Poetry
Photo by J. Morgan Edwards

 

 

My Soul Immense with the Millennia of Rocks and Stars:
The Poetry of Laura Tohe

Laura Tohe, the second Navajo Nation Poet Laureate, is a poet, writer, oral historian, scholar of indigenous literature, and notably in the last thirteen years, a librettist. Beneath the shimmering surface of her lyrical poems there’s a fierce sensibility rooted in both Native heritage and the history that dominant culture tried to erase for over a century. Tohe reminds us that a history erased is not a history lost, however, for it has been kept in the memory of indigenous peoples through their own historians, their storytellers and poets. To illustrate briefly, the stunning contrapuntal poem, “One Name Is Too Many,” evokes tragedies separated by over a century in time, but involving the massacre of women and children, linked through such sound associations as “Sand Creek” and “Sandy Hook.” The poem may send white readers (this one, for instance) to google references to the Sand Creek massacre, and in this way, helps to instruct us. Tohe is Diné, and grew up near the Chuska Mountains on the Diné homeland. She is the daughter of one of the Navajo code talkers who created out of the Diné language an unbreakable code for tactical communications used by American military in the Pacific Theater during World War II. She is bilingual in Diné and English, writing in both – sometimes, as in the invocations in her exquisite prayer poem, “Untitled,” in the same poem.

 

Her works include No Parole Today (1999), hybrid memoir-poems about boarding school for Native children; Tseyí Deep in the Rock (2005), a poetic collaboration about the canyon (also referred to as Canyon de Chelly) on the Diné homeland with photographer Stephen Strom; and Code Talker Stories (2012), an oral history of the remaining Navajo Code Talkers. In 2008, Tohe was commissioned by the Phoenix Symphony to write the libretto for Enemy Slayer, A Navajo Oratorio, which made its world premiere to acclaim as part of the Phoenix Symphony’s sixtieth anniversary. Overlaying her own father’s story as a veteran of WWII with the story of an Iraq War veteran, Tohe’s libretto was hauntingly timely.

In the decade following Enemy Slayer, Tohe received an invitation from France to write the libretto for an oratorio on earth healing with composer Thierry Pecou, which premiered in Rouen in 2019. A clip is included from the Caen (France) performance of an excerpt of the libretto, Nahasdzaan in the Glittering World, as narrated by some of the non-human Earth peoples, such as Spider Woman of the Insect People. Filling out the selection of poems in this feature is an homage poem to the Grand Canyon (“My Eyes Are Small”), a persona poem (“Blue Impala”), a beautifully modulated and passionate love poem (“1977 Approximately”), and an incantatory ekphrastic poem (“Japanese Garden”). A link to this poem in Navajo is included.

Over the course of the spring, as Tohe and I discussed this feature, the pandemic reached Arizona. Residents on the Diné homeland in the north were very hard hit, and after assuring me by email that she and her family were fine in Phoenix, Tohe expressed her deep concern for those of her people on tribal lands. She spoke of how endangered the Diné language, central to the Nation’s cultural identity, is as well, because of the attrition of Diné speakers from years of assimilation. Then there was a bit of good news. In May, Tohe learned she had been awarded a 2020 Poet Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets. The Fellowship was given to enable her to “teach writing and poetry throughout rural communities and schools on the Navajo Nation,” because writing poetry in Navajo is key to revitalizing the language.

Let me take this opportunity to add a personal note. Laura Tohe and I were colleagues at Arizona State University, and I always admired her work for its beauty and power, and also for what William Carlos Williams called “the news” in her writings. I felt it was important to read that “news,” to learn of “Sky Woman” and “Mother Earth” (“Japanese Garden”) from an indigenous perspective, to learn how to honor rather than exploit the earth. I was grateful to learn of the contribution of the code talkers to American victory in WWII, as told to the daughter of one of the late code talkers. It is a privilege to introduce the community of readers and writers of Persimmon Tree to the marvelous poems of the Navajo Nation Poet Laureate, Laura Tohe.

