Ofelia Zepeda and the Poetics of Vision

by Julie SwarstadWhere Clouds Are Formed: Poems by Ofelia Zepeta

Ofelia Zepeda is a Tohono O'odham poet and professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona. Her works include Where Clouds are Formed (2008), Ocean Power (1995), Home Places: Contemporary Native American Writing from Sun Tracks (1995), A Papago Grammar (1983), and When It Rains, Papago and Pima Poetry = Mat hekid o ju, 'O'odham Na-cegitodag (1982).  She received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999 and is the Poet Laureate of Tucson.

Ofelia Zepeda will read at the UA Poetry Center on Friday, Septemer 10th at 8 p.m. along with Natalia Toldeo, Alberto Rios, and Sherwin Bitsui.

From the first lines of her latest collection, Where Clouds are Formed, Ofelia Zepeda makes it clear that she sees the world with a preciseness of vision that few writers achieve as completely as she does.  Where Clouds are Formed explores memory, experience, and myth while remaining firmly situated within the landscape of southern Arizona.  Zepeda lays out her stories and ideas bit by bit in short, almost clipped statements which reveal her ideas at a restrained, thoughtful pace.  "The piece of skin riding on my shoe falls," she writes, "At dusk a coyote wanders through the wash. / He picks up my scent. / It leads nowhere."  Zepeda's sentences are tightly packed with just what is needed to convey her ideas in a clear, seemingly straightforward way.

However, readers will find that Zepeda's writing never simply scratches the surface.  One of her true gifts is being able to see a difficult situation for all of its merits and difficulties.  In "An O'odham in Yosemite," for example, Zepeda describes a visit to Yosemite National Park where the speaker experiences a "quiet and perfect ... mountain morning" with "sweet-smelling fires in our tents."  But in the same poem the speaker confronts "images of cars torn open / like cardboard boxes" in the visitor center or the "Awe, broken / by someone slapping a mosquito."  She describes the joy of the visit while unapologetically admitting its faults and failings at the same time, piecing together a complete picture that encapsulates both good and bad.

Zepeda's writing is full of memory, both personal memories and a memory that seems far more collective in nature.  Her more personal memories brim with her Tohono O'odham heritage.  For instance, she describes the difficulty of living in a world which requires official records and papers when instead of a birth certificate, "The pollen of spring was floating and sensed me being born. / They are silent witnesses. / They do not know of affidavits, they simply know."  The poems that feel charged with collective memory take on a chant-like form: "We hear the ocean in the distance. / It has come upon us. / We hear the beautiful wind in the distance. / It has come upon us."  Whether personal or collective, the memories fill Zepeda's writing with rich imagery and a strong connection to the natural world.

Where Clouds are Formed is full of stories woven with a simple, sometimes chant-like diction.  Zepeda's writing takes its time; it isn't fast paced or frenetic, but calmly moves along, quietly pulling things apart almost without the reader realizing the critical nature of what they are reading.  Zepeda's clear-eyed vision of the world around her is startling and beautiful, challenging readers to look beyond the surface, while simultaneously remaining remarkably clear and understandable.  With a neatly presented complexity of thought, Zepeda invites readers into a changed way of seeing.

Created on: 
Monday, August 23, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents