Article and photo by Brenda Norrell
TUCSON -- Like a river, they flowed together, Sherwin Bitsui's Dine', with Ofelia Zepeda's O'odham and Alberto Alvaro Rios' Spanish. They spoke of the whispers, of the waters and of this desert, translating their own works and the poetry of others.
With the image of "the reed we came up through," Bitsui began the night of poetry, reading from his first book of poetry, Shapeshift and recent book, Flood Song.
Bitsui weaves in dream time, from the Longest Walk, to the times of television. His language rests in the bedrock of red sandstone, the scent of juniper, sage and red earth, after a sweet rain.
Speaking of his parents from White Cone on the Navajo Nation, he said he called home to ask about some of the words, from his father a carpenter, and mother, who helped with the Dine' translations.
Zepeda, too, struggled with the translation of the word, "Obsidian," and discovered there was no translation into O'odham.
Still, with language, there is always a way to make the words happen.
Zepeda's poetic words embraced the desert here, honored the sacred mountain, Baboquivari. O'odham say when you can see the mountain, you know that you are home. She shared a time of how the blacktop carried her home again, home to that delirious heat, home to that desert light, home to anonymity, home to herself.
When she spoke in O'odham, the sounds were round, flowing like a round dance flows.
She spoke of javelinas eating the jack-o-lanterns.
These are the dreams of javelinas.
Rios' poetry came from the outer edges, like the jackrabbits who get caught in the flames of the brush fires before the monsoon rains come, in the Sonoran Desert. There is the poignant image of the jackrabbits on fire, running and bringing the fire with them.
In Borderlines, Rios compared the map of the world to a butcher's drawing of a cow, the borders of the world compared to the lines of where to cut. But, no, he adds, this land is a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces all fit together, this land is our lives.
And as it happened, they read as the wild and delirious heat of summer comes to an end, that time when the dust comes up to greet you, when there is the promise of rain, but only dust in the mouth, as Zepeda describes in her poetry.
It is here in this wonderful and glorious desert, in the open air of the Poetry Center, that these languages flow together like a river.
With the languages weaving between Dine', O'odham and Spanish, Zepeda said, "I wanted to make sure we heard the language tonight."
Rios, too, shared the poetry of Natalia Toldeo, words from the language of Zapotec, of men and fear.
As the three poets shared their poetry, helicopters traced back and forth above, no doubt on a medical or search mission, their noise reminding of the nearness of death, their noise reminding of the nearness of death on the border.