Hunger in New York City
Hunger in New York City
Simon Ortiz 1976
“Hunger in New York City” was first published in 1976 in Simon Ortiz’s collection Going for the Rain and is also included in the 1991 book Woven Stone: A 3-in-l Volume of Poetry and Prose, which collects all of the poet’s published poetry to that time. “Hunger in New York City” contrasts the America exemplified by New York City to what Ortiz calls “the real America,” which is “the Native America of indigenous people and the indigenous principle they represent.” In fact, while one of the purposes of Ortiz’s work is to define “Native America,” another is to call for its survival. “Hunger in New York City” is a variation on this theme, as it tells the story of how dehumanizing city life can be in its separation from “mother earth.” Indeed, Ortiz has said that “[a]s a writer, I’ve tried to consider most importantly my life as a Native American who is absolutely related to the land and all that that means culturally, politically, personally.”
Basic to Ortiz’s work as a writer are the Native-American oral storytelling tradition and the ritual of prayer. This poem tells the story of engaging fully with a hunger that takes on the magnitude of a symbolic opponent and ends with a prayer to “Bless me.” The alienation of the individual in the city that this hunger represents is not, however, a solely Native-American experience. But it is perhaps possible for the rest of us to understand through the Native-American experience of the land as mother how to heal the wound of alienation.
Ortiz was born in 1941 at the Pueblo of Acoma, near Albuquerque, New Mexico, the son of Joe L. Ortiz and Mamie Toribio Ortiz. He attended Grants High School in Grants, New Mexico, and then worked briefly in the uranium mines and processing plants of the Grants Ambrosia Lake area. Ortiz then attended Fort Lewis College, where he became interested in drama and English studies. A leader of the Indian Student Organization, Ortiz became involved in issues of fair treatment for native peoples. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1963, after which he attended the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. He received a Master’s of Fine Art degree from the University of Iowa in 1969. He then taught writing and American Indian literature at various colleges and universities, including San Diego State University, the Institute of American Arts in Santa Fe, and the University of New Mexico. In December, 1981 he married Marlene Foster, and they had three children, Raho, Rainy, and Sara, but divorced in 1984. Since 1982 Ortiz has been the consulting editor of the Pueblo of Acoma Press, and in 1989 he became First Lieutenant Governor for Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico.
Hunger crawls into you
from somewhere out of your muscles
or the concrete or the land
or the wind pushing you.
It comes to you, asking 5
for food, words, wisdom, young memories
of places you ate at, drank cold spring water,
or held somebody’s hand,
or home of the gentle, slow dances,
the songs, the strong gods, the world 10
That is, hunger searches you out.
It always asks you,
How are you, son? Where are you?
Have you eaten well? 15
Have you done what you as a person
of our people is supposed to do?
And the concrete of this city,
the oily wind, the blazing windows,
the shrieks of automation cannot, 20
truly cannot, answer for that hunger
although I have hungered,
truthfully and honestly, for them
to feed myself with.
So I sang to myself quietly: 25
I am feeding myself
with the humble presence
of all around me;
I am feeding myself
with your soul, my mother earth; 30
make me cool and humble.
The poem begins with the disturbing image of hunger as a creature that can “crawl into you.” But although it seems to be presented in line 1 as something external, in line 2 we understand that it is actually crawling from somewhere “out of your muscles.” Thus, this hunger is not located in your spirit or your soul, or even your mind. It comes to you through the tension in your muscles.
The final two lines of the stanza offer alternatives through the use of the word “or.” In effect, this hunger must come from somewhere before crawling into you out of your own muscles. The images presented are, first, of the “concrete” of the city itself, but perhaps, it is offered, this hunger
- An audio recording titled American Indian Myths and Legends featuring Richard Erdoes, Alfanzo Ortiz, and Jill Momaday was released by Sunset Productions in 1991.
- In 1992 Fulcrum Publishers released an audio recording titled Keepers of the Animals: Native American Stories.
comes from the thought of the land beneath the “concrete” of the city. Or perhaps it is in the wind forced against you through the “concrete” of the buildings. Your muscles tense against any of these things; this is how the hunger enters you—through your physical response to the city.
Once hunger has access to you, and you have identified it, it begins to demand things. The poet personifies hunger in this stanza, giving it the power to ask.
