Ofelia Zepeda’s Ocean Power and the Apocalyptic American Summer of 2020

Anybody who reads the Tohono O’odham poet Ofelia Zepeda’s collection of poems, Ocean Power: Stories from the Desert, might reasonably assume she is being ironic with the title. What power, after all, can an ocean have over a people who live in the Arizona desert, “That land where the ocean has not touched for thousands of years”? (84) But the reader eventually discovers that the ocean is simply the culminating moment (the subject of the book’s last group of poems) in the collection’s preoccupation, indeed the Tohono preoccupation, with “wetness.”

This focus on wetness is not difficult to understand for anybody who has ever lived in the American Southwest, as there is, to put it simply, very little of it there. Little enough that its presence, or the thought of its presence, can make one feel elated. It is, almost the whole year round, what the sun is for Canadians or Northern Europeans on the first warm, sunny days of spring. That is, when they piteously sprawl themselves out on park benches and grassy lawns as though they can make up for a whole winter’s lack of sunlight, or more precisely vitamin D, in one go.

Despite, however, the titular focus on the distant ocean, and some poems dedicated to an area near the reservation where, thanks to irrigation, cotton is grown (for example, “The Man Who Drowned in the Irrigation Ditch”), this concern for wetness is, above all, reflected in poems about rain. As Zepeda herself writes in the book’s introduction, “Like my parent’s, I am aware of the movements of weather – rain in particular. I don’t know why. It is just that way. So, many of the pieces in this collection are about events around rain – rain in the desert and events that result.”

We see this in the collection’s opening poem, “Wind,“ in which the protagonist dreams of women with long poles pulling down the clouds just as Tohono women traditionally pull fruit down from the top of the twenty five foot plus tall saguaro cactus. He wakes to the smell of rain somewhere out in the desert and, “comforted in this knowledge he turns over / and continues his sleep,” still dreaming of “women with harvesting sticks / raised toward the sky.”

In the next poem, “O’odham Dances,” we learn that “It is time for the ritual / To dance, to sing that rain may come / so that the earth may be fixed one more time”; in the next, “Ju:kĭ Ñe’i”, the only non-O’odham lines read: “I would sing for you rain songs / I would dance for you rain dances.”; in “Na:nko Ma:s Cewagĭ: Cloud Song,” we learn of the emergence of clouds, and then “In colors of black they are coming / Reddening, they are right here.”

And, in the lengthy poem “Wind,” we learn that Zepeda’s father would sit in front of the house and watch the wind come, reveling in it: “This was as close as he could get to it / to join it, to know it, to know what the wind brings.” The poem then switches to a recounting of a traditional tale of how Wind got in trouble with the villagers and was sent into exile, taking his blue, red, black, white, dry, and wet winds, as well as his blind friend Rain, with him. But, we are told, it didn’t take long for the villagers’ crops to begin to die, their animals to disappear, and for them to suffer from hunger and thirst. Clearly the people had made a mistake, “and like all epic mistakes it took epic events / to try and bring Wind back.” But they succeeded in the end and though Wind, in his haste to return, forgot to bring the blue, white, red, and black winds, he did bring the dry, cold, wet, and cool winds. Most importantly, he also brought his friend Rain.

Zepeda is speaking in these poems of the summer rains, when Tohono lands (and Southern Arizona in general) get over half of their limited annual rainfall. Meteorologically speaking, these occur every year when the high pressure mass of hot air that sits over Arizona and much of New Mexico during May and June – causing those months to be exceptionally dry, a time when one has no expectation of rain at all – is pushed north during July and August. This allows warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico to make its way into Southern Arizona. So, unlike in May and June, the hot air that rises rapidly from the hot desert floor now contains the moisture necessary to form billowing thunderheads upon reaching the cooler temperatures of the upper atmosphere.

And it is here that we can return to Zepeda’s poems and speak of something that links them (besides the wind, clouds, and rain), which is hope. The hope that comes every afternoon and evening during this time that it just might rain, that there will be that wondrous downdraft and outflow of cold air from the thunderheads, followed by rain, as though those women had truly pulled the clouds down.

And this hope becomes one of life’s rhythms during July and August. Of course, this is the Arizona desert and not the subcontinent of India and so, even though these are called the “summer monsoons,” on any given day, at any given spot, it probably won’t rain. But it rains often enough so that every time the clouds start billowing up off in the distance, up over the mountains, rain becomes a real possibility. So one need not have the depth of feeling of a poet, nor have the deep ties of a member of the Tohono O’odham nation to “That land of dry air / where the sky ends at the mountains,” (83) to look up at those clouds and fantasize about the coolness and condensation occurring in their upper reaches and hope that a downdraft might soon bring some of it your way.

For all the power of this imagery, it must however be said that if I had written something about Ocean Power as soon as I had occasion to – that is, in 2019, when the book was translated into Czech and I, as the only American active on the Czech literary scene with ties to Arizona, was first asked to write something about it – I probably would have taken this sense of hopeful expectation for granted. Which is to say that in that year Arizona had a normal monsoon, whose reassuring familiarity I had returned from the Czech Republic in time to experience. Instead, I would probably have written more generally about the issue of water in the desert (for example, about the invasion of millions of white migrants from the north into a land with so little water), wondering at the same time why Zepeda’s poems didn’t address the brutal intensity of the sun in Arizona.

