[Originally published as "Telling Our Daughters," SAIL 6.4 (Winter 2004): 103-07.]
Telling Our Daughters
There is a certain power that is compelling in the narrative of a storyteller simply because the spoken word is so immediate and intimate. It was the desire to translate that power into printed words that led me to write A Good Journey.
-- Simon Ortiz, preface to A Good Journey
"To Insure Survival," which is
often published as a freestanding poem, was also published in A Good Journey as the
final movement of a much longer
narrative, "Notes For My Child." The first part of this longer narrative records the interior
monologue of a father-to-be, beginning early in the early morning of
5 July 1973 and moving through the taxi drive, the admissions procedure, the waiting room, and
eventually to the birth of a daughter. Around the same time
Simon Ortiz was writing this poem in celebration of the birth of his daughter Rainy Dawn, my
own first daughter Erin Carlisle was born, but because it was
1976 and a c-section delivery I wasn't present in the delivery room to welcome her into her new
life; but even if I had been there I suspect I wouldn't have
known what to do, what to say.
About a decade later, in 1987, on a whim I applied to, and was unaccountably selected to participate in, an eight-week NEH Summer Seminar on American Indian Verbal Art and Literature. Near the end of the seminar the director, Larry Evers, passed around a sheet of paper containing the names of a dozen important Native American poets, and each seminar participant selected one of those poets for a half-hour presentation. Since I was indisputably the most ignorant of all the seminar participants (having read only two Native American novels and a driblet of poetry prior to the seminar), I had absolutely no basis for selecting one poet over another, and so I simply accepted the one left for me: Simon Ortiz.
Later that week I read A Good Journey from cover to cover, mesmerized by the motion of the language but unsure what I could possibly say about this work that would matter to my colleagues. As a fellow father, I finally homed in on his poems about his children, in particular his birthday song to his daughter in "To Insure Survival," mainly I think because it seemed to me the very form of my own unsaid, unarticulated feelings about my own first daughter's birth, some of my own unfinished business -- had I been witness, I thought, would that I were moved to such words.
About a decade later, in 1996, I watched my second daughter emerge into the world of air and light. It was a terrifying moment: she came forth, howling, first pale blue ( I thought, Good lord, a Pict!) and then, suddenly and with no perceptible period of transition, bright red ( I thought, Good lord, whose child IS this?), and eventually, after I cut the umbilical cord and she had buried herself in her mother's chest, transforming into the pale complexion she wears to this day. Watching my daughter come forth triggered a sudden and certain memory of the opening lines of Simon's poem, in which his narrator describes the transformation of colors of his own daughter during her birth, changing from "blue, to red, / to all the colors of the earth." So I wrote Simon, asking his permission to use those lines as part of my own daughter's birth announcement, and of course he said yes.
Then as now, I read "To Insure Survival" as a dramatic monolog that is part emergence story, part introduction to Acoma traditions, part survival lesson, part prayer, and all love song. In stanza one, cast in the present tense, Ortiz's narrator insures that the first story his child ever hears is the old story of the People's, and every new person's, natural identity with the land. In this case, the narrator fuses the image of enduring rock with the name of the newborn child, Rainy Dawn, by comparing her emergence to
a stone cliff
blue to red
to all the colors of the earth (58)
the sequence of colors here being identical with the sequence that his daughter's body goes
through at birth. In the second stanza, the narrator assures his
daughter that the Keresan creatrix figure Grandmother Spider has been weaving a "life to wear," a
cultural and spiritual identity for her newest granddaughter to
grow into, ever since the beginning of time and place.1 In the third stanza, again in
the present tense, the narrator restates the identity of his daughter with a
"cliff at sunrise" and emphasizes the child's kin identity with her own mother, whose blood the
newborn child still wears (59). Then, shifting to the future tense
in the fourth stanza, the narrator returns to the story of how spirit beings are working to insure
her survival: he tells his daughter of her kin relationship to the
katsinas, "the stones with voices, the plants with bells" who will gather at sunrise in five more
days to dance welcome to the newest daughter of the People (59).
For the poet/parent, as for Spider Grandmother and the katsinas, his daughter is the latest
incarnation of the ageless project of Acoma cultural survival and
renewal, and her survival insures this joint project of Spider Grandmother, the katsinas, and the
People for at least one more generation.
If, that is, she survives. What is easy to overlook in this poem is that it takes more than identity with the land and with Acoma traditions to insure survival, because, Grandmother Spider's project notwithstanding, life -- especially new life -- is very fragile. In addition to the connotation of ephemerality implicit in the name Rainy Dawn, there is the recognition of vulnerability in the narrator-father's vision of his daughter being "naked as that cliff at sunrise"coupled with the tenuous grip on survival he describes a few lines later: "You kept blinking your eyes / and trying to catch your breath."2 Given such shaky beginnings, it looks touch and go whether this child will successfully complete the transition from womb to world.
This, I think, is why Ortiz shifts from present to future tense in stanza four. The shift invites the child to anticipate the dawn of her fifth day in the Fifth World, that time when, according to Acoma tradition, the spirit completes the transition begun at birth. It is, I think, the poet's own attempt to help insure his daughter's survival, to keep her in his world with words: the katsinas will, after all, return to Acu to celebrate their daughter's arrival only if she is there to be greeted. This is also where the poem begins to read like a prayer disguised as a promise, a prayer endeavoring to become a promise, perhaps every father's prayer for his daughter upon her arrival. The poem's final line and fifth stanza, calculated to represent the fulfillment of Fifth World promise, repeats the hope of the previous stanza in the form of a four word, four syllable love song : "Child, they will come."
Four sunrises and five days after my younger daughter Ellie was born, she too was taken outside at sunrise -- as it happened, the morning of the Spring equinox -- and introduced to the universe. Because this was Richmond, not Acu, there were no stones with voices or plants with bells visible to greet her coming, so we settled for the black-capped chickadee who came to sing up the dawn at sunrise for my daughter. Thank you, Simon.
1Ortiz, 58; readers may quickly, and correctly, recognize Ortiz's Spider Grandmother as identical with Leslie Silko's "Ts'its'tsi'nako, Thought-Woman" (Ceremony 1) and Paula Gunn Allen's "Tse che nako" (The Sacred Hoop 13) or "Sussistinaku, The Spider, Old Woman" (The Woman Who Owned the Shadows 207).
2Ortiz, 59; more precisely, the name "Rainy Dawn" conjures the image of dawn coupled with the blessing of rain. In the context of Acoma traditions this rain can in turn be understood as shiwanna, the ancestor spiritstuff that works for growth and regeneration. According to Gertrude Kurath, there are four kinds of shiwanna or cloud people; the gentlest and most feminine of the four is "heyaashi," the mistlike cloud that sometimes appears around dawn and touches the earth like fog: see Ortiz's poem "Heyaashi Guutah" in A Good Journey (123).
Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986.
---. The Woman Who Owned the Shadows. San Francisco: Spinsters Ink, 1983.
Kurath, Gertrude. "Calling the Rain Gods." Journal of American Folklore 73 (1960): 312-15.
Ortiz, Simon. A Good Journey. Sun Tracks 12. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1984.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Viking, 1977.