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.

“I am not a Navajo, nor am I an American, but the Navajos are my people.”

Much credit to Oliver La Farge, who continues to surprise me by saying something interesting and even possibly relevant about the situation for Native Americans in the early 1930s.  I know I came in with low expectations, so it’s not as though I’m reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  But Laughing Boy is proving very immersive in what feels to me (based on my limited historical knowledge) like a realistic scenario for young Native Americans in the Southwest at the time.  Laughing Boy’s story explores a lot of territory—what is expected of a man, how tensions between tribes (the Pah-Utes and the Navajo, principally) dominated their experience and allowed the “Americans” to play one off the other, etc.  But I’m increasingly fascinated by Slim Girl, who’s proving to be a very complex young woman—raised in a boarding school (a place so awful, she tells Laughing Boy on their wedding night to kill their children if the Americans ever come to take them off to a school), not quite “native” enough for the Navajo but never “white” enough for the Americans, savvy in business but unable to keep a lid on all her emotions.  La Farge does a good job, I think, of drawing out her inner life.  Here’s an extended example from immediately after she’s convinced Laughing Boy to elope with her:

“If she did not watch out, she would love this man.  She did not intend to love any one; had she not learned enough of that?  He was necessary to her; he was the perfect implement delivered to her hands; he was an axe with which to hew down the past; he was a light with which to see her way back to her people, to the good things of her people.  She held him up against the past, matrons and teachers at school, platitudes and well-meaning lies.  And now, for all their care and training and preaching, she was ‘going back under the blanket,’ because under the blanket were the things worth while, and all the rest was hideous.  With her knowledge and experience, with what the Americans had taught her, she would lead this man, and make for them both the most perfect life that could be made—with an Indian, a long-haired heathen Indian, a blanket Indian, a Navajo, the names thrown out like an insult in the faces of those who bore them, of her own people, Denne’, The People, proud as she was proud, and clear of heart as she could never be.”

I grant you, this isn’t terribly subtle work: La Farge wants to be pretty direct about her position between worlds.  But look at how skilfully he stays on balance.  Laughing Boy is a tool to bring her back to her people…and then, so casually, La Farge lets her re-state it “the good things of her people”, as if her people and the goodness of their life are the same thing, as if to say she cannot see the drawbacks of life on the reservation (or else as if to say that she thinks, against all odds, she can only take “the good things” and leave the bad behind).  Even those last two clauses at the paragraph’s end, simultaneously fusing her pride with the pride of her people and cutting a canyon between their honest clarity and her unavoidably deceptive heart.  She is a character I can get to know.  Whether I will agree with her, or even trust her, I don’t know yet, but I like that La Farge makes her so easy to grab onto.  The first minority character in the Pulitzers, unless I really am forgetting someone, who feels fully three dimensional.

And that’s especially true because, unless I am completely misreading the signs, Slim Girl is a prostitute.  Or at the very least, she uses sexuality to get herself money and favors from men.  I don’t have any proof from the novel yet that she consummates any of these relationships, but if not she certainly is leading a man to believe she will.  I have to admit, I was pretty shocked by this revelation, especially as La Farge drops it in slowly and casually, as if to say “Oh, how does she make her money?  Well, let’s say a lot of gentlemen know her.  Know her well, if you catch my drift.”  Though not the title character, it feels like her story at this point, less than half-way into the novel: her story of how she grows closer to a native heritage she’s lost (but awakens to as she gets to know the strong young man she has married), her story of how she balances worlds (she dreams that the money she earns can be turned to profit by her new husband, whose artistry and craft can turn a little silver into beautiful artifacts and jewelry—she thinks they can become rich and then go away to live together in happiness), her story of how a young woman can gamble her whole self and lose.  Because I don’t see how she, living perilously close to scandal in the white world and already a scandal to “her people” as she is, can hope to win.  And I wonder if Laughing Boy will be brought low along side her, in the process.  He seems loyal and kind, and utterly bewitched by her personality (even more than by her beauty).  Such things are tragic flaws in fiction, as often as not.  For the first time in a while, on this Pulitzer run, I think this is a novel some of you should go read….head to your library and get that ILL department working for you!

“Young men, whose bodies felt like empty shells and whose heads still buzzed with songs, moved down to drink at the pool.”

I’m reluctant to be too happy with any novel of this era of American history that takes as its subject a minority group.  But so far, La Farge is impressing me.  The account of the dancing and singing—a festival with some elaborate unspoken rules—is very convincing, and the characters seem more than the flat caricatures I endured at the hands of Julia Peterkin.  Laughing Boy in particular seems the perfect adolescent, oblivious to more than he ought to be, but totally obsessed with a few minute details (particularly the facial expressions and body language of a girl he either hates or loves…and probably both).  The conversations he has with his fellow Indians are certainly in a particular style—they don’t talk like Harvard grads—but the style seems to have a music of its own.  They think real thoughts, and can express themselves very capably…the limitations of dialect I suffered in the previous novel don’t seem present here.

