“Moth Madness,” a poem
Laura Tohe is Diné. She is Tsénahabiłnii, Sleepy Rock People clan, and born for the Tódich’inii, Bitter Water clan. She grew up at Crystal, New Mexico, near the Chuska Mountains on the Diné homeland. Her books include Making Friends with Water (poetry); No Parole Today, a book on boarding schools; Sister Nations: Native American Women Writers on Community, co-edited with Heid Erdrich; Tseyí Deep in the Rock, in collaboration with photographer, Stephen Strom; and Code Talker Stories. She was commissioned by the Phoenix Symphony to write t
Code Talker Stories (Rio Nuevo Press)
No Parole Today (West End Press)
Tseyi’: Deep in the Rock, Reflections on Canyon de Chelly (University of Arizona Press)
You’ve mentioned a Navajo aesthetic in previous interviews. What do you mean by this and how does this aesthetic inform your writing?
LT: I’ve always been surrounded by words, land, and stories, even as I was growing in utero. I wasn’t aware of this until I started writing poetry and stories. I owe this epiphany to my first writing instructor who taught me to look for stories that surrounded me, including the stories told by the earth. I liked listening to adult conversations but when my mother caught me, she would shoo me away to do a chore. I suppose she thought there were things adults said, like secrets, that she didn’t want my childhood ears to hear. It made me want to eavesdrop even more.
Listening to the sounds in my world was one of the ways I became a writer. In first grade I was thrilled to learn how to read and write English despite that my mother tongue was in the process of being erased at school, and that my father had been a Code Talker in WWII where he used the Navajo language as a communication code. Not until college did I take a Navajo language class to become literate in Diné bizaad/Navajo. I grew up with four languages surrounding my homeland—Diné, Zuni, English, and Spanish. The former two broadcasted programs on the local AM radio station. It was amusing to hear code switching in Zuni. Like Navajo, Zuni didn’t have English translations, so I’d hear a long narration in Zuni, then suddenly an advertisement for evaporated milk or some product, then more Zuni language. It was small local stations like this one that helped preserve Indigenous languages on the radio during the boarding school era. UNESCO, United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, designated Navajo language as “vulnerable,” but I think we are leaning more toward “endangered” as English becomes more of the dominant language.
Defining a Navajo aesthetic comes from Navajo language and thought. If we lose our language, we stand to lose our identity, our worldview, our relationships to each other and to the natural world. Embedded in our philosophy are what has sustained our sense of self and our existence as Diné. Much has already been taken by colonization. In my work, I am pulling from the Navajo aesthetic that thought and language are always in motion. Speaking Diné bizaad is speaking poetry, which is most evident in our songs and prayers. When I express who my clans are, I am expressing a Navajo aesthetic of who my sense of self is: I am Sleepy Rock People clan and born for the Bitter Water People clan; my maternal grandfather clan are the Sun People clan, and my paternal grandfather clan are the Coyote Pass People clan. Navajo thought tells me that these clans are part of how we create identity and place ourselves in land and in a geographical space. The order of my clans tells me we are born primarily from our mother’s bloodline, and born for our father and acknowledge our grandparents’ ancestry. In the Navajo language we say, “I am dressed in my language.” My language expresses Navajo thought. When I use my language, I am expressing a Navajo aesthetic.
MR: Your poem “Moth Madness” combines three languages: English, French, and Diné. Tell us about the choice to use these particular words or phrases.
