By Layli Long Soldier
101 pp. Graywolf Press. Paper, $16.
The American poet Layli Long Soldier's debut collection, "Whereas,"
is in part a response to the Congressional resolution of apology
to Native Americans, which President Obama signed in obscurity in
2009. There were no Native Americans present to receive the apology,
as most never knew an apology was made. In an introduction to the
title poem, Long Soldier writes: "My response is directed to the
apology's delivery, as well as the language, crafting and arrangement
of the written document." She is referring at least to the disclaimer
that renders the document's admissions of crimes null in legal matters.
It can be argued she is referring to a more general language exercised
in American documents, including American poetry. "Whereas" is an
excavation, reorganization and documentation of a structure of language
that has talked the United States through its many acts of violence.
This book troubles our consideration of the language we use to carry
our personal and national narratives.
In the same introduction, Long Soldier writes: "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."
Long Soldier's affirmation as a dual citizen is important considering
the less than rigorous practice of American literary criticism's
strategic and diminishing valuation of a writer's "racial" or "ethnic"
identity as part of or in place of a writer's craft. She is usually
referred to first as a Lakota or Oglala Sioux poet, as one might
be called a concrete or experimental poet. A distinguished black
poet recently told me, "Many people have written about what I write
about, but none have written about how I've done it." Long Soldier
is aware of the American tradition of reading a racial or ethnic
identity, especially an indigenous language, as an art form. She
has built a poetics that refuses those boundaries, even when she
engages with her Lakota identity. Her literary lineage is wide and
demanding. "Whereas" is in deep conversation with the work of M.
NourbeSe Philip, bpNichol and Gertrude Stein, as well as indigenous
works like Zitkala-Sa's "Impressions of an Indian Childhood," Joy
Harjo's "Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings," Ofelia Zepeda's "Ocean
Power: Poems From the Desert" and Simon J. Ortiz's "From Sand Creek."
The aching poem at the heart of "Whereas," "38," recounts the
"largest 'legal' mass execution" in United States history: the hanging
of 38 Dakota men, ordered by our still-lauded president "Honest"
Abe Lincoln days before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
In this poem, grammatically correct sentences reveal and bear the
burdens of Long Soldier's poetic endeavor. "38" begins with the
following lines: "Here, the sentence will be respected. / I will
compose each sentence with care, by minding what the rules of writing
dictate." And further down: "Also, historical events will not be
dramatized for an 'interesting' read. / Therefore, I feel most responsible
to the orderly sentence; conveyor of thought."
This harks back to the grammatical precision of the "apology"
and how it was crafted to avoid any physical expense. By the end
of "38," Long Soldier has problematized the correctness of the sentence,
revealing the violent capacity of language and the country whose
mouth it fills:
When the Dakota people were starving, as you may remember,
government traders would not extend store credit to "Indians."
One trader named Andrew Myrick is famous for his refusal
to provide credit to Dakota people by saying, "If they are hungry,
let them eat grass."
There are variations of Myrick's words, but they are
all something to that effect.
When settlers and traders were killed during the Sioux
Uprising, one of the first to be executed by the Dakota was
When Myrick's body was found,
his mouth was stuffed with grass.
I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors
I read "Whereas" alongside a book called "Architecture After
Revolution" (2013) while in Palestine with a group of international
writers traveling daily across the borders between Israel and the
West Bank. "Whereas" was in my bag and on my mind while navigating
the psychological and physical experiences of Israeli occupation
of Palestine, which were recognizable to me, having grown up at
Fort Mojave, a military fort turned reservation. It is easy to forget
that America is an occupied land unless you are familiar with the
hundreds of treaties made between the United States government and
over 560 federally recognized indigenous tribes across our nation.
"Architecture After Revolution" belongs to a collection of projects
envisioned by the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency in the
Palestinian desert town of Beit Sahour, which describes its work
as "the radical condition of architecture at the moment of decolonization
the very moment that power has been unplugged, when old uses
are gone and new uses not yet defined." Likewise, Long Soldier's
poems are radical in structure and constraint. The white spaces
in her poems are not felt as absence but are generative, each as
intentionally shaped and as sonic as her text, as with Section 3
from "?e Sápa," a visual poem in the vein of Nichol and a
semantic playground echoing Stein, laid out on the page in a square,
with each line representing one side: "This is how you see me the
space in which to place me / The space in me you see is this place
/ To see this space see how you place me in you / This is how to
place you in the space in which to see."
Rather than subverting any particular structure, Long Soldier
is leaping into new "not yet defined" spaces. "Whereas" challenges
the making and maintenance of an empire by transforming the page
to withstand the tension of an occupied body, country and, specifically,
an occupied language. Indigenous languages are an integral part
of the American lexicon though their systematic silencing continues
today; there is no American Arts and Letters without their inclusion.
The English-only power structure that once disguised American poetry
is shifting, shaped by a generation of poets, Long Soldier among
them, imagining their heritage languages and image systems as part
of a complex linguistic and literary tradition. In "Whereas," this
includes acknowledging writing as a visual act in forms that take
on physical boundaries like footnotes, brackets and stitching, disrupted
prose blocks, poems shaped and fragmented like long blades of grass,
or a poem shaped like a hammer or a box. Long Soldier reminds readers
of their physical and linguistic bodies as they are returned to
language through their mouths and eyes and tongues across the fields
of her poems.
John Berger, in the essay "Once in a Poem," describes poetry
as both crossing battlefields and tending the battles' wounded.
He believes poems "bring a kind of peace. Not by anesthesia or easy
reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been
experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been." Though the
Congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans is void
of any gestures signaling sincere repair, "Whereas" ensures that
this grief, this absence, will be given presence, be given a body
to wonder: "If I'm transformed by language, I am often / crouched
in footnote or blazing in title. / Where in the body do I begin."
Natalie Diaz is the author of a poetry collection, "When My
Brother Was an Aztec."