose statement, come from a concrete situation: “Passing through, one gets caught into things: this time it was the Veterans Administration Hospital, Ft. Lyon, Colorado, 1974-75.” And from this situation, this site, the stories unfold : “Words stumble / on October stories, / the abrupt wind / throttled / on fences / barn slats / spikes / thudding / bad cast iron.” The stories unfold until we know, recognize, these people. We begin to remember. Toby:
He is impossible
to talk with then.
His frozen tongue
he wants to trust.
Toby tends his shadow.
[The report told by George Brent comes to mind: “I saw that Black Kettle had a large American flag up on a lodgepole as a signal to the troop that the camp was friendly .... All the time Black Kettle kept calling out not to be frightened that the camp was under protection and there was no danger.” After witnessing so much slaughter, Black Kettle also ran. Toby—“... he wants to trust.”] Billy:
They were fierce, Billy,
atrocious, shiny blades glistening
in the cold sun,
you could smell their sour sweat.
As we walk back,
he tells me his secret plan:
head east for Kansas, make arrows.
Send word to the IRA.
We remember Toby, Billy because of this poet's ability to make us see them. That is part of the poet’s task, to allow us to see what we have already looked upon, to know what we already do know. Most of all, we remember ourselves. It is us we can attempt to rescue. We remember how ....
Ortiz is giving back to us our most precious gift, something we lost at the very beginning: “They shouldn't have stopped / and listened to Puritans. / And learned / that mountains were chains / to be crossed like breaking / something.” We lost the way to inhabit this country, America. The way leads not across boundaries, frontiers. It does not involve or invoke space. But time. He is giving us another chance. From the dry sands of the creek that absorbed all that blood —“Spurting, / sparkling, / splashing, bubbling, steady / hot arcing streams.”—time is a river running through these poems and it is up to us whether we want to immerse ourselves into it. It is time that we have neglected to the loss of our first chance upon meeting the first inhabitants of our country:
gurgled and ran backwards
and swirled them into a whirl
of greed and callousness.
Our continual loss,
Remember My Lai
Remember Sand Creek.
Remember Sand Creek. Not guilt. Not the self‑indulgent egoism of the analytical confessional poetry. Nor the fake toughness of the academics. Not the detachment of the neo-beats. Neither the platonic marixism of the Language poets. Remember Sand Creek.
There are flowers
and new grass
and a spring wind
from Sand Creek.
Ortiz is recovering a poetry, a voice that has been repressed in our poetry as it has been repressed in our lives. He is establishing, through the insistent force of the example of his own poems, the linking of emotion to memory. Ezra Pound kept us aware that “only emotion endures” and that the “muses are the daughters of memory” but Ortiz is searching out the reasons why our poetry has withered into near irrelevance:
Anger meant nothing to them,
not even as intellectual exercise.
Their scholars set them
away from it
that they should by systematic.
And so deliberate
that their intellect
became foreign to them.
Ortiz could be speaking about the distortion of the Western rational mind that gained its exaggerated destructiveness form the Cartesian cogito that separated thinking, or mere thought of the disembodied ego, from being. But he is more concerned with its effects on the immigrants who sought to escape that domination and who ended up by attempting the destruction of peoples and place previously untouched by it.
They were frightened by emotion.
The sheer joy of being men,
of being children,
was no longer theirs.
They feared women.
Lest we forget. Brent again: “... they rushed in and finished up the work, killing the wounded and the women and children that had not been hurt.” 28 men killed, 105 women and children.
The consequences for American poetry have been disastrous; neither have poets been able to accept "their own victimization." How many poets writing today does this picture remind you of?
A cow stolen
from her memory
the wild breed
does not agitate
the weak fence.
Some poets have recognized their own impoverishment and have adopted as Indian disguise, but this is only another form of imperialism. Taking a culture is not different from taking the land that gave rise to it. Ortiz is pointing to a new poetry, a poetry that recognizes the intimate connection of land and language and one that refuses to deny time, attempts to recover the loss: “they crossed country / that would lay beyond memory. / Their cells / would no longer bother / to remember./ Memory was not to be trusted.” Ortiz’ own poetry is an example of a poetry that is not detached nor is it political, if political mans subsuming the music to the message; it is a poetry that speaks out of absolute need:
There should be
moments of true terror
that would make men think
and that would cause women
to grab hold of children
loving them, and saving them
for the generations
who would enjoy the rain.
In his ability to rescue sentiment from irrelevance, damage done to it by the rational and sophisticated mind Ortiz is like Blake. From Sand Creek is our Songs of Innocence and Experience. It is that true to the picture of what we have been and the vision of what is possible we become. It is not imitation Blake. It is speaking with that voice that even Blake could not always sustain but when he did it was true to a vision un-clouded by the rationalization of any justification of a “progress” that ensures destruction of the values that make life and language alive to meaning.
Simon Ortiz, From Sand Creek, Thunder’s Mouth Press, NY: 1981
George Brent, “An Eyewitness Report of the Sand Creek Massacre, November 28, 1864” from George Bird Brinnell, The Fighting Cheyennes, Norman, Oklahoma: 1956.