At first these demands seem reasonable, and small enough, but then the memories hunger feeds on become more specific. In line 8 the hunger places such emphasis on holding somebody’s hand that it seems to want not just the memory of human contact but human contact itself. And then it wants to go home where the real human contact of the Native-American world can be made through its ritual dances and songs and gods who listen: “the world you know.” In short, in New York City the speaker of this poem is an alien.
By creating the desire for “the world you know” hunger “searches you out.” And once it has you, it asks you the kinds of questions family asks. Again, at first these seem simple enough and easy to answer. But in line 15 the simple question calls up the power of hunger expanded full force in line 16. This time hunger takes you further into the world you know than you care to travel: into your own responsibility to that world.
The guilt that follows from trying to answer that question pushes the persona of the poem back from his memories and his desire for his home, back into “the concrete of this city.”
The images of the next lines are physically distressing, assaults on human senses, expressed through the adjectives “oily” and “blazing,” and the noun “shrieks.” These images recall, and build on, the poem’s beginning physical images of the muscles in response to the concrete and the wind in lines 3 and 4.
Finally the word “cannot” appears at the end of line 20. While the meaning is not yet fully disclosed, it is clear that there is nothing that the concrete and wind and windows and shrieks can do for the persona.
In fact, the repetition of “cannot” with the addition of “truly” speaks with certainty that the city is not the answer to the hunger the speaker has felt inside himself. Indeed the repetition of “cannot,” begun in lines 20-21, takes force in lines 21-22 with the repetition of “hunger.” This creates a chant and invests the lines with the quality of prayer.
Up to this point the persona has been speaking objectively, using the second-person pronoun “you.” This has allowed him to speak about himself, as well as to speak about experiences that a reader might participate in. Finally, however, the persona accepts his experience as belonging completely to himself. “[A]lthough I have hungered” expresses the beginning of this self-knowledge.
It is the position of the persona that he has made every possible effort to feed his hunger with things he could find in the city.
The speaker begins to feed himself, not his hunger, softly with song in a ritual reminder of the living presence of things that surround him. As a result the almost angry images of the “wind” and “shrieks” in the preceding stanza are understood to be at least as much in him as in the city. His singing calms this angry response to the city and reminds him that the soul of “mother earth,” if not her presence, surrounds him. He concludes the poem, which has become a prayer, with the plea to be blessed by her.
The Native-American speaker in “Hunger in New York City” describes his search for identity in terms of hunger, or a physical need for sustenance. At first this “hunger” seems to be creeping in from the outside, from the “concrete or the land.” But as the poem continues into the third stanza, his longing asks questions of the speaker: “How are you? Where are you?” The voice of this longing may remind us of our parents.
Identity is such a huge topic it is almost impossible to grasp. “Have you eaten well?” the voice asks the Native-American speaker, starting with the easy questions. But quickly the Native American living in New York City must confront a larger issue. “Have you done what you as a person / of our people is supposed to do?” The scope of his search suddenly broadens over two cultures and into his people’s past.
Custom and Tradition
In the middle of this poem lies a haunting question: “Have you done what you as a person / of our people is supposed to do?” Although “Hunger in New York” makes no specific mention of the poet’s ethnicity or Native-American roots, there is an underlying theme of custom and tradition that informs the work as the speaker tries to find his way around the unfamiliar New York landscape.
Unable to answer clearly these questions of heritage, the speaker explains that he has been looking in all the wrong places: “the oily wind, the blazing windows, / the shrieks of automation cannot, / truly cannot, answer for that hunger.” If there are no fulfilling answers for the speaker in this new land and culture, where can he find something to feed his spirit? The answer comes from his past and his people’s past. Unsatisfied with the barriers city life places between man and the natural world, the speaker returns to the “humble presence” of his heritage in the last stanza, hoping that the traditions of his fathers will help feed his hunger for identity.
Nature and Its Meaning
The speaker finds a cure for his hunger in the final stanza. “I am feeding myself,” he declares,
Topics for Further Study
- Write a poem in the voice of someone praying to Mother Nature. Think of each element—water, wind, earth and fire—as a spirit which can either create or destroy and ask for a specific blessing from each, shaping your poem into four distinct sections.
- Do you think mankind’s drive to “conquer the elements” by building modern cities is helping us progress as human beings, or is it distancing us from nature to the point of harming both man and the environment? Use recent news stories to discuss and support your answer(s).
