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Sáanii Dahataał (Luci Tapahonso)

March 5, 2010

This collection is a mixture of poetry and short stories, and they’re not put in any specific order (like poems first, stories second — or anything like that). The collection focuses on intimate relationships (although not often intimate romantic relationships) between family, friends, pets, etc. Tapahonso takes a close look at the connections that unite a community, and through her words she explores the unique dynamics of her own family and community. Many of her poems and stories explore different Navajo traditions and practices — such as the mourning process during the four days after someone’s death — and seem to work hard at illustrating the history of such traditions and the importance of continuing them. Most of her poems could be considered narrative poetry, as they tell stories of their own in a manner that is different from the more familiar (to me, anyhow) prose of the short stories. She includes Navajo words and phrases in most of her pieces, oftentimes without translation — I wish I knew what they meant (this is different from wishing she had provided translations; I simply wish I knew the language so I could understand these works more fully), or at least how they are supposed to sound. See, in her preface, Tapahonso explains that each of these stories and poems really has a song that accompanies it, and without that song they are rendered incomplete (xi). Since they are in many ways meant to be spoken/performed orally, the pronunciation seems almost more important here than in other texts where finding a translation will suffice — in this case, even if I were able to find a translation or the means of translating it myself (doubtful), without the sound the pieces seem like they’re missing even more than their author already thinks they are.

With this in mind, I have to wonder what it would be like to attend a reading, because if these poems and short stories are what Tapahonso considers incomplete then I can only imagine how beautiful they would be in their entirety. Usually I really struggle with reading poetry — it’s hard for me to follow because poems are typically so short, and because it’s fairly rare for all the poems in a collection to have a clear narrative as they do here — but Tapahonso’s poetry was a lot more accessible to me. I feel like they were little stories in and of themselves, and like they shared strong bonds with the other poems and stories in the collection. While they’re not as explicitly linked as the short stories in Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven are, they are certainly connected by their shared themes and their roots that lie in Navajo family, culture, and tradition.

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