The woman at the Native American Cultural Center wears her Indian proudly. The earrings are turquoise but she is Creek, a member of the Cherokee Nation. You are harder to recognize. One grandfather who headed west two years before the state of dispossessed Chippewa formed their own federally recognized tribe. He left everything of his heritage behind. You came later, at a time without tribe, family, your Native tongue. You withstand the genealogy exercise, smile, tell what you know, apologize for what you do not. She is kind, she will embrace you, but she wants to know what kind of Indian you are first. This is both old and new. Lineage is important: blood lines define clans, delineate tribal communities. But blood quantum is new. Established by the government in 1934, it is one of many gifts of the Indian Reorganization Act whose purpose is to define membership, restrict recognition, effect the eventual termination of federally recognized tribes. It is how you end up being a fraction of. The rules not withstanding, the Creek woman introduces you to the others as if you are one of them. But when you leave the Center, by virtue of blood law, you are already disappeared.
I’m admittedly late to the game on Bay Area poet Aja Couchois Duncan, a poet I discovered thanks to BAX 2018 [see my review of such here], quickly moving to pick up a copy of her debut collection, RESTLESS CONTINENT (Brooklyn NY: Litmus Press, 2016). In RESTLESS CONTINENT, Duncan utilizes the short and long-forms of the poetic line and prose structures to focus on the minutae of, and responsibilities inherent to, language, culture and human interaction. “No language considers itself part of another.” she writes, to open the poem “GRAMMAR :”: “It is not just the / eyes or lips or the fault line cleaving muscle from earth, its bone.” In her piece “What Story Will Love You Like I Do?,” included in the anthology Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2004)—a book I’m a bit disappointed I missed her in (I know, I know: there were forty-eight contributors included, but still)—she wrote:
We know culture the same way we know the body; there are markers, symbols, rituals, events. And like the body, culture is multitudinous, discordant, beyond its disparate recordings.
The poems throughout this collection are exploratory, documenting the world from which she has emerged through pieces composed in a lyric sensibility both sensuous and rich. As she writes to open the poem “RECUSANT :”:
England has inspired many rebellions. Something about the dampness, the fog and stone. When the colonies threw off their master, the penchant for boiled potatoes remained. I do not worship in the Church of England, but I was baptized by the hands of its descendants. I can still name all of jesus’ disciples, describe every betrayal.
This is an absolutely remarkable book, debut or otherwise. Duncan’s poems are teeth and skin and gut and bone, writing desire and an alphabet cut with a sharp knife, taming what can’t be forced, writing out what shouldn’t become lost, and punching up into what can’t be reasoned with. Structured in ten sections of prose poems occasionally stretched into sequence, the book is focused into a series of stand-alone accumulations or broken down to the strength of each individual word. Duncan’s narrator feels very caught between the opposing sides of the legacies of colonialism against the North American aboriginal peoples, both of whom she can claim descent from, a binary she attempts to write her way through to at least comprehend, if not entirely achieve comfort in. As the poem “BAGIJIGAN :” writes:
Offering. I have only this. A life without footprints.
From the rooftop anything is possible. Free of ground and its gravities, there is no track of your departure. I found a book of two tongues from which I describe twilight. I too am this in-between thing.
Miziwekamig is not earth. It is adverb; it is strewn about and across. Aki is the name by which the earth is called in secret, what I would have whispered into the soft yield of your belly if you had remained. Now, alone, I could call the world akiiwan, this celestial body. To be gravity and mass, to cling to what you know. I would have given you this, my slippery tongue, but you were walking backward toward the edge of the rooftop. Beyond you was the emptieness of horizon, asphalt, another inamiate future self.