- Have you ever lived on or visited an Indian reservation? Are you or any of your friends Native American? What kind of impression do you have about the Native-American sense of tradition, nature, and the spiritual world? Discuss your answers. Are these impressions accurate?
“with the humble presence of all around me; I am feeding myself with your soul, my mother earth.” A Native American living in the city, after too many years of concrete and “oily wind” separating him from the natural world, the speaker returns again to the source of all living things. The indigenous people of North America have a profound relationship with the earth, regarding its many plants and creatures as much more than “natural resources” to take and use. The balance between man and nature requires a spiritual respect; a humble, grateful attitude which returns as much as it receives. Just as concrete pours over concrete and layers of smog coat office windows, years of disrespect for the Earth have accumulated until the speaker is haunted with an indescribable empty feeling. What the persona learns is that under these urban layers still lives the natural spirit which can give his life meaning, which has been giving his people’s lives meaning for centuries. The speaker ends the poem by asking mother earth for peace of mind and spirit: “make me cool and humble. / Bless Me.”
“Hunger in New York City” is a poem in five stanzas, ranging from the four-line first stanza to the eight-line final stanza. There is quite a variation in line length, from the closing line of two words, to the longest line (7), with nine words. Thus, the poem does not follow any traditional form or consistent layout. Instead, it is the story that is being told that seems to shape the poem. In the first stanza, “hunger” is introduced as an external force. The second explores the reasons for this relationship with hunger. Hunger in the third stanza becomes nagging, asking pointed questions, merging itself with guilt. The fourth stanza explains why the questions hunger asks cannot find answers in the city. The final stanza presents a response to hunger, if not the answers to its questions.
Structurally, the first lines of each stanza signal the stages of development of the story. Stanza 1: Initially, “Hunger crawls into you” in a particular way. Stanza 2: Once inside, it “comes to you, asking …” for things. Stanza 3: “That is” indicates a digression in which the storyteller-poet presents an explanation of “asking” that ultimately results in specific questions. Stanza 4: The conjunction “And” provides a connection of the story with “the city.” Stanza 5: The adverb “So” signals the conclusion of the story.
The speaker initally directs the story in the poem to the reader, but also allows it to spring from his own personal experience. This is achieved by his use of the second-person pronoun “you.” At the end of fourth stanza, however, the “you” shifts to the first-person “I” as the persona places himself fully in his experience of “hunger.”
The year Simon Ortiz published “Hunger in New York City,” 1976, marked almost the transition point between the end of the idealist 1960s and the beginning of the conservative 1980s. It was during this year author Tom Wolfe coined the term The “Me” Generation, an expression describing the decade’s slide toward selfishness and self-absorption. “Hunger in New York City” expressed one man’s feelings of emptiness and need to reconnect with the natural world.
Some historians describe the 1970s as the “non-decade” due to its lack of distinctive symbols or trends. Unlike the environmental, peace, and civil rights movements of the 1960s, or the conservative, evangelical “Reagan years” of the decade to follow, the 1970s seem bland. In 1976, the most popular icon was the smiley face; the yellow sun with blank eyes and glazed smile stared out from bumper stickers, jacket patches, billboards, and toilet seats, yet no one really knew what it meant. Looking back, some critics call it the perfect symbol of a nation without meaning, an expression of the era. It is this national sense of unfulfillment, of a spiritual absence, which perhaps Ortiz felt as a hunger creeping into the city.
Americans of the time thought that progress was synonymous with development; in other words, the better you are at conquering the elements, the more advanced a people you were. One of the goals of the Vietnam War, which ended only a few years before 1976, was to build a capitalist nation in the face of a communist threat. America declared itself the model of government and stated that other “underdeveloped” nations should shape themselves after its democracy.
This attitude is evident from our country’s earliest years, when settlers thought of the Native-American peoples as “savages” and cut down forests to build houses for shelter against the elements. By 1976, millions of Americans lived in cities of concrete and glass, while the Native Americans who survived the European colonization mostly lived on remote reservations. Those younger Indians who chose to move to the city, like Ortiz, often felt a profound sense of spiritual loss, disconnected from the land and their history.
