Native American Women’s Poetry
Working with the poems in this folio, I remembered the introduction to Reinventing the Enemy’s Language—an anthology of contemporary Native women’s writings of North America. There, Joy Harjo wrote, “The literature of the aboriginal people of North America defines America. It is not exotic. The concerns are particular, yet often universal. Anyone of these lands shares in the making of this literature, this history, these connections, these songs. It is a connection […] constructed of the very earth on which we stand.” Harjo wrote this in the 90s and I mused on how to introduce the works in this, Drunken Boat’s collection, now.
Then I thought about what Gertrude Stein said: “There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking […] what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything.”
So I wondered if this generation of poets, of Native American women, has something different at which they are looking.
I wondered how everybody is doing everything.
Then I delighted in Natalie Diaz’s proclamation, simply stated as, “We do. We do. We do and do and do.” And in the doings, I see the something at which these poets are looking: Wakpamni Lake, the vast numbness of Nebraska, the Ottawa county moon, a snowstorm in Flagstaff, silver sand by the Rio Grande, Canyon de Chelly, the Sangre de Cristos’ pink rim, the Rockies, low caves in Oklahoma mounds, smelt on a Pacific coast beach, the Alaskan tundra.
Further, I entered “the terrain of the in-between.” A café in a reservation border town, Starbuck’s, black lines and oil rigs at midnight, a museum of tribal dentistry, gasoline rainbows, milk streams pouring across the sky, milk in saltwater, blood in milk, a waterfall of blood pulling the planets to rotation, a Golgotha of shit, floods when the winters melted, guttered armadillos, the eardrum of a bowhead whale, a line of white birds, salt spray, damp black earth, an Indian jail, black bogs, the Shadow World, our Source, potholes, salty whirlpools, unforgiving rivers: America.
And it would be a travesty, at this point, not to mention Tucson Unified Public School District’s (TUSD) recent ban of ethnic studies and the subsequent removal of selected books authored by Chicano, Latino and Indigenous writers. I live in the same state—in northern Arizona on the Navajo Nation--and I’ll be honest, when I first heard about the ban, I struggled for a moment to take it seriously. I thought, it’s about Arizona’s extreme right-wing flexing their muscles. It’s over the top, an obvious sign of fear. It’s a parade of political wares—right? It’ll be quashed in no time—right? Greater powers will surely step in.
Yet as the first semester of the ban concludes and summer break approaches, my early conviction that this legislation will be quickly repealed wavers. My scoff and chortle shifts to a bang, a fist-slam on the table. What do I do?
I begin by turning to my touchstones, works by Indigenous writers to regain bearings. In Ocean Power, one of TUSD’s “outlawed” books, Ofelia Zepeda explains that in the Sonoran desert (surrounding Tucson), where temperatures soar above 110 degrees in the summer, the Tohono O’odham people “have no grand, colorful powwows and such social dancing. Instead, their dancing is quiet barefoot skipping and shuffling on dry dirt—movements that cause dust to rise quietly toward the atmosphere, dust that the people believe helps to form rain clouds.” So I consider the ideas that quiet is not the equivalent to silence; and grandiose, colorful shows are not requisite to powerful acts. I take heart that, now more than ever, the tincture of poetic works from Indigenous writers is potent medicine for this country.
And because this thing of poeming is made with the material of language, because English is shared yet there are approximately 175 Native languages in North America, because there exists a diversity rather than singularity of Native peoples, because I search for meanings derived through différance as Derrida proposed, I listen when Diane Glancy writes, “Out of the loss, some rubble to make things of—even language/took a hit but its subtle drowning can still be used.” I listen as Tanaya Winder writes about a woman on “the dirt-ridden floors of her former boarding/schools, where they taught make it new, make it/new. Words taught/by a man who wanted us to be modern. Maybe it was too difficult/to be real.”
I considered the différance between new and modern; contemporary and real. In the poem “Rain Scald,” Tacey Atsitty warns, “When you’ve been standing (in rain) so long, you no longer hear or feel it falling—you believe it’s stopped. Step away—“
Thus, I seized opportunities in this folio to “step away.” That is, to make the poems real by hearing and feeling. I literally stopped reading silently and sounded out consonants, vowels. I savored the vibration and vocalizing of Bááhadzid, Aakaa, Aġnaq, elltuwaq, esgarluni, niicugniluku, tangerlluku, tengluni, Nanih Waiya, inuas, Utqiagvik, chucsanych iraavtahanm, ‘avi kwa’anyay, ‘ava iiyaly kuupam, sumach nyamasav.
Soon, Joy Harjo’s words came echoing back. I embraced an understanding that these lines and languages, the writers and poems are not exotic—of foreign origin and strikingly strange; with bizarre allure. Rather, they are mappings of us all. At times, pins in the pressure points of a collective body. I confront their concerns, engage their conversation—
When a grasshopper lands in a man’s beard and Tria Andrews writes, “As long as no one notices, maybe it won’t be harmed,” I wince in a familiar childhood impulse to sink down into my chair, to hide my head. But that tension peels away when Jennifer Foerster asks, “Who named the map of you as ‘vanishing’?” As Lara Mann writes, “I’m not done with this past yet, can’t end it/and reemerge; my head is burning in shadow,” I intuit companionate lines from dg okpik’s poem: “Down under there was no sun until/the world turned over.” Or when Sara Ortiz speaks of “one more last bloody dream; all, all, not because of her love for him […] but for her and his, too, lack of food, medicine, & adequate light,” I hear a call-and-response from Kimberly Becker with, “Why not?/Dreams are not some passive passage.”
This collective, this dance, these songs, this celebration or mourning—by what name do I introduce these works? Or must I? I began with the first words from the first poem by Andrews: “On the Border—Looking for something local, but tired, hungry, lost…” And as I reached the last line of the last poem by Erika Wurth, I’d read, mused, wondered, considered, engaged, winced, delighted, vocalized—all this, in a very universal endeavor “to be born and born and born again.”