Saturday, March 11, 2017

Layli Long Soldier, Whereas

When I want to write seriously I think of people like
dg for whom I wrote a long poem for whom I revised
until the poem forgot its way back troubled I let it go when
you love something let it go if it returns be a good mother
father welcome the poem open armed pull out the frying
pan grease it coat it prepare a meal
apron and kitchen sweat labor
my love and sleeves pushed
to elbows like the old days a sack
of flour and keys I push them
typography and hotcakes work
seduce a poem into believing
I can home it I can provide it
white gravy whatever the craving
poem eat and lie down full
poem rest here full don’t
lift a single l
etter. (“Vaporative”)

I’m a stunned by Santa Fe, New Mexico poet Layli Long Soldier’s remarkable Whereas (Graywolf, 2017), a book of lyric revolt, resistance and argument; moreso stunned for the fact that this is Soldier’s debut, a stunningly smart and fearless collection of poems that “confronts the coercive language of the United States government in its responses, treaties, and apologies to Native American peoples and tribes, and reflects that language in its officiousness and duplicities back on its perpetrators.” There is both an ease and a heft to Soldier’s lyrics, stating clearly and resolutely her terms of resolution without aggression, but as an absolute, incredible and clear-eyed force. The terms of her resistance are many, and powerful.

A poem about writing, bo-ring. Says my contemporary artistic companionate, a muscular observation and I agree. A poem about writing poems, how. Boring as it is, it asks me to do. I couldn’t any other thing tonight. I sat I wrote about writing. I write I sit about writing. I’m about to write about it, writing and sitting. I will write and sit with my writing.

Defamiliarize your writing then, somebody says okay I’m not sitting then I say to somebody. I’m chewing at a funeral and. I’m nibbling my pulp knuckles. I’m watching a man with a stain on his. Pants always wrinkle in this heat, gnats and humidity. I walk to the front pew to make a lewd, joke. I regard laughter from the man in the. Pants are always honest I mean really heavy at a summer burial. Yet he doesn’t ever cry, the stained man, why. When I observe nothing (unusual) I do nothing (unusual) in response. New or novel. Real lit relics on these occasions. In ritual: nobody’s learning, true. And to lewd is dumb, likewise. Like the way I put up my dukes when I observe the cowboy kneel. He’s praying he’s asking. He doesn’t see me, my gesture’s futile. What am I doing here, writing. What am I doing here righting the page at funerals. (“Vaporative”)

I’m obviously far more aware of examples of contemporary poetry of resistance on the Canadian side of the border, so there aren’t nearly as many examples of American contemporary poets and poetry titles of resistance; as Canadian poets Christine Leclerc and Stephen Collis have composed work in resistance to the Northern Gateway Pipeline, Soldier’s Whereas exists in solidarity with a series of historical and contemporary crises, from “the fate of the Dakota 38, hanged for the Sioux Uprising of 1862” to the recent protests over the building of an oil pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation. Her introduction to the title section of the book, which exists as the second half of Whereas, speaks better than I on what she is doing:

On Saturday, December 19, 2009, US President Barack Obama signed the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans. No tribal leaders or official representatives were invited to witness and receive the Apology on behalf of tribal nations. President Obama never read the Apology aloud, publicly—although, for the record, Senator Sam Brownback five months later read the Apology to a gathering of five tribal leaders, though there are more than 560 federally recognized tribes in the US. The Apology was then folded into a larger, unrelated piece of legislation called the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act.

My response is directed to the Apology’s delivery, as well as the language, crafting, and arrangement of the written document. I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation—and in this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.

In many ways, as she composes utilizing the language of the oppressor in response, turning the tables, Soldier’s work could also be seen in relation to some of the work Jordan Abel has been doing in his own series of reclamation projects, from his poetry titles Injun (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2016), The Place of Scraps (Talonbooks, 2013) and Un/inhabited (Talonbooks/Project Space Press, 2014), engaged in his own conversations attached to Idle No More and Truth and Reconciliation, and Language/Conceptual Poetries. The title poem/section to Soldier’s Whereas is composed utilizing the flavour of legal language (akin to that of the Apology), twisting it back against the original document:

WHEREAS I did not desire in childhood to be a part of this but desired most of all to be a part. A piece combined with others to make up a whole. Some but not all of something. In Lakoka it’s hanké, a piece or part of anything. Like the creek trickling behind my aunt’s house where Uncle built her a bridge to cross from bank to bank, not far from a grassy clearing with three tipis, a place to gather. She holds three-day workshops on traditional arts, young people from Kyle and Potato Creek arrive one by one eager to participate. They have the option my auntie says to sleep at home and return in the morning but by and large they’ll stay and camp even during South Dakota winters. The comfort of being together. I think of Plains winds snow drifts ice and limbs the exposure and when I slide my arms into a wool coat and put my hand to the door knob, ready to breave the sub-zero dark, someone says be careful out there always consider the snow your friend. Think badly of it, snow will burn you. I walk out remembering that for millennia we have called ourselves Lakota meaning friend or ally. This relationship to the other. Some but not all, still our piece to everything;

If this book doesn’t win at least half the awards, there is something terribly, terribly wrong.

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