The trend toward industrialism has covered the natural world with concrete, poured toxins in the water, and littered the sky with office buildings. It was in 1976 that the National Academy of Science first reported that gasses from spray cans can cause damage to the atmosphere’s ozone layer, a fact generations to come will have to deal with in terms of global warming and an increase in environmental disasters. While scientists continued to discover evidence of how man’s drive to conquer the elements in the name of progress was in fact harming our children, more and more Native-American people expressed a deeper, spiritual connection to the earth as their generations of tradition had taught them. Their tradition stresses a balance between man and nature which respects the cycles of growth and destruction which we are a part of, not apart from.
Compare & Contrast
- 1976: A United Nations Security Council resolution calls for a total withdrawal of Israeli troops from Arab lands occupied since a retaliatory offensive in 1967. The United States veto blocks the pullout and denies the formation of an independent Palestinian State.
1993: After decades of fighting, Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and PLO leader Yasir Arafat meet in Washington, D.C. to sign an agreement to end Israeli settlement of the West Bank and other occupied territories.
1998: The PLO continues its series of terrorist attacks, and Israeli withdrawal from the territories remains incomplete. Many fear the chance for peace in the region may be replaced by more fighting.
- 1976: Advancements in technology allow a new generation of fax machines to cut transmission time from six minutes per page down to three.
1998: Most computers come supplied from the factory with virtual fax programs which allow users to transmit the document on their screen to another person’s fax machine in less than a minute. E-Mail provides an almost instantaneous transmission to anywhere in the world and increasingly replaces fax machines in both home and the workplace.
- 1976: Soft drink sales in the United States, namely Coke and Pepsi products, edge past milk after millions of dollars are poured into their advertising.
1998: Unable to persuade Americans to buy milk on the merits of health and well-balanced nutrition, the National Dairy Council sponsors its own multi-million dollar magazine and billboard ad campaign to gain back its share of the market. The advertisements, which feature celebrities holding a glass of milk and wearing a distinctive milk “mustache,” ask the simple and catchy question “Got Milk?”
Many literary and cultural critics value the work of Ortiz because they feel it serves as a representation of Native-American culture. These scholars feel that the work of Native Americans and other cultural minorities has been underrepresented in American society and the prominence of poets like Ortiz helps to correct this situation.
There are other critics who prize the work of Native-American writers as the true voice of America. These scholars argue that the literature of tribal peoples is more authentic to the spirit of the Americas than are works produced by individuals of non-native ancestry, such as European settlers and their descendants. According to Willard Gingerich, however, this is a mistake. He argues that the “American sensibility” belongs to a wide variety of writers including those of both European and Native-American ancestry. While Gingerich concedes that there is a current literary vogue for minority writers, he also acknowledges that, for writers like Ortiz, the struggle to achieve a position in the American literary tradition has created tremendous vitality in their work. The critic notes that being poor or oppressed or speaking Spanish does not ensure good poetry, but that “the felt distance [minority writers] travel to arrive at full sensibility of themselves and their contexts is greater [than that of non-minorities] and generates therefore a finer tension of meaning, phrase, and allusion in their writing.”
While Harold Jaffe praises Ortiz as among “the strongest” of current American Indian writers, including N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko, he maintains that “their writings are frequently more problematic than those of their forbears.” He notes the poetry of Ortiz, particularly, as having “apparently simple, yet elusive, syntax” which at times “seems fractionally off, as if the English were adapted from another language.”
“… Ortiz opts for a direct, unadorned style that has more in common with speech than writing.”
Gingerich, who says that Ortiz is an “Indian” poet in the same way as Gerard Manley Hopkins is a “Catholic” poet, seems content to accept the poet’s unusual use of language. He maintains that while the images a writer brings to the literary tradition may be specific to a cultural or ethnic tradition, it is “the spirit of the language itself” that enlivens these values. Because of this, the critic feels that a reader of Ortiz’s poetry understands something about life itself, and not only something about Native–American life.
Geary Hobson insists that Ortiz’s work needs to be read for “his contribution as a remarkably incisive critic of contemporary society, both in the Indian as well as the non-Indian world.” Hobson feels that this critical ability is acutely expressed in “Hunger In New York City,” a poem that speaks eloquently of “felt distance” in its characterization of hunger as symbol of the relationship between the individual and the city.
Jhan Hochman is a writer and instructor at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. In the following essay, Hochman provides an overview of “Hunger in New York City” and analyzes what “hunger” means to Ortiz as a Native American.
