IN PRAISE OF
At the Hems of the Lowest Clouds: Meditations on Navajo Landscapes. Gloria J. Emerson with a foreword by N. Scott Momaday. School of American Research Press, 2003. 93 pages. $14.95
Gloria Emerson, the author and artist of this beautiful book is a friend of mine. At one time she was my boss, and then for about twenty years, or maybe more, we didn't see each other. Now, despite the physical distance between us, a week doesn't go by without us having at least one, often several phone calls and/or text exchanges. All this to say, I can't claim to be objective when I share At the Hems of the Lowest Clouds with you.
In 2002, Gloria was the artist-in-residence at the School of American Research in Santa Fe, and this book, filled with poems and gorgeous, full-color paintings done during that period is one of the results. Besides working together in the late 70s, Gloria, who is Diné, and I share some earlier history. She lives on her family farm in Tsétaak'á (Hogback, NM), where my dad used to take me as a little girl to get loads of coal to heat our home. Gloria mentions more often than I do our attendance at Rehoboth Mission School, although she was gone by the time I got there. She likes to call me "Dutch Cleanser," teasing me about the Dutch-American founders of the mission. But most of all, it was under her leadership at the Native American Materials Development Center (NAMDC), an Indigenous educational publishing house, that grew me into an adult. Gloria says she became an adult there, too. Before NAMDC, Gloria received a Master's degree from the Harvard School of Education. After NAMDC, she studied and worked at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe. Gloria's most glorious ability has been bringing together people of great talent and vision to match her own.
In this book she writes about "mythologization," the creation of new myths, and her poems and paintings do just that––drawing on traditional Diné history and legend to create an astounding weave of new stories of mythic dimensions and vivid images. Words and visions that have the power to take my breath away every time I come to them. I praise them, and the best I can do is share a sampling with you:
Straining to decode tonal pauses,
languages that belong to no man, clan, or tribe.
Sonnets spoken by wind to trees,
by trees to grasses,
by grasses to dragonflies, by dragonflies to bluebirds,
by bluebirds to frogs.
Yoołgai Asdaáán presides over sweet herbal scents
tumbling down waterfalls to beaches
of oxides, coppers, of jasper, and jade.
~ from "Dził Dibé Nstaa"
Ants pinch out nocturnal prayers,
re-enacting long nights of dance
that they carry in little sacks while their cousin moths
frenzydance with fire
~ from "Chronicling the Shiprock Navajo Fair, Evening"
creatures of luminosity,
carried glowing bundles of some ancient logic.
They flew in lightning formation
toward a changing wisdom.
In the murky under-below,
a meanness flew beneath them,
unraveling the ties,
and with vicious twists
the flying bundles...
That logic fell and fell
as numbers at first,
which ionized into particles, at first,
and atomized into energy,
and ignited into fire.
~ from "Table Mesa, N.M."
Summer signing farewell.
Sunflowers glowed in the rain.
Young ponds mirrored
the turbulent faces of the sky.
and rain children
scrubbed the spines of the divide.
Oh my sister,
the sunflowers glowed
in the rain.
~ from "Ndi'yi'łii"
This land maintains the story
that tall crow over there,
who divines the history of his clan.
It is his people, you see,
who compete with the falcon sentries
for the right to guard
the hems of the lowest clouds,
which spill rain
like ancient drummings
onto parched drums,
drenching skinny fingers,
which grow into many arms
and become Folding Darkness,
the Twin of Sunrise.
~ from "Gáagii dóó Atsáłbáí"
If you live close enough, Gloria will be having a solo retrospective show of her sculptures and paintings, entitled "Aszdáá Recalls" at the Henderson Fine Arts Center at San Juan College in Farmington, NM from August 4-25. The opening reception is on the 4th. If you can't attend the show, buy the book. You won't be disappointed.