 

 

Eight Poems

 

My Eyes are Small

my eyes are small;
they take only tiny licks at the walls of this canyon
 
my ears pick up my late brother’s steps cracking on the Kaibab trail
 
my voice a whisper,
a feather drifting on the wind
 
and yet my soul immense with the millennia of rocks and stars,
rises,
rises,
rises,
rises

 

 

Untitled

Sisnaajiní, o’ mountain to the east
fastened to the earth with a bolt of lightning,
adorned with white shell.
I adorn my ears with white shell earrings.
May I have hard goods, may I have soft goods
May I think with the spirit and mind of Sisnaajiníon a sunbeam and rainbow

Tsoodził, o’ mountain to the south
fastened to the earth with a stone knife,
adorned with turquoise
I adorn myself with turquoise beads
May I have soft goods, may I have hard goods
May I plan with the mind and spirit of Tsoodził

on a sunbeam and rainbow

Dook’o’ooslííd, o’ mountain to the west
fastened to the earth with a sunbeam
adorned with abalone shell
I adorn myself with abalone shell necklace
May I have soft goods, may I have hard goods
May I have the materials of life with the spirit of Dook’o’ooslííd

on a sunbeam and rainbow

Dibé Nitsaa, o’ mountain to the north
fastened to the earth with a rainbow
adorned with black jet mineral
I adorn my finger with black jet
May I have soft goods, may I have hard goods
May I have future happiness with the spirit of Dibé Nitsaa

it begins again

 

 

 

1977 Approximately

The plane shook and awakened me.
I watched with curiosity as spears of light
hit the earth’s surface
like tiny explosions.
 
I closed my eyes again
and thought of you still a thousand miles away.
 
In a few more hours the flight would land
in the desert valley next to the mountains.
The stars would have sprinkled themselves across
the midnight sky by then
and I would be home.
 
In the lobby among the other passengers
I am frumpled, disoriented, and still dazed
from my sleep 32,000 feet above the earth.
I search for you among people moving.
Suddenly a young man appears walking hurriedly,
hair freshly washed and glistening like sunlight,
linen shirt neatly pressed with the creases a little crooked.
 
Is this my love arriving fresh as a full moon?
It’s way past midnight and he’s so bright.
 
In your arms and I am home.
You ask if I’m hungry, so we drive to the restaurant
on Nine-Mile Hill and eat our favorite meal.
 
Afterwards we step into the desert quietly breathing
between the stars and the fluorescent lights splattered
below the mountains.
 
It’s 3 or 4 in the morning and we finish the night making fierce love.
Take this night in which I give you all of me.
Plant it in the moonlight of our youth,
let it bloom
and in the gray hair of our lives
let us reap the harvest of this summer night.
 
I will be waiting for you
 
my desert night, my moon, my love.

 

 

One Name Is Too Many

I google “massacre”
and Sand Creek doesn’t pop up
The Long Walk doesn’t pop up
 
Instead, Google says the deadliest massacres
in America began in 1973–
facts, dates, and faces of the victims,
how long they lasted in the hospital,
how their parents’ love couldn’t hold them
 
Sand Creek 1864
 
Grief like a syringe enters the nerves
and leaves its trace in weeks, months, years
like a tingling in the hands and heart that never leaves
 
Sandy Hook
 
On the 150 year anniversary of Sand Creek
the pages of American history remain blank, empty
A genocide almost wiped out Turtle Island, I say
to young faces who hold the book of blank pages
 
Columbine
 
A daughter pregnant with child bleeds in the sagebrush
Red stripes of the American flag flutter high on destiny
Humpty Dumpty enters the school wearing a black mask
and carries a duffel bag
and all the king’s horses and all the king’s people
couldn’t put the world together again
 
The Long Walk 1864
 
Bam! Bang! A good Indian is a dead Indian.
This collage, this country built on blood, and guns, and glory
Black Kettle knew that before he became a grotesque statue
Who cares for Indians and children anyway?
 
Aurora, Colorado
 
Colonel Chivington steps out from the theatre screen
He screams, “Die! With a hard vengeance!”
Granny get your gun!
The freight trains headed west
The ships headed Middle East
 
 
Once my son and I stood at the Vietnam memorial
the names of the fallen lined up next to each other
“even one name is too many,” he said.

 

 

Japanese Garden

 

A man is leading the animals.
A man is leading the ones that float on water.
A man is leading the winged ones.
A man is leading the ones that swim.
 
Maybe he’s St. Francis,
the long-robed man who calls the animals to him now.
Maybe he’s Noah,
the one who gathered the animals
and sailed away with them, they say.
Who was there to witness their leaving?
To sing a song for their journey?
 