In “Hunger in New York City,” Simon Ortiz writes of hunger as a gnawing, aggressive, omnipresent need that will never be satisfied because it cannot be satisfied. For Ortiz, hunger is not merely the biological desire for food to nourish the body, though it is that as well; it is, more than anything else, a voice that is always there, asking him to justify himself, his life, and the choices he has made.
The speaker describes hunger’s paradoxical nature in the first stanza when he writes that “Hunger crawls into you / from somewhere out of your muscles.” It is paradoxical because it is at once something that wants to get into the body and yet is already a part of it. By saying that it “crawls” Ortiz underscores how insidious hunger can be, how subtle. His inability to physically locate hunger or provide any definitive description of it also emphasizes its elusive character.
Hunger asks for things, both concrete and abstract, in the second stanza. This asking positions hunger as a kind of vampire or parasite, working from the outside in, desiring of its “victim” information (blood) about the victim’s life, his memories, his emotions. It comes to you, asking for food, words, and wisdom. It asks about young memories of places you ate at, drank cold spring water, or held somebody’s hand. The stuff of memories is the stuff of life, but what does hunger want with this information, and why is it so demanding? And why does hunger’s tone change in the third stanza and become more parental, more solicitous?
We can answer these questions if we consider the speaker’s hunger to be a voice, not outside of himself, but inside his own head. This voice wants to know what the speaker has made of his life. He has internalized the voice of a parent or parents because it is parents who ask questions such as “How are you, son? Where are you? / Have you eaten well?” But this voice is not the voice of the speaker’s biological parents; it is the voice, rather, of parental responsibility. When hunger asks “Have you done what you as a person / of our people is supposed to do?” we begin to understand hunger as a concern with, and a driving need to fulfill, the desires of a group of people, in this case Native Americans.
Significantly, this voice haunts the speaker while he is in New York City, an international symbol of urban culture. As a Native American, Ortiz has written about his people’s ties to the land and the destructive and alienating effects that Western culture, particularly city culture, has had on their traditions and identity. These effects are evidenced in the images he chooses to represent New York City: “the concrete of this city, / the oily wind, the blazing windows, / the shrieks of automation.” Ortiz has not, however, flatly rejected the city. Like members of many cultures who have had their land and way of life ripped from them by the “progressive” forces of industrialized Western capitalism, Ortiz has grown to depend on the very thing oppressing him in order to survive: “… I have hungered, / truthfully and honestly, for them / to feed myself with.” Ortiz reaffirms this is his prose, saying, “Just as it claimed land and sovereignty, American society and culture can claim your soul.”
How, then, does Ortiz deal with this situation? How does he answer this hunger, this voice hounding him, asking him to account for himself? He prays. “So I sang to myself quietly: I am feeding myself with the humble presence of all around me; I am feeding myself with your soul, my mother earth; make me cool and humble. Bless me.” In this last stanza, Ortiz learns how to deal with his hunger. He does this not by taking his sustenance from the city but by finding it within himself. He feeds himself “with the humble presence / of all around me.”
In his introduction to Woven Stone, a collection of his poetry, Ortiz writes that reality is living in the here and now. “Being present with and for ourselves, being responsible to ourselves and, consequently, for our role in social struggles and changes in the Americas is a major part of this. Too often we have, as victims of colonialism, longed for the past nostalgically and whimsically, although there is appropriate importance in what elders say about remembering the past. And too often we look abstractly at a romanticized future that is past.”
Underscoring the resolution of the speaker’s conflict between the past and the present, between his desires and responsibilities, is the poem’s shift from the second person to the first in the fourth stanza. This shift emphasizes the relation between tribal (“you”) and individual (“I”) identity, and the speaker’s realization that only by calling on his “true parent” (mother earth) can he achieve satisfaction from his hunger.
It is the earth and his people’s relation to it that Ortiz needs to reclaim. Memory plays a major role in Native-American poetry in general, and in Ortiz’s in particular. Memory allows traditions to survive. Ortiz writes, “I have often heard Native American elders repeat ‘We must always remember,’ referring to grandmothers and grandfathers, heritage, and the past with a sense of something more than memory or remembering at stake. It is knowing present place and time, being present in the here and now essentially, just as past generations knew place and time whether they were Acoma, Lakota, or Mayan people. Continuance, in this sense, is life itself.”
What Do I Read Next?
- Simon Ortiz is also an editor of Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing. The anthology points out it is impossible to discuss Native-American art without also discussing Native-American sovereignty.
