Four Contemporary American Indian Poets You May Not Know But Should [by Dean Rader]
The work being done by a new generation of Native American poets is among the most exciting in American poetry.
One of my favorite recent collections is Heid Erdrich's National Monuments. Her poem "The Theft Outright" is a fantastic response to Robert Frost's famous inaugural poem, "The Gift Outright," read at John F. Kennedy's inauguration. As I suggest in a post at The Weekly Rader, Frost's poem is a swan song for the chauvinism and ethnocentrism of Manifest Destiny. Suffice it to say that when in the first line the speaker says, "The land was ours before we were the land's," he was not channeling Chief Seattle, Wovoka, or any person of color. Frost, frosty as they come, embodied whiteness.
Erdrich (Ojibwe) plays with Frost's line and its sentiment, inverting the poem's claim to land by invoking the transgressive history of land reclamation, removal, and theft. Here are the first few lines of this gripping poem:
We were the land's before we were.
Or the land was ours before you were a land.
Or this land was our land, it was not your land.
We were the land before we were people,
loamy roamers rising, so the stories go,
or formed of clay, spit into with breath reeking soul—
What's America, but the legend of Rock 'n' Roll?
Red rocks, blood clots bearing boys, blood sands
swimming being from women's hands, we originate,
originally, spontaneous as hemorrhage.
Two other poets you should know are Navajo writers Sherwin Bitsui and Orlando White. Bitsui’s Shapeshift (2003) and White’s Bone Light (2009) are laced with a skepticism toward and an embrace of language. Both poets eschew an expository poets of theme and opt instead for an elliptical lyricism characterized by brevity, elision, and interiority. In Bitsui’s “Apparition,” for example, blanks and clipped lines send the message that the world is, among other things, fragmented, indeterminate, absent:
I haven’t ________
since smoke dried to salt in the lakebed,
since crude oil dripped from his parting slogan,
the milk’s sky behind it,
birds chirping from its wig.
Many of Bitsui’s poems explore how different values, concepts, and ideas are when experienced in Navajo as opposed to English. In fact, at times, English (and its poetic tradition) feel more like an enemy than a mode of connection: “Read this, / understand their language, / or sleep in a bottle of broken nails for the rest of your life.
White, on the other hand, sees language as a means to an end—if not also an end in itself. For him, letters are works of art, little people, signs and symbols of liberation and confinement. In the opening piece, “To See Letters,” White makes an emotional connection with the alphabet as a means of populating his poetic landscape:
Everything I write requires this: Alphabet.
It was a notion I did not know when I was six years old. In kindergarten I was more interested in the image of a letter on a flash card. I noticed its shape distinguishing itself from its background. Then, with my eyes I tore the O in half. In that moment I felt language separate from its form.
The rest of the book explores the ways in which letters become larger than what they embody while at the same time Reimagining letters completely stripped of their associations, enjoyed merely for their graphical beauty. The best of these is a series of poems on the letters “i” and “j,” which bring notions of "language poetry to new levels."
Speaking of new levels, I've never read a book like James Thomas Stevens' A Bridge Dead in the Water.
And, I mean that as a compliment.
Stevens is Mohawk and his book takes on a number of pseudo-sacred ideas such as the Bering Strait theory, the ease of Eastern/Western relations, and the notion that learning English is both ethical and value-free. From a poetic perspective, though, the most interesting segment of the book is the crazy cool "Alphabet of Letters." In a gesture that both waves at and gives the bird to such methods of Western knowledge and classification, “Alphabet of Letters” converts the traditional American school book into a veritable collage of signifiers. Subtitled “A New Primer for the Use of Native or Confused Americans,” this 20+ page “poem” collates phonics, classical rhetoric, a 1766 inventory list, false and real headlines, instructions on diphthongs, snatches of correspondence, a short Mohawk/English dictionary, and even heroic couplets as an alphabet lesson (K When KING Phillip, dead did lay, / the Puritans did Make their Way."
To give you an example of how the poems look on the page, I scanned the following:
“Alphabet of Letters” divests the Western project of “Letters” of its privilege of seeing Indians as its subjects. The forms of teaching and learning, the forms of identity arrangement, the forms of blood catalog—these are the forms that poetic genres, though their ontology of exclusion, Stevens contravenes. It's angry. It's funny. It's inventive. And, oh yes, it's funny. Unlike, I realize, this blog post.
But, read these poets anyway.