Continuance and Continuity in Ofelia Zepeda’s Where Clouds Are Formed

By Rei Asaba, Matthew B. Cleland, and Sherrie Stewart

“I think some of the important links in the chain that holds a people together are t-ni’oki, t-cegitodag, t-jewd—language, memory, and land. As part of the chain, language changes and adapts over time, and so remains strong. And memory, if carried and cared for, maintains its strength.  Land is forever, no matter how we change it.” --Ofelia Zepeda

Themes of “continuance” and “continuity” pervade the poetics and politics of Ofelia Zepeda’s Where Clouds Are Formed.  The Tohono O’odham author brings to her writings the concept of a continuity of her people as maintained through the practice of the oral tradition. Inviting readers to explore the Sonoran desert, she expresses a strong hope and conviction in the continuance of the O’odham culture nested in the collective experience of their desert home. Her politics reflect the need for the O’odham to continue the oral tradition in order to maintain their continuity as a culture.  For this discussion, “continuance” may be defined as carrying forward the living, breathing O’odham culture. 

“Where Clouds Are Formed,” begins by speaking of the routine nature of the narrator’s daily life:  “Every day it is the same….”  But there is obviously a deeper meaning to “the man’s breath” as “it condenses in front of his face.”  The reader is reminded that in many native cultures, the “breath,” or more accurately, “language” is considered sacred.  We suspect that “the place” may be a metaphor for the woman’s consciousness of the presence of the man’s spirit or soul.  The man’s “breath” comforts and rejuvenates the narrator – it is a cool, moist “place” – a welcome oasis for someone living in the desert.  It is like a cool breeze, a brief reprieve from the heat of summer in the desert – and perhaps too from the mundane tasks of daily life.  We are more certain that it is a “spiritual place” when the man tells of seeing “the place where clouds are formed” in the eyes of a woman – is this a reference to love?  It is said that, “The eyes are the gateway to the soul.”  Zepeda says the man, “If he could, would…hang onto her eye socket”  -if he could, he would dwell forever in the place where beauty lies.  If we suppose this is a place of connectedness, or perfect communication and communion with another person, might we imagine that a simple connection between two people, a “spiritual awareness,” is multiplied exponentially, joining together in a spirit of love and respect a large group, thereby producing the collective spirit or continuity of the O’odham nation?

The continuation of the practice of the oral tradition in contemporary literature by native authors such as Ofelia Zepeda helps to maintain the continuity of their communities and ensures their continuance.  Language is the connection to this spiritual condition; in the Tohono O’odham language, Zepeda utilizes words to mark the path, the means of discovering this spiritual condition or state of mind and way of life.  In the English language, Zepeda conveys a distinct adaptability to and appreciation of desert life.  The Tohono O’odham word “Wa:k,” which makes “reference to natural water sources” (45), leads the poet to tell “the story of water memories of this desert” (43). The essence of this story is Tohono O’odham people’s sensitivity and gratitude for water brought to the desert in the forms of a stream, rain and moisture. In the arid, hot desert, water is life-giving and vital for the survival of people. Tohono O’odham have been living so long in the land that they have become a part of the cycle of nature. They are highly responsive to the seasonal changes, as can be seen in the lines “It is real desert people who lift their faces / upward with the first signs of moisture,” relieved to know “the cycle is beginning again” (44). The poetics of “The Place Where Clouds Are Formed” is centered on the poet’s sensitivity to moisture, a characteristic shared by the Tohono O’odham people. In the post-reading class discussion, Zepeda explained the difference between speaking O’odham and writing poems, either in English or O’odham: “Speaking, like a prayer in the morning, is a natural part of life, whereas writing is a highly deliberate act." In “The Place Where Clouds Are Formed,” she deliberately re-creates the Tohono O’odham relationship between “language, memory, and land” in the form of a written poem in English.