Even the encounter with white Americans plays well—the native boys know just enough English to be able to take advantage of the men.  Laughing Boy’s no cheat—he’s selling them a real, native-made belt that has intrinsic monetary value.  But he sees nothing wrong with getting an edge on the man he bargains with…unbeknownst to the white tourists, their conversation in English about how high they’re willing to pay is transparent enough to Laughing Boy that he squeezes every dime out of them that’s possible.  It was nice: an encounter that could easily have made the Navajo seem like either naive children or scheming thieves is handled in a way that makes them merely equals to these white men who have come to the reservation.  Not equals in every sense, but in the only sense that matters in a good haggling session—both of them know they’d rather have what the other man has (money, or a belt), and both of them use the best posturing they can to maximize the deal from their perspective.  This time a Navajo wins, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be that fortunate next time, especially if the tourist catches on.

So I like that about this book—I like Laughing Boy, and while the other characters are pretty thin so far (other than the girl with the bewitching eyes and the eerily serene demeanor), it’s very early yet, and I’m not feeling anxious.  I don’t know what the book is setting out to do, though.  It feels a bit like a book for 8th graders, whose point, by the end, is to show them that Navajo kids grow up about the same as them, other than some funny dancing and drumming that’s kind of cool if you think about it.  I don’t mind that message at all—it’s a pretty good message, all things considered, and Lord knows the 1930s needed to hear it a bit more clearly.  But it doesn’t quite feel ground-breaking enough for a Pulitzer award winner.  I want to come away with an insight for me in 2010, and not merely glad to see there was enough of an insight for a racist-only-because-ignorant middle-class American in 1930.  We’ll see if it’s there.

In the back of my head, I’m thinking of the Dawes Act, the Carlisle Indian School, the legacy of Wounded Knee, and the fact that, though he doesn’t know it, Laughing Boy is only a few years from the Indian New Deal that will restore recognition to his people as a sovereign nation.  I don’t know if La Farge is, though.  He doesn’t have to be, as long as we’re going somewhere else.  I just want to go somewhere.

On an entirely separate note (but related to “going somewhere”), in my non-Pulitzer reading right now, I’m tackling Italo Calvino’s If, on a winter’s night, a traveler.  What a bizarre book…a novel with (so far) at least five beginnings and no endings seem likely to ever come in sight.  I feel like I’m on a novel roulette wheel that they won’t stop spinning.  Maybe the contrast of Calvino’s intricately structured novel with this sweet but very plain-spoken book by La Farge is what makes me a little edgy about where we’re headed.  Or maybe I’m over-analyzing a bit too much.

“He was riding the hundred miles from T’o Tlakai to Tse Lani to attend a dance, or rather, for the horse-racing that would come afterwards.”

So begins Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge, a book that, at least at the outset, focuses on the story of Laughing Boy, a young Navajo teenager who is excited by horse-races, a little envious of the more sophisticated Navajo who live south of him (and who know “American ways”), and enthusiastic about good food and good singing.  Those of you who walked through the valley of the shadow of Scarlet Sister Mary at my side will detect some major alarm bells in this description, and I can hardly blame you.  But here are some  reasons why I wouldn’t jump to conclusions about this one…not yet.

1) While the characters speak in a distinctive fashion, there’s no gross caricatures here.  Furthermore, any singing or poetry is usually rendered in Navajo, and in a fashion I’d call respectful.

2) From the beginning this community is shown to be diverse–all Navajo aren’t alike in experience, interests, or perspective on the world.  There’s a sense of a real society here, and one that La Farge has at least some grasp of.

3) La Farge writes an “Introductory Note” that is, on the whole, encouraging.  He notes that the Navajo character names are drawn from names he’s heard, or read about in scientific accounts…so there’s some indication he’s working from a combination of real experience with the Navajo or anthropologists that (despite their condescending attitudes in the 1920s) were surely getting a lot closer to the truth about native cultures than popular prejudice.  And he closes the note with this remark that I thought a bit telling:

This story is meant neither to instruct nor to prove a point, but to amuse.  It is not propaganda, nor an indictment of anything.  The hostility with which certain of the characters in it view Americans and the American system is theirs, arising from the plot, and not the author’s.  The picture is frankly one-sided.  It is also entirely possible.  —O. La F.

The first couple of sentences were starting to irritate me—he was striking me as excessively defensive, and deferential to people’s offended sensibilities.  But that last sentence was excellent.  It’s not common even today for an American novelist appealing to a “popular” crowd to suggest that outsiders may see the United States more clearly than we ourselves do.  That someone was willing to tuck it in (however obliquely) to an introduction to a novel of the late 1920s/early 1930s is an unexpected wonder.  I won’t let it get my hopes up too high, of course: there’s certain to be a lot here I won’t be able to agree with, coming at it 80 years later.  But the openness of the author’s mind at the outset makes me willing to walk a while with him and see what’s here that is truly insightful.  We’ll see where it takes us.