Simon J. Ortiz sentimentally expresses his deep sense of connection to “mother earth” and his responsibility to his culture in his poem, Hunger in New York City. At first glance, the poem’s simple title easily leads to misinterpretation. As a reader, one might imagine images of starving people on New York City’s street corners or people in line for food. While this conjecture might accurately apply to the title of the poem, Ortiz takes hunger and turns it in to something much deeper.
The poem begins with the origins of hunger. According to the author, hunger comes: “from somewhere out of your muscles, or concrete or the land, or the wind pushing you.” Ortiz uses the verb crawl to describe how hunger sets in. Hunger does seem to silently seep into a person’s awareness. It’s a slow process that builds and creates an increasingly noticeable sensation. Ortiz observes that the origin of hunger comes from something deep inside you; from “out of your muscles.” This links to Ortiz’s background from the Acoma Pueblo culture that he is so passionately connected to. The Acoma Pueblo people embody the sense of family and tradition. They are an ancient culture that has been preserved from one generation to the next. Ortiz’s history in his Native American roots has developed a strong sense of identity and connection with his past.
The second stanza explains that hunger asks not only for food, but for “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 you know.” These other things that hunger asks for are expressed almost as needs, as they are listed equally and interchangeably with food which is essential for human survival. Ortiz points out that hunger asks for “the world you know” which is the world that he comes from, his home in Acoma Pueblo. This phrase also points out that New York City is a foreign place to him and the reader gets a sense of the author’s discomfort and unfamiliarity with the city. Ortiz is drawn by the uninviting concrete and wind of the city to a place in his memory where there seems to be peace and comfort, relationships and familiarity. He remarks that hunger searches you out as if to find you and remind you of its presence. The questions that hunger poses in the poem, are like questions that a close family member would ask over a long distance phone call. “How are you, son? Where are you? Have you eaten well? Have you done what you as one of our people is supposed to do?” These questions make it obvious that the hunger Ortiz explains is not simply a hunger for food. The personified hunger that Ortiz describes symbolizes his deep longing for his homeland created by his presence in the harsh and unfamiliar environment of New York City. The last question reveals Ortiz’s strong sense of identity and responsibility to his Native American heritage.
In the next stanza, Ortiz depicts New York City and explains that his hunger cannot truly be satisfied by what the city has to offer. The savage image of concrete, bright lights, polluted air, and noise that he creates leads him to the realization that he cannot be happy there. He states that he has “truthfully and honestly” tried to adapt and find satisfaction in the city but isn’t capable of doing so. The way he details the imagery of the city gives the reader a sense of the author’s resentment toward it. He finds it apparent that the city is not able to satisfy his hunger. In the last stanza it seems as if the author closes their eyes and lifts up a prayer in quiet song. It’s almost as if he understands that even though his current surroundings prove difficult to endure, they are still, deep down, a part of “mother earth.” It would appear that the author asks mother earth to relax him as he is fulfilled with her soul. Ortiz asks mother earth to “make me cool and humble. Bless me.” This resembles a calm and collected plea for peace and reassurance.Ortiz’s poem reflects his deep connection with his past and culture. It shows how no matter how far away he may go he cannot escape the hunger that he has for his people. His rich heritage is something that he prides himself in and that he finds peace in. He believes that a person’s past stays with them no matter where they go. Ortiz uses hunger in his poem as a metaphor for the kind of home sickness that a person feels when they are out of place.