- In The People Shall Continue, Ortiz teams up with photographer Sharol Graves to present an epic story of the Native-American people, written in the rhythms of traditional oral narrative.
- For a comprehensive collection of Native-American songs, prayers, myths, photos, and literature which captures the traditions, beliefs, and history of Native-American people, read American Indian Voices by Karen Harvey.
- Contemporary Native-American writers are introducing bold new voices to the fiction scene as well as poetry. For a good sampling of their work, read The Lightning Within: An Anthology of Contemporary American Indian Fiction.
The simplicity of Ortiz’s poetic language helps him locate himself and his people in the here and now. Rather than the dense, ironic, emotionally distant style of so much modern and contemporary poetry, Ortiz opts for a direct, unadorned style that has more in common with speech than writing. Ortiz explains this, maintaining his simplicity is a response to an oppressive “reality that’s so powerful you can’t expect it to recognize you. Especially if you are a people who has been historically subjected to the meanest, cruelest treatment by social and economic forces backed up by military power.”
Corruption and oppression must be fought with honesty, not language games. A major part of becoming healthy and positive, Ortiz says, “has to do with the consciousness we have of our selves, the language we use (not necessarily only native languages but the consciousness of our true selves at the core of whatever language we use, including English), and our responsible care for and relationships we have with our communities and communal lands. This is the way as Native Americans we will come into being as who we are within the reality of what we face.”
If this is a poem about one Native American’s response to the untenable situation of having to survive in a city and a country which has been and continues to be hostile to his very existence, how are non-indigenous peoples to read this poem? While some readers might admit to or recognize their own complicity in the oppression of others, this complicity continues to exist by the very fact of our continued silence, our reluctance to enact change. This tradition of complicity is born of ignorance, not of remembering. Unlike that of Native American peoples—in which history frequently is passed through the oral tradition—mainstream American society has depended on history books and the stories told in movies and on television for their versions of the past.
Not surprisingly, these stories, more often than not, have favored the victors and demonized the vanquished. “Hunger in New York City” might be viewed as both an expression of an oppressed people’s response to their treatment and, implicitly, as a reproach to those responsible for their situation. It has the possibility of creating in readers a hunger similar to the one described in Ortiz’s poem, a hunger born of responsibility to others.
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
Sean Robisch teaches composition and literature at Purdue University and holds a Ph.D. in American Literature. His fiction has appeared in Hopewell Review and Puerto del Sol. In the following essay, Robisch explores the role of history in Ortiz’s poetry.
Simon Ortiz has been an important influence on what we think of as “American” literature since his first collection of poetry, Going for the Rain, appeared in 1976. He writes with what Willard Gingerich has called, in the Southwestern Review, a “clairvoyant sophistication that sees the continual rebirth of spirit in all materialism.”
Ortiz’s work first appeared during what has been called the Native American Renaissance, the beginning of which may be during the year between the founding of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968 and N. Scott Momaday’s receipt of the Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn in 1969. Among the many reasons that Native American (or American Indian) literature has been important to the course of literature in general is that it has challenged, strengthened, and resurrected stories of national and individual identity—of what it means to live in the United States and what it means to “be American.”
During the time when the British colonists were still trying to build a new England, a rebellion took place in the Southwest that preceded the more famous colonial revolution of the late 1700s. Many Pueblos joined with the Navajo and the Apache and rose up against the Spanish occupation of their land; they succeeded in securing their freedom until 1692. Later, during the 1840s, a new occupation would take place, this time by primarily Anglo-Saxon pioneers settling the land and trying to build a new nation, rather than merely a new England. During these times, people living in such places as the Acoma Pueblo were fighting to maintain their language, traditions, and beliefs as the land was being invaded.
We may be able to see why these times would be important to Simon Ortiz’s work, not only because he is Acoma, speaks the language, and knows the history, but because he is a reader and a believer in the transformative power of language. In World Literature Today, Robert Berner has written that Ortiz is at his best “when he adapts the traditional poetic utterances of Indian people to poems of his own which are simultaneously personal and traditional.” Many poets have used the past in their work, but for Ortiz, events of the present may be directly linked to, even understood in terms of, the course of history in America.
