Thursday, February 16, 2012

"Taking with me the land" - Place, Self, Poetry

“Taking with me the land.” – Gloria Anzaldua

Someone once said that human beings are simply mobile containers designed by water in order to move itself from place to place.  I like that image of us as walking water; it makes sense, since most of the human body is made up of H2O, and the surface of earth herself is about 74% water. Are we simply extensions of the earth, moving about independently, yet connected by the tether, or umbilical cord, of our shared composition?  Of course, this analogy immediately presumes the earth as our mother, our origin, our parent, and we her wandering (and often wayward) offspring.

In one of my prose poems, "Lullabye," I try to imagine how being made of mostly water means having a deep relationship with the sea.


We belong to the sea.  We are salt water walking on the land in soft containers called flesh.  Chloride, sodium, sulfate swim in our veins, warm and elemental.  Our bodies sway and swell in response to the tides of our oldest memory.  The moon pulls the sea, the sea pulls us.  So we are the sea, walking on two legs far away from the birthing waters.  We travel wide plains, rest awhile beside icy streams, make shelters out of snow.  Always, we seek water, wherever we go, look for lost relatives, pieces of our selves.  We smell wetness beneath rock; we raise our faces to gray skies, mouths open; we welcome the fat drops with our thirst.  We belong to the sea, we bear her dark green wishes and slippery strands of thought.  Magnesium, calcium, potassium slide through our veins.  We make love to each other, oceans aching to reunite; homesick, we ease our isolation with each other’s moist mouths, secret seeps, lonely seas meeting on our slick skins.  We belong to the sea: she will make her claim on us again one day, demand our return, and this long separation will come to an end.  She will ask us for her copper, her cobalt, her molecules of hydrogen, oxygen, iron, bicarbonate, bromide, strontium.  We will leave our flesh behind us on the shore, husks that dry and turn to dust.  We will slip back into the sea like a child going home, like boron to selenium, like blood finds its way back to blood. 

Fragments of any place we live on for an extended period of time are transmitted into our flesh, blood, bones and teeth in the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, and these become the architecture that contains us.  Our bodies record our relationship with place in several beautiful ways.Within that formula of H2O, we must remember that the mass of our human bodies is made up mostly of oxygen.

Our bones, for example, soak up the elements around us to renew themselves about every ten years; the isotopic oxygen ratios in the bone show the “signature” of where you’ve been.  It’s a little like having your dog or cat “chipped” – a veterinarian with a scanner can tell at a glance where your pet belongs if it has somehow wandered off.

And our teeth are even better at chronicling our connection to the planet. Unlike bone, adult teeth never rebuild themselves; the elements present when they are initially formed stay in them for life, and so our teeth preserve the precise region in which we were born and raised.  When Gloria Anzaldua says she travels from her homeplace “taking with me the land,” she isn’t speaking metaphorically.  We carry particles from the place of our emergence deep in our bodies wherever we go, all of our lives.

Even our hair, whose growth is largely determined by the water we drink, tells the more recent stories.  We drink water filtered through the geology of the place we live; each region’s water has its own unique oxygen isotope, and that geographic pattern braids itself into our hair as it grows.

All of this science is interesting to me not because of what it reveals, but because of what it confirms:  the indigenous world view that human beings are not separate from the earth, from land and water but instead extensions of Earth.  Different, yes; separate, no.  The Earth is a living entity from which we are created through a process both pragmatic and mysterious.  This is, I think, often interpreted as indigenous spirituality or religion, but a more accurate description might be that it is a world view, a way of ordering the world, the core of indigenous values, knowledge and ethics. 

The diversity of indigenous cultures on the North American continent alone is staggering, yet this perception of human connection to the planet, to the earth, may be the one universal, pan-Indian commonality.  The complex, intimate relationship between human and planet plays out in many ways through the images within indigenous poetry. 

Ecological or eco-poetry is often defined as, ultimately, the loss of the individual self in favor of a network of inter-connected ecologies.  Yet Native poetry celebrates all the same markers of humanity that other poetry does – falling in love, death, sensory and sensual experiences, grief, celebration, relationship.  A Native world view allows for the difference between self and the elements that form us, but does not deny the deep connections between self and those same elements.  What if we ARE Place?

Being able to hold both of these thoughts at once in one’s mind, and in one’s daily actions, is the work of thousands of years of indigenous experience.  When North American was colonized by European powers, that world view took a severe beating; in many cases, whole tribes whose lives exemplified this way of knowing were killed, and in many more tribes, the bodies lived on without knowledge of these connections between earth and self.   Many of us, ourselves, have forgotten how to be indigenous.

My strong tribal identity is tied to a specific place, California, and even more strongly to the Monterey Bay and Santa Barbara areas, where my grandparents were from.  Over and over, my poems walk the landscape and geography of home, as if to visit with it, memorize it, talk with it.  It seems so natural to me that I was surprised when my colleague Lesley said, “Place is kind of what you DO” – but immediately, that felt true.  I think I’ve been re-learning how to be indigenous all of my life. 

Perhaps this is where my poetic obsession with place comes from: my teeth; my bones.  I used to be so embarrassed by my crooked “Indian” teeth, the result of an over-crowded mouth and poor dental care as a kid.  Now I think of my teeth as my secret strength, a safe-deposit box, where I carry the essence of my homeland with me, always.  In "Mnemonic," I think about what remains with us in our "bone memory" even as we travel far from our birthplaces.  

I'd love to hear what other people/poets/writers/Indians are thinking about when they think of place and their relationship to it.  

This essay owes inspiration to Lesley Wheeler's handout on Poetry of Place, as well as a blog by Amelia Montes 


I was born on the San Andreas Fault.  I carry
that promise of violence and destruction down
the center of my body like a zig-zag of lightning.

My father was born there, my mother too,
all my brothers and sisters.  Sometimes I think
that’s the only thing we still have in common:

our emergence on the edge of a rippling continent
where the sun goes down over warm waters;
born in the desert’s shadow, between

mountains and sea.  Some of us got into cars,
drove north on long interstate freeways.
Some of us stayed not twenty miles

from our birthplace, bound by love or hate
or fear, unable to imagine a sunrise
without palm trees – or sun.  Some of us

died, turned to dust inside incinerators
built for human flesh; our ashes tucked
in a niche at Inglewood or scattered by children

in the green currents at Tuolumne.  Some
of us no longer speak to one another, silent
as rusty knives; others learn old languages,

make new songs out of scraps.  A few
souls have traveled too far, can never
come back.  Others haven’t fled far enough.

Some of us journey only in motes of dust
shining above the fractured chasms of earth. 
And some of us return in solitary dreams

to sacred places we could not find
in this lifetime.  Today, I wind
a string of shells around my wrist

four times, a bracelet strung so I can bear
the beauty of my homeland with me
wherever I go.  The sharp edges bite

my skin, rattle soft as pebbles when I write
these words.  Abalone hangs from my neck:
polished shards of oceanic memory.

I was born on the San Andreas Fault.
I carry that rattlesnake in my spine, feel
the plates of a restless continent grind

and shift from tailbone to skull, a tectonic
rosary that keeps coming unstrung, keeps
me tied to the plundered bones of this place.

by Deborah A. Miranda

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