LT: English is a colonial language, but I’m not against using western words or phrases in my work. Being bilingual nurtured my interest and enjoyment in sound and language that led me to eventually write poetry and librettos. There are certain words and phrases that I find particularly fascinating for their sounds and definitions. Coup de foudre is both. A friend defined it as “struck by lightning.” I saved that word for my eventual use. The phrase glides easily off my tongue. When I wrote “Moth Madness,” that phrase was one of the last lines I wrote because it was what the poem needed. In writing poetry it’s really about what the poem needs, what it wants, and what language it requires, because poetry is organic. In English a moth is an insect that eats clothing and can also destroy itself seeking light. The moth is an important part of the poem, and the English word lacked substance that the Navajo word could give. Embedded in the word for moth,iich’àhii is a powerful description of an insect that goes insane or something that “loses it” in its attraction for light. My grandmother cautioned us against making bad choices, like a moth does. She would utter “baa’hádzid!” We knew she meant business when the tone of her voice changed, like she was warding off a curse. Part of my process is pulling from my repertoire of words from Diné, English and other languages to fuel my poems. I also chose to use the Diné word for my paternal grandmother because that is the traditional way to say paternal grandmother. In this way, I’m giving her my respect and love. I never learned some of my relatives’ given names for this reason. In choosing to use Diné words for my poem, I want to preserve the language and to give voice and space to a poetry that comes from the Navajo thought and from our philosophy of language.
MR: Why did you choose to include translations for the Diné words below the poem?
LT: The translations were given to make the words accessible to an audience. I don’t always give translations, but in this case, I thought the readers would appreciate it.
MR: You have written multiple opera librettos. How does the experience of writing librettos differ from writing poems?
LT: When I wrote my first libretto, I wondered if I could use what I know about writing poetry to write a libretto. My collaborator’s only instructions were to write lines this long–and he held up his fingers to show three inches. Description, motion, and poetry are embedded in Diné bizaad, as are the rhythm of music and singing. I’ve always believed that poetry and music are connected. Paying attention to how the sounds of words must work next to each other, line lengths, pauses, and images were already part of my process before I wrote my first libretto. I drew on that sense of musicality in the Navajo language when I wrote the libretto. Writing librettos is more related to writing poetry than they are different. However, the differences were that I had to write a much longer piece, and I was writing for a composer, chorus and singers who would interpret the libretto in their own artistry. When I write a libretto, it’s always an intense collaboration rather than a semi-solitary activity.
MR: “Moth Madness” references the Navajo philosophy of balance. How does that philosophy inform this poem? Did you consider it in your word choices?
LT: Balance is at the heart of my poem. Unbalance in oneself, mind, and spirit would call for a certain kind of healing ceremony. The moth represents the unbalance in the world. My grandmother performs a ceremony through her weaving by calling on healing designs and images of protection that she will weave into her loom. It’s similar to how medicine people use sand and mineral pigments to create sand paintings for healing ceremonies. The word choices create a sense of things existing in shadows, in whispers, and spaces where disharmony dwells that must be balanced into a state of Hózhô: peace, harmony, and a transition to creating a better world. The pattern of repetition in the last stanza evokes how songs and prayers are part of a protection from imbalance, like a shield from things that harm the mind, body, and spirit. When I finished writing this piece, I realized how much it had in common with a protection ceremony.
MR: “Moth Madness” centers the carding and spinning of wool, which is an integral part of Diné culture. As a writer, how do textile arts inform your work or life?
LT: If I walked into a room with my eyes closed and someone was weaving, I would immediately know that sound because I grew up with weavers on both sides of my family. One of my brothers even learned to weave. In my first tentative steps at learning to weave, it felt instinctual, like I had been doing it all my life, even though I’m still learning. There’s something soothing listening to the weaving fork as it moves across the weft in even, rhythmic strokes, followed by a strum of the weft to even them. A few years ago, I wanted to honor the weavers in my family. My friends and I drove to some rugged places on my homeland to gather the plants weavers use to dye their wool. Before dyeing the paper, I used the same process in preparing the plants the way weavers prepare the plants to dye the wool. Weaving is a long process from the sheep to the loom, as was making the paper from plant to writing the poems. I like to think that while my family wove their stories on the loom, my poems and stories are woven on paper.
A Talk by Laura Tohe
- A primer on the Navajo language, Diné Bizaad, from navajopeople.org.
- A video of Navajo master weaver Clara Sherman demonstrating carding and spinning of wool.