Like ritual and ceremony, language is a tradition which connects us to the past and to our ancestors.  Language manifests in each of us that we are but a small part of a great whole, and in that sense, through language we exist for eternity as members of our language communities.  For the O’odham, stories are paths which lead to an increased awareness of place in the circle of community, as well as a cultural cohesiveness.  Oral tradition and contemporary literature provide a means for maintaining cultural continuity and ensuring the continuance of the culture.  In this case poetry is a means for traveling to the “place where clouds are formed.” Ofelia Zepeda is our spiritual guide.

Within “Where Clouds Are Formed,” Zepeda skillfully describes sensory details in relationship to O’odham traditional ways of desert life.  In Part II, the poet bathes the reader in the dampness of a winter morning in the desert by sharing the vision of rain surrounding a saguaro cactus.  One visualizes the mist clinging to the rocks and cacti along the canyons and feels the droplets of moisture sliding between the spiny needles and down the vertical ridges of the body of the saguaro in the following lines:

An unusually cold December day right around Christmas;
clouds, mist find solace in the canyons of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
White moisture quietly moving amid the cactus.
Truly, clouds, wind, and rain are the few elements
that can touch the saguaro from head to foot. 
Oblivious of spines, needles.
Rubbery hide surrounded, soothed by elements.
Contact triggers stored heat of remembered summers.
Moisture beads roll forward, unstoppable.
From the city below
we see mist rising, mist rising (5).

The scene Zepeda paints in these lines strokes “white moisture…rising” and drifting along quietly through the Catalina Mountains.  The image of the saguaro enveloped in moisture connotes a “mutualism,” almost a dialogue, between the clouds seeking “solace,” and the huge, multi-armed cactus “soothed” by the moisture.  This is achieved through an absence of sound, the smell of the damp desert, and the image of a physical contact between the cloud and the cactus.

Significantly, moisture takes on the form of mist, which shrouds the saguaro in the mountains on a cold day.  Here, the image of rain and mist links winter with summer in the line, “Contact triggers stored heat of remembered summers” (5).  In “S=wa‘us I:bhe/Breathing Moisture in a Desert Place,” Zepeda explains this association:

Rain, in any form, with any aroma, is appreciated no matter where an O’odham might reside.  O’odham living in the city of Tucson look toward the mountains on those long July days, anticipating afternoon rain clouds.  And on winter days when the soft rain of the ‘gentle rain months,’ November and December, fall, an O’odham is taken back to the rain of summer (15).

In Part III, the motif of moisture leads the poet to tell a story of her childhood memory of a winter day when she was waiting in her father’s truck for the school bus to come.  Her breaths, and perhaps her sister’s, condense as clouds inside the warm truck, while cold, soft mist rests outside.  The image of mist and rain evokes the memories of summer in O’odham people’s minds.  The description of the mountain mist in Part II “bridges” with the summer in Part I and the childhood memory of winter in Part III; thus, Zepeda brings the reader full-circle. She weaves in the motif of moisture, bringing this poem into the natural cycle of the year, and connecting the memory of childhood with the present.

This is but a taste of the ways in which Ofelia Zepeda draws in her readers and listeners.  A good poet brings new perspective by transforming language into sounds, scents, and sights that bring experience to life on the page.  Zepeda shares her desert and her Tohono O’odham people with the reader in ways that express her themes of continuance and continuity.  She teases, and sometimes forces, a transformation of the experience from cerebral to sensory to visceral.  Through her vocal presentation, she blends how the desert makes music, creates distinct aromas, and produces images that convey how individuals of her culture share a consciousness with all aspects of the desert.

We hope that you enjoy this reading by Ofelia Zepeda in the "Poetics and Politics" series as much as we did, and especially that you discover meanings in her poetry that will lead you to a deeper appreciation of the Sonoran Desert and the Tohono O’odham people.

Works Cited:
Zepeda, Ofelia.  Where Clouds Are Formed Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2008.
---.  “S=wa’us I:bhe/Breathing Moisture in a Desert Place,” Tenth Annual Lawrence Clark Powell Memorial Lecture, delivered December 2, 2010.  Tucson, Arizona.

May 11, 2011