Ortiz grew up during the 1950s and 1960s, when uranium mining was a major industry on Pueblo lands (he worked for a uranium company after high school) and long after the United States had been established as a single nation in the opinion of most of its population. But that establishment was still being conducted, often through many of the same harsh methods used one hundred years prior. During Ortiz’s own childhood, schools had been designed to separate Acoma and other Pueblo children from their families and to prevent them from speaking their languages. A government program was begun that gave American Indians a oneway ticket to a big city in order to look for a job and move into the dominant culture.
The color barrier was still obviously advertised: all over the country there were segregated bathrooms, water fountains, and buses. And because to be “colored” often meant merely “dark-skinned,” not only African American, the frictions of culture and race were complex for those people whose families had lived on the North American continent for many centuries before the establishment of the United States, Canada, even Mexico. This is why the conditions of history are so important to Ortiz’s work; they have never stopped affecting the way we think today about culture, race, and—most importantly to Simon Ortiz—language.
He has said, “What I do as a writer, teacher, and storyteller is to demystify language.” This means he wants to make sentences and poetic figures accessible and practical, to correct the idea that poetry is something only for certain people and not for all of us. He became a writer in part to answer some of the big questions: “What is loneliness?” “What is love?” And, in light of “Hunger in New York City,” we could add the question: “What is hunger?”
Used to address such questions, writing becomes a way for us to remember, to build upon those things others have said, so that as we learn more, remember more, we may come closer to some answers. Going for the Rain, the book in which “Hunger in New York City” appears, is about a journey that takes place on many different levels of experience, including the preservation of memory through writing poems. In the course of his journey, the poet asks several of the big questions, and provides us some material by which we might consider them ourselves.
The book is divided into four parts, an important number symbolizing the four principle directions. The four parts of Going for the Rain mirror a Pueblo rain ritual in which the rain must be brought back from a long journey, what Ortiz calls the poet’s “travelling prayer.” This is one level of experience on which the book takes place, the one calling on ancient journey stories. Another level, demonstrated well in “Hunger in New York City,” is the experience of what it is like to be an Acoma poet in an industrial, non-Acoma society.
Still another level to the book is found in Ortiz’s construction of the journey; we are invited to travel outside the self and back inward again, which is triggered by a long train trip the poet has made to New York to visit a friend and give the friend a gift of Arizona sage. It is important to know these larger issues about Going for the Rain in order to appreciate what is underneath “Hunger in New York City.” It fits in the perspective of the poet’s train trip across the country from the ancient South-western
“Simon Ortiz has brought th[e] ideas of minimalism and social intelligence together in his work through a voice that is both Acoma and American, both ancient and contemporary. …”
desert, his inward journey, and his encounter with a megalopolis. Simon Ortiz calls his use of the ancient and the introspective in a present-time story a “sense of continuity essential to the poetry and stories in the books, essential to Native American life in fact.” In “Hunger in New York City” we get an example of one moment of observation in the midst of that continuity, which tells us many things about the larger issues addressed in Going for the Rain.
Ortiz often uses the term “story” in reference to a poem. We are so used to being trained in the meter, rhyme, and other technicalities of poetry (which certainly affect how it works) that we may forget the role of narrative in any form of writing. The narrative line tells a story, and in Ortiz’s work the story that happens right in front of us—in this case, in the poem—is often only a small part of a much larger story of history, spirituality, or self-understanding.
Consider, for instance, what you mean when you say “I’m hungry.” You might be thinking of eating a meal, but you might hunger for something else as well. This is where the big questions surface again. If you are lonely, though you have a full stomach, you may hunger for companionship. If you are away from home, perhaps you hunger to return. Many books considered holy by those who believe in their teachings contain metaphors about hunger and thirst to represent the yearning for God or enlightenment. All these things are happening in “Hunger in New York City,” beyond the visible hungers of the poor and starving created by the same conditions that built the new England. “Hunger in New York City” seems, on the surface, to be sparse and simple, but is rich and multi-layered.
The poem takes place when the poet is at the farthest point away from his home. He has just gotten off of a train in New York, and this is the poem he writes out of his initial impressions. He introduces us immediately to hunger and tells us first that it comes from outside of us, is a force coming from somewhere else, not only from the physical muscles and moving inward, but from concrete, land, or wind. So we are introduced to hunger, but we still do not know what kind of hunger the poet means. This will become our quest through the entire poem, with Ortiz feeding us little bits of which kind of hunger he might mean.
