Only 70 pages, there’s still much to unpack in Rex Lee Jim’s “Saad Lá Tah Hózhóón: A Collection of Diné Poetry.” From preservation of a vanishing culture underneath a dominant Western society to recollections of life on the Navajo Nation, Jim’s poetry speaks with numinous beauty.
The poems originally appeared in the 1998 collection, “Duchas Taa Koo Diné: A Trilingual Poetry Collection in Navajo, Irish and English.” More than 20 years later, they are just as relevant, speaking earnestly of life as a Navajo under a Western shadow.
In “Tó Háálí” (“Spring”), Jim speaks of sacred land that has been marred by contemporary culture. Sparkling water and rolling hills have been replaced by metal barriers and highway noise, and the prayers of elders have been replaced by the screams of drunks. He writes, “The place used to be sacred/ I remember/ I am parked some distance away/ Sitting in my truck,/ taking a slug now and then/ the place used to be sacred,/ But I don’t remember everything.”
“Nááts’íílid Bee Na’ní’á” (“The Bridge of Rainbow”) also finds Jim yearning to reclaim his culture, not simply for himself, but for others who feel lost in between or cast aside. In it, he climbs into a sandstone alcove. Looking to the horizon, he tries to find his way back home. “Whiteman land is on this side,/ Navajo land is on the other side./ We want to get back to the other side./ We might make it back to the other side/ If we hold hands together and hold on tightly./ If not then we will go beneath the river./ On the other side, in Navajo country,/ I hear drumming of the giant’s heart/ Yíiyá.”
The back cover features a quote from Jim: “We must think, read, write, and publish in Navajo. We must relearn and practice our ceremonies. We as a people, individuals and collectively, must demand of ourselves to put into concrete action the rights we fight for. We must take charge of our own lives.”
That message of preserving Navajo culture and language is present not just in its themes, but also in the way the book is presented. Each poem features two versions, beginning with the original, unchanged from the Navajo language, followed by an English translation by Jim. Corey Begay’s wonderful and simply designed cover and graphics highlight this duality, presenting two worlds in gold and purple separated by a gradually fading blue line. Drawings and graphics of birds on the inside do not distract from the collection. Instead, they add to its ethereal nature.
The collection also acknowledges the role of family, friends and children, how we are created and shaped by those around us.
In T’áá Ahishááh Bik’eh” (“Every Time I Descend”) Jim writes, “Gliding down in spirals, to descend on/ The child you left behind under the/ Shade of a sage bush in the dry gully,/ You choked on your dreams of raising healthy children,/ You tasted the salt of your own tears/ Then you strided into the western desert/ Knowing that somewhere in that empty vastness/ Is the father of your children,/ The laughter of your children.”
The laughter of children is another reoccurring motif, calling back to a time of innocence and playfulness. Jim explores this power in “Shiyázhi Bidlo Nahosilts’i’” (“A Child’s Laugh”).
In Jim’s collection, the essence of who we are is larger than what we can see and feel. It is something that lives on forever in a song, a prayer or a memory.
In one of the most touching poems, “Shimásání T’áá Nitsínákees” (“A Grandmother Thinking Back”), Jim listens to his grandmother as she remembers her husband. “My grandmother sobs/ ‘He used to bring in wood for me.’/ Holding a feather with your song/ You dance on a smoke of dream,/ Leafing through dust./ My grandfather, we remember you/ On this night and your memory comes alive/ With the rhythm of the weaving stick,/ Dancing patterns across the loom.”
The ways in which the natural world and spiritual world coalesce bring the most strength to this collection. When Jim examines our relationship with the natural world, we realize that we are not simply living in and around it. Rather we are one, floating in its breeze and moving with its currents.
With grounding truths and suspended imagery, the poems in “Saad Lá Tah Hózhóón” are both heartbreaking and transcending.