Just turned the last page on this intriguing, informative, and often unsettling book of poetry a moment ago. Two things to know. The first is that Layli Long Soldier is Oglala Lakota. Her “dual citizenship,” she says, is one in which “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” (57). [I must art, I must mother, I must friend—LOVE these verbs!!!] The second thing to know is that:
“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 Appropriation Act” (57).
You can read the Apology here. And if you go on to read Soldier’s book, you’ll notice that both the book’s title, Whereas, and the structure of the book’s second part (also titled “Whereas”) follow the structure of the congressional Apology. It’s a fascinating move because it reflects the problematic ways in which Native Americans have been forced to respond to U.S. legislation in the language of the legislator. So Soldier begins many of the poems in legalese:
“WHEREAS I tire. Of my effort to match the effort of the statement: ‘Whereas Native Peoples and non-Native settlers engaged in numerous armed conflicts in which unfortunately, both took innocent lives, including those of women and children’. I tire . . .” (74).
But anyone who teaches early American literature, or early literature of the Americas, knows that the stories indigenous to “this land” (“Resolutions,” §2, pg. 90—one of my favorite poems in the book) resist transcription. The stories are bardic, visual, and performative. So much narrative still belongs to the body.
Soldier draws attention to this linguistic impasse in §4 of “Resolutions.” Here’s a pic of that page.
It’s probably one of the shortest pieces in the book, but what an insight! She says, “in many Native languages, there is no word for ‘apologize’.” But this “doesn’t mean that in Native communities where the word ‘apologize’ is not spoken, there aren’t definite actions for admitting and amending wrongdoing” (92).
“Action” is the operative word, right? As in: action speaks louder than words? When Soldier blanks out the word “apologizes” from the congressional Apology, she is saying, Show me. It’s an amazing moment in the book. And as a teacher, it really gets me thinking about how best to study Native American literature. I feel like I really need to sit with this and explore beyond the methods I’ve learned in school.
In that respect, Whereas reminds me a lot of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which also presents itself—on the bookstore shelves—as poetry. But it’s definitely not poetry by any textbook definition. Much of it is rhetorical prose. Much of it is critical analysis. Much of it is theory and history and memoir and visual illustration. Much of it is exposition. Woven into this conceptual mosaic are attempts by the author to exceed the reach of language in order to express a feeling or desire or frustration that has no one-to-one counterpart in the quaint, but naive, vocabulary of happiness, sadness, madness, etc. This is when metaphor, poetic analogy, and image appear. And their appearances, if not “poetry” in any traditional sense, are unquestionably poetic.
I fell in love with poetry for the music of the language and the strangeness of its evocations. I’m a sucker for the iamb and a disciple of the spondee. So conceptual poetics, like Soldier’s and Rankine’s, have taken some getting used to. But they’ve also taught me how to consider texts of all kinds on their own terms. I remember Harold Bloom saying that he didn’t distinguish between Melville and Emerson and Stevens in terms of genre. For him, it was all poetry. But I don’t think he meant these were all the same in terms of craft. It is a bit confusing to conflate the two, but I think the word “poetry” for him was synonymous with literature of a particular quality—maybe? But I digress—definitely.