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Retaking Native Ground

By: A.M. Juster
January 17, 2019

uropeans almost succeeded in wiping out indigenous Americans, then they made a concerted effort to wipe out their hundreds of languages and cultures. Since the poetry of indigenous Americans typically was part of an oral tradition, we lost most of a tribe’s poetry each time we lost a tribal language. These lost legacies, along with assimilation and pressure to assimilate, slowed the emergence of indigenous poets in the United States.

The first widely celebrated indigenous American poet was William Jay Smith (1918-2015), a brilliant and charming Rhodes Scholar who served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1968-1970. Smith primarily wrote and translated highly polished—and often funny—formal verse for both adults and children. Many of his books do not address his heritage, but his most profound impact on our culture with his 2000 book The Cherokee Lottery: A Sequence of Poems, which helped to bring the horror of “The Trail of Tears” into our national consciousness.

The two indigenous poets who have risen to the greatest prominence after Smith are probably Sherman Alexie and Jo Harjo, although sexual harassment allegations have greatly damaged Alexie’s reputation and popularity. The son of alcoholic parents, he had to overcome hydrocephalus and related medical challenges as an infant.

Alexie’s best work reflects the breadth of his study of poetry, as when he writes about his infant son in his humble and quietly powerful villanelle, “Dangerous Astronomy,” Unfortunately, his typically prosy poems, despite their frequent flashes of raw power, too often rely on easy and arrogant means of expression.  

The enduring indigenous poet of the early twenty-first century is almost certain to be Jo Harjo. Her work combines strong senses of history and spirituality, as in the beginning of “Eagle Poem”:

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings…

This spiritual sensibility does not limit Harjo’s range of vision; her work is feminist, political, and broadly engaged with the world.

There is a push in the academic community to showcase a new generation of indigenous poets, an effort which is admirable and overdue. The problem with that effort is that it tries to limit the style and range of the showcased poets in order to create the misimpression that all indigenous poets are writing the same kind of postmodern poetry that so many other poets are writing today.

An example of highlighting only poets with this limited esthetic is the June 2018 guest-edited “identity-based” issue of the venerable magazine Poetry. Except for some splendid innovative sonnets by Tacey M. Atsitty that open the issue, readers found only poets who rejected the rhythm and rhyme of William Jay Smith—and to a large extent rejected Smith’s accessibility to nonacademic readers.

Postmodernism tends to prefer that its poets be godless, so readers did not find poems with the passionate spirituality of Jo Harjo’s work. Postmodernism also values intellectual aloofness over clarity and emotion, so readers did not find many poems as accessible and propulsive as those of Sherman Alexie. In short, Smith, Harjo, and Alexie would have grave difficulty gaining acceptance into the emerging canon envisioned by today’s literary gatekeepers. Acceptance would require them to write in accordance with the current postmodern rules that guide these poets:

it lyked to eat salmon w/ its
fingers like a bear
and then use those fingers
to clean its glasses
it cried and it looked like a raccoon   I believe
it wanted to cultivate this look

                                  (“the bear and the salmon” by Julian
                                                   Talamantez Brolaski)

A heart is a physical object singing in the chest. Chamber doors
oxygenating blood rushing through. Salmon through river climb.
                                  (“Unpack Poetic” by Trevino L. Brings 
                                                  Plenty)

Fog spun into silk
         on the knee of the comptroller,
         propelled toward the crest of Ontario,
         the old, fade star, steambreath onto the windshield.

To orient in the finest sense
         of cackles, mute chrysanthemums,
         funneling inordinate nakedness,
         absorbed, absorbed, immediately absorbed.
                                              (“The Love Letter to the Future: A   
                           Book of the Land in Eight Acts” by Ishmael
                           Angaluuk Hope)

Except for a few epigraphs, the special issue of Poetry lacks translations—almost surely because traditional indigenous verse tends to rely on rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance, which are disfavored in the academy. More puzzlingly, most of the poems do not confront our gruesome national history except in a cursory way.

