Poetry Friday: Sherman Alexie

It’s time to explore the poetry of my new home—much as I went to Carl Sandburg to see Chicago through a poet’s eyes, I must find some Inland Northwest poets to help me understand this land.  And so, where else to start but with a son of the people whose land this is, who have possessed and been possessed by it for many centuries, long before my great-grandfather homesteaded here or my car rolled up with boxes in the back to make a home.  If you know Sherman Alexie, you know what we’re probably about to dive into.  And if you don’t know Sherman, a native man from the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene tribe, born on the Spokane Indian Reservation at Wellpinit, well, buckle up.  Whatever else it may be, ahead of us we can certainly expect to be confronted by truth.  From his collection, The Summer of Black Widows, this is “The Powwow at the End of the World”:

I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after an Indian woman puts her shoulder to the Grand Coulee Dam
and topples it. I am told by many of you that I must forgive
and so I shall after the floodwaters burst each successive dam
downriver from the Grand Coulee. I am told by many of you
that I must forgive and so I shall after the floodwaters find
their way to the mouth of the Columbia River as it enters the Pacific
and causes all of it to rise. I am told by many of you that I must forgive
and so I shall after the first drop of floodwater is swallowed by that salmon
waiting in the Pacific. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after that salmon swims upstream, through the mouth of the Columbia
and then past the flooded cities, broken dams and abandoned reactors
of Hanford. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after that salmon swims through the mouth of the Spokane River
as it meets the Columbia, then upstream, until it arrives
in the shallows of a secret bay on the reservation where I wait alone.
I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall after
that salmon leaps into the night air above the water, throws
a lightning bolt at the brush near my feet, and starts the fire
which will lead all of the lost Indians home. I am told
by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon
who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will teach us
how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;
the third story will give us reason to dance. I am told by many
of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing
with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.

Sweet, terrible fire.  And words I need to hear.  There is something reminiscent here of many great poems I’ve read, including some I’ve discussed here—Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” occurs to me, and Langston Hughes’s “Let America be America Again“—but of course it is also entirely its own, hot with the passion that has boiled in him all his years.  As challenging as it can be to confront, it’s also important to face his relentless demands that forgiveness not be cheap, that injustice be met not with platitudes but with redress and righteousness, that the only way to do good is to undo evil.  The imagery is powerful for me because it pairs the very tangible and real—the solidity of the dam at Grand Coulee, the shattered reactors at a broken Hanford—with the fantastic and the mythical—an Indian woman (and there is something deeply powerful, I think, in his insisting that it be a woman) titanic enough that the weight of her shoulder can shatter acres of concrete, a salmon charged with lightning who calls the tribes home for the dance that ends time.  I find that I encounter these juxtapositions often in the work of Native American writers—I think culturally (at least in many tribes) they are better able to see the unreal through the lens of the real, especially seeing something numinous and immanent in the natural world around them.

There is something communal about his anger, the feeling that a whole community, a whole nation, must be restored by this amazing chain of events.  But there is also something so personal—the salmon must come to him, who waits alone in a secret place.  He alone will see the lightning bolt which falls at his feet and no one else’s—when the lost ones come home, they will come to him.  And for me that only enhances the power of the piece—this is a lament in broad strokes for what the Spokane people lost and deserve to have restored to them, but it is grounded in the very personal accounting Sherman feels of what the broken tribe costs him, and of what America owes him personally to make this right.  I enjoy, too, that the piece ultimately dwells on the elation of reunion, the exuberance of dance and ancient stories—ultimately what will satisfy this outcry is not the scent of burning towns or the vision of oppressors brought low.  It’s not about revenge in the end for him: it’s about what will be restored, not about what will be destroyed.

It would be easy to tune him out, I suppose—to say that this is all big talk but in the end not very realistic.  But I think we have to grapple with the enormity of what Sherman wants us to see, whether or not we really think we could do all he demands, breaking apart the structures of American society in his people’s valleys and plateaus and leaving them to dance.  He recognizes this is apocalypse—that the justice he is demanding can only be depicted in the context of a final day, of the judgment and conclusion of this living, standing at the threshold of what will follow.  It doesn’t mean his pain is imaginary, nor that we can pretend that justice is unimportant until some last call where we can hurriedly set things right before we are called to account.  The rhythms of his verse surge up against us again and again like waves, like salmon who will not be denied the river no matter how the falls rage them backwards.  They will swim until they are victorious or perish in the attempt.  I can feel that strain in his verse, and that determination.  I’m glad I’m having to wrestle with it, what it means and what it will mean in the future—and especially what I may have to do about it.  Poetry should unsettle us, and this poem certainly unsettles me, even as it introduces me to a home it is not ready to welcome me to.  I am grateful for that, and for Sherman, tonight.

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