How we think of hunger is important to how we read the poem, because our imaginations and the material world may often be at odds. For example, if we say that Ortiz “personifies” hunger, we risk some oversimplification, obvious as the technique might seem. To personify means to give personhood, that is, identity (especially in human terms) to something inanimate. But in Acoma belief, life extends beyond what is animal and may be present in all things. So saying that hunger has life may not mean “personifying” it to an Acoma poet. Therefore, hunger is permitted to ask questions that not only the poet, but the reader, must try to answer.
In the second stanza, hunger is asking “for” many abstractions, ideas that do not all stand for material things—“wisdom,” for instance. In the third stanza, hunger asks yes-or-no questions, the most basic kind, and maybe the most important kind, because these basic questions are about what it means to survive. They are all about, literally, what gives us life.
The fourth stanza of the poem raises an issue found in much of Ortiz’s work—how to answer these basic questions in the midst of a technological and industrial world full of noise and light and distraction. There is some irony here as well. If we are tempted to think of reservation life as impoverished, or to associate hunger with material goods alone, we may not notice the poverty found in the dominant culture’s supposedly greatest achievement—its cities. The poet has come from the desert to New York and immediately thinks to write about hunger, which (we know by the title) lives in New York City just as in other places.
When the poet tells us, “I have hungered, truthfully and honestly,” for the things of the city, he is confessing that this great machinery has lured him even as it has failed to feed him with what he needs. Ortiz has written other works about those hungers unfulfilled by technology, as in his short story “Man on the Moon” and in another poem from Going for the Rain, “Washyuma Moter Hotel.” In the midst of the city, and at the halfway point of his long journey before returning home (which happens in the next section of the book), the poet remembers in the final stanza of “Hunger in New York City” what does feed him.
First, he prays by singing to himself, finally asking for blessing from mother earth. Then he tells us which kind of hunger we met at the beginning of the poem. In the middle of the stanza, quietly situated between the song and the request for blessing, the poet tells us that what feeds his hunger is “the humble presence / of all around me.”
In those lines we learn much about Simon Ortiz’s work. Since he uses poetry to demystify language, he has chosen methods of telling that are particular to the way we live today in order to teach in practical terms about yesterday as well. He does so by writing about fundamental objects and ideas and about those who are struggling along what the Acoma call the heeyaanih, the road of life.
When modernists such as Robert Lowell or William Carlos Williams wrote in this clear, simple language of things, they called it “minimalism” or “imagism.” The Beat Poets of the 1950s, who inspired Ortiz as a poet, also used accessible language written in unconventional ways to talk about the common and struggling person in the city, about the land outside the city, and about the hungers that live in either place. Simon Ortiz has brought these ideas of minimalism and social intelligence together in his work, through a voice that is both Acoma and American, both ancient and contemporary, and toward his goal that “through poetry, prose, and other written works that evoke love, respect, and responsibility, Native Americans may be able to help the United States of America to go beyond survival.”
Source: Sean Robisch, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
Berner, Robert L., “A Good Journey,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 59, No. 3, Summer 1985, p. 474.
Bruchac, Joseph, Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987.
Gingerich, Willard, “‘The Old Voices of Acoma’: Simon Ortiz’s Mythic Indigenism,” in Southwest Review, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp. 18-30.
Hobson, Geary, in a review of “A Good Journey,” in Western American Literature, Vol. XIV, No. 1, May, 1979, pp. 87-9.
Jaffe, Harold, “Speaking Memory,” in The Nation, Vol. 234, No. 13, April 3, 1982, pp. 406-08.
Ortiz, Simon, “Man on the Moon” in Virtually Now: Stories of Science, Technology, and the Future, edited by Jeanne Schinto, Persea Books, 1996.
Ortiz, Simon, Woven Stone, Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1992.
Schein, Marie M., “Simon Ortiz” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets Since World War II, Third Series, edited by R. S. Gwynn, Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.
For Further Study
Niatum, Duane, Harper’s Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry, Harper, San Francisco, 1988.
Niatum places Ortiz within a larger framework of Native-American poets spanning almost a century, offering us over 350 pages of stunning work.
Wiget, Andrew, Simon Ortiz, Boise State University Press, 1986.
In this book of criticism, Wiget explores Ortiz’s role as both modern poet and traditional storyteller, emphasizing his connection with the land, and through it, with history.