Where are they going?
their faces turned northward,
taking their songs,
taking their maps,
taking their languages.
Are they leaving with joy in their hearts?
Or is sadness eating at their star hearts?
In the wake of their leaving a small wind
stirs the empty hands of the tree branches above us.
 
What I will remember—
footsteps left like dinosaur tracks
pressed between Sky Woman and Mother Earth.
When they leave,
I will weep.
I will weep.

 

 

Blue Impala

That time I stole a blue Impala in Flagstaff
the first year they made those automatic windows, you know?
I was sixteen and I was cruising down the highway
 
Hot on the trail to Albuquerque
I was hungry
and I was howling, man.
It was like stealing the best horse in the herd.

 

 

 

Excerpt from: Nahasdzáán in the Glittering World

 

 

 

 

I. The Black World

Spider Woman / Narrator:
Jiní,
someone said it.
Jiní,
someone says it.
In the beginning,
it was night all day
in the Insect People’s world.
They lived in darkness
in the void,
no sun, no moon, no stars
to blanket the sky.
Theirs is a perpetual motion–
ant soldiers march for food,
wasps search below themselves
to build nests,
cicadas emerge from under
a canvas of black sky
and rub their legs in noisy celebration.
Their throats carry bowls of
humming, buzzing, and chirping songs.
The Insect People
build their world
in a language of verbs
they teach each other,
stone by stone,
verb by verb,
in parallel lines.
Something says
Iiná, iiná,
life, life.

Time etches it on slate
that will age with
ice, water, and wind
to be found by a wise man
in another world
who will read stories
older than the first crawling beings.
These inhabitants
had no need for maps,
had no need to know the signs–
east and west
up and down,
or for paths that led to holes in the sky,
that led to new worlds,
unlike the two-leggeds,
who moved without wings,
and carried no song bowls,
as the Insect People
whirring under the heavy
dome of the sky.

 

 

 

The Mist People

First Man:
We float like mist between
earth and sky.
Pathetic beings, we could not
read instructions
written in the earth’s language,
or in Spider Woman’s designs,
could not read the stories in her web,
could not read the stories,
pulled from the heart of her mind.
Coyote, First Scolder,
impatient and foolish
is always with us.
Beware of his tongue that
speaks of random star patterns
on the blank sky.
 
Coyote (male):
I sit by the road
to procrastinate,
to conjure
ants to run along my tongue
to swallow.
I grow weary of the same threads
that stitch existence together
in this immutable world.
I crack the bowls
and make them run
like fissures
on a crystal stone.

 

 


Acknowledgements
The uncollected poems and libretto excerpt featured in this issue have been previously published and/or performed, as follows:

“My Eyes Are Small,” in “Verse of the Grand Canyon,” ASU Now (January, 2019).
 
“Untitled” was included in a Broadside Exhibit entitled Appear! Inspire! A Celebration of Music (a St. Cecilia’s Day Concert), sponsored by the Arizona State University School of Music, and performed at the Central United Methodist Church, Phoenix, AZ on 22 November, 2016.
 
1977 Approximately,” De l’autre coté du chagrin: Anthologie des Poetesses Indiennes, ed. Beatrice Machet (Paris, France: Wallada P, 2018).
 
“One Name Is Too Many,” Denver Quarterly (2014).
 
“Japanese Garden,” featured in Poem-a-Day on 11 November, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets. The Navajo version was also featured on the same site.
 
“Blue Impala,” Cream City Review (Spring/Summer 2014).
 
Excerpt from: Nahasdzáán in the Glittering World. The opera was performed by Ensemble Variances at the Rouen Opera House, Rouen, France. 23 & 25 April, 2019 and in Théâtre de Caen. Caen, France on 2 May 2019.
 
All works copyright © by Laura Tohe. Reprinted by permission of Laura Tohe.

 

5 thoughts on “Poetry

  1. Breathtaking — the picture of Laura Tohe, the delightful and/or powerful poems, the startling clip of the Opera — all of it. Lucky us.

  2. What a treat! Laura, your poems are so powerful and that dance oratorio is a feast! I’m going to tell all my friends (the ones who came to read my little essay about gouache) to be sure and check this out. Hope to see it live one day once this pandemic is finally over. Thank you for this gorgeous work.

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