History and the poetry of the past were not the only casualties of this special issue. Readers found few poems that addressed issues of mixed heritage and mixed national allegiance, or struggles with bureaucracies that diminish lives. Perhaps most importantly, the guest editor appears to have screened out most poems on timeless topics that should be the property of all poets, such as love, family, faith, mortality, and redemption.

Jennifer Reeser was not included in the Poetry special issue. She is an award-winning poet anchored in the formal tradition of William Jay Smith, and is a translator of French, Russian, and Cherokee poetry. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Rattle, The Hudson Review and many other top journals. Her ancestry is majority indigenous, but not restricted to one tribe.

Reeser’s fifth book, Indigenous (Able Muse Press 2018), differs from her previous books in that it is as much a memoir as a collection of free-standing poems. In order to come to terms with her past and present, she immersed herself in history and languages, particularly Cherokee.  

Indigenous includes four Cherokee translations, all of which are rendered in the meter and rhyme denounced in the introduction to the Poetry special issue. The book also includes “One Un-delayed Way,” a cretic hymn made up entirely of sounds available in the Cherokee language and “To Lonely Lots,” a poem with the same tonal constraints.

Reeser’s poems often rework Native American myths and legends—beautifully and chillingly in this conclusion to “The Water Cannibals”:

Arise and string your bow, get dressed.
You saw them coming, all along.
Though black clouds blow out of the west,
these devils must be proven wrong.

Arise, get dressed, and string your bow
before Sun rises in the east—
unlike the dreamer dragged below,
who shall, in liquid, be their feast.

Reeser also does some retelling of historical events, but most of her retellings are personal. Indigenous rests on a foundation of poems about, to, and in the voice of her grandparents and great-grandparents. A few of these poems are so personal that they risk fencing out some readers. The majority of these poems, however, are quietly meditative and slowly paint a clear picture of the poet’s mental landscape

As Reeser’s historical roots become clearer, she wrestles with her identity in ways that the academy wants to assume away. “The Griffin” deals at length with her family’s strategies for “passing” as white:

No immigration papers, ship, nor plane
to prove some place of Anglo origin,
they took a fine Welsh surname, to explain
away the tawny, thickened, native skin…

That strategy did not prove to be entirely successful because a few pages later she describes Griffin family losses on The Trail of Tears in the villanelle “How Many Perished”:

They fell, and they were buried where they died.
How many Griffins perished on that trail?

While Reeser touches several times on The Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee, she also recounts other nineteenth-century history less likely to be familiar to readers in such poems as “The Civil Execution of Joshua Martin.” In addition, she takes on more recent painful history in “Weep with the Waters” and other poems that reflect her concerns about the environment.

For Reeser failed assimilation did not end two centuries ago. In the jarring “Between the Creek” genetic complexity leads to a mother-in-law’s unwarranted suspicions:

Between the Oklahoma Creek
And Cherokee, I lived my life,
Betrothed to Jesus Christ, but wed
The pale son of a preacher’s wife.

My ninth grandfather was so dark
And Powhatan, that “Black” became
For Trader Robert David, more
Familiar than his proper name.

So swarthy was my sweet first born—
A faded, copper, one-cent coin—
His father’s mother hinted that
He issued from a different loin.

This same sense of being trapped between two cultures reappears in “Half-breed” (“Each side has told me truth, while each has lied”), “Rinse My Sins” (“Pretend I am a blonde, full-blooded daughter”) and a number of the other poems in the second half of the book.

One of the book’s most striking poems, “Why the Cherokee Abandoned Privilege,” is fascinating as an account of the rise within the tribe of “a privileged sect/A-Ni Qua-Ta’-Ni.” This group concentrated and abused its power until frustrated members of the tribe rebelled and forced egalitarian reforms. Although this poem does not overtly comment on anything but history, it is hard to avoid sensing a subtext in this poem about the abuses by the new elites with new privileges in our society.

Jennifer Reeser is our indigenous poet following most closely in the footsteps of the great William Jay Smith. As the poetry of indigenous Americans receives overdue attention, it is important that we do not forget or ignore William Jay Smith, Jennifer Reeser, and other indigenous poets whose work does not conform to the postmodern esthetics of today’s rigid academics.