I might have additionally highlighted certain translation challenges between O’odham, English, and Czech (such as was the case with the ku’ipad / harvesting stick / dlouhý saguárový bidlo with which the women pulled down the clouds). Also worthy of discussion would have been the way in which Zepeda not only used O’odham in her poetry, but how she (a linguist, in fact a colleague of Noam Chomsky in the linguistics department at the University of Arizona) was struggling to save her language. Indeed, to the last point, I might have discussed how she could not only be likened to the first “modern” Czech poet, emblematic of the 19th century revival of the Czech language, Karel Hynek Macha, but also to the great linguist Josef Dobrovský, who also played a key role in that revival (as is reflected in the fact that she is the author of the first O’odham grammar and the co-founder of an institute for the teaching of Native American languages).

But I didn’t write this essay in 2019, I procrastinated and started writing it in the fall of 2020, after a wretched summer during which neither Wind nor its blind friend Rain ever came.

Which is to say that, in 2020, for the first time in nearly a hundred years, there was no monsoon.

Zepeda relates in the collection’s introduction how her mother and grandmother, working in their outdoor kitchen, would often speak dismissively of those thunderheads that would start to build up on any given day, giving rise to hope and expectation, and then would “mat aṣ e-paḍe” (ruin themselves), “These were the clouds that fell apart, that did not build up enough to cause rain. These were the clouds that people said they ‘aṣ t-iagogĭ’ (just lied to us).”

And there have certainly been summers in the past when these lies were told with a disappointing regularity, and the clouds only rarely fulfilled their potential. But in the summer of 2020 no such lies were told since the clouds that might or might not have told them never arrived. The high pressure mass never moved north, and so kept the moist air from the gulf – and the possibility of rain cloud formation – out of Arizona.

And it was their absence that made me, when I re-read these poems in the immediate aftermath of that summer, acutely aware of how much the hopeful expectation of rain underlies Zepeda’s poems. And, more generally, how much it underlies the very psychology of all who are tasked with getting through an Arizona summer.

The meteorologists also tell us that high pressure systems, because they force air downward and thereby prevent air near the ground from rising, have the additional feature of trapping the hot ground air in place, making them the bringer of heat waves. And 2020’s lingering high pressure system illustrated this perfectly: July was the hottest month ever recorded in Arizona (not just the hottest July), a record that didn’t last long as August proceeded to break that record (the average high in August is 97.4 F, in that year it was 105.7 F, more than eight degrees above normal). And then September managed to be the hottest September ever recorded. So the hopeful expectations of a normal summer were increasingly replaced by a sense of hopeless futility.

But the record heat and drought was not limited to the deserts of Southern Arizona. They extended into California and Oregon and therefore into eco-systems that have enough biomass (which a desert lacks) to start a proper conflagration, and which burned more than 4 million acres in California, a record. And these states soon returned the favor as the smoke (more specifically, the sulfur) from their fires went high up into the atmosphere and made its way to Arizona where, for at least the final month of the summer, turned the Arizona skies white. White enough that even the occasional small cloud that managed to form over the mountains was difficult to see against the white of the sky, just as it was difficult to see any stars, even on a dark, moonless night. A great, washed out sensation enveloped a desert and city already tormented by unrelenting drought and heat, and when we stepped out from our air conditioned homes, we sometimes felt like we were emerging from an underground bunker into some post-nuclear apocalypse landscape.

Or, in this case, as though we’d emerged into a post-climate change apocalypse: the weather during 2020, although an extreme of extremes, was also the 23rd year of a drought and pattern of hotter and hotter temperatures that are now widely attributed to climate change.

And the feeling of apocalypse was also deepened by things that lie far outside the purview of any of the poems in Ocean Power. This included the COVID-19 pandemic that hit Arizona so hard that at one point in July the state had the highest rate of infection of any “state” in the world, the extended lockdown that necessarily followed, because of which the city often looked to be almost devoid of people. Then there was the protest, unrest, and violence that unfolded across the country (including in Tucson) in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. And, last but not least, there was a dark foreboding that either our mad emperor of a president (Trump) might somehow win the fall election or, if he lost (and in this we were perhaps prescient), he would try to overturn the results. Perhaps with violence.

Explaining the collection’s rhythm of rain periodically punctuating the dryness of the desert, Zepeda wrote in the introduction that:

The rain breaks the tension for the desert. Relief. Cycles continue.

In the apocalyptic American summer of 2020 there was no break in this tension, and it sometimes seemed to us as though not only the cycle of wetness and dryness in the Arizona desert, but also many of the other cycles of normalcy that we rely on, might not continue.

 

(Ofelia Zepeda, Ocean Power: Stories from the Desert, Tucson: University of Arizona, 1995)

This article first appeared, translated into Czech, in the Czech bi-weekly publication Tvar (18/2021). English version © 2022 Greg Evans.

Picture of desert in the area of the Tucson Mountains by the author.

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