Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Weekend Read: Sherman Alexie

The Exaggeration of Despair

I open the door

(this Indian girl writes that her brother tried to hang himself
with a belt just two weeks after her other brother did hang himself

and this Indian man tells us that back in boarding school,
five priests took him into a back room and raped him repeatedly

and this homeless Indian woman begs for quarters, and when I ask
her about her tribe, she says she's horny and bends over in front of me

and this homeless Indian man is the uncle of an Indian man
who writes for a large metropolitan newspaper, and so now I know them both

and this Indian child cries when he sits to eat at our table
because he had never known his own family to sit at the same table

and this Indian woman was born to an Indian woman
who sold her for a six-pack and a carton of cigarettes

and this Indian poet shivers beneath the freeway
and begs for enough quarters to buy pencil and paper

and this fancydancer passes out at the powwow
and wakes up naked, with no memory of the evening, all of his regalia gone)

I open the door

(and this is my sister, who waits years for a dead eagle from the Park Service, receives it
and stores it with our cousins, who then tell her it has disappeared

though the feathers reappear in the regalia of another cousin
who is dancing for the very first time

and this is my father, whose own father died on Okinawa, shot
by a Japanese soldier who must have looked so much like him

and this is my father, whose mother died of tuberculosis
not long after he was born, and so my father must hear coughing ghosts

and this is my grandmother who saw, before the white men came,
three ravens with white necks, and knew our God was going to change)

I open the door
and invite the wind inside.

The Summer of Black Widows

I can no longer remember the book that I originally read this poem in. A Beacon anthology published by Beacon and edited by Edwidge Danticat? But it might actually have been in one of the Best American Poetry anthologies back when I used to look at them. In any case, it floored me. It still does. It reminds me a bit of that deadly story by Dorothy Allison called "River of Names". The story is a litany of trauma  when, as the narrator tries to deal with intimacy in her current relationship, she moves past through her childhood noting all of ways in which the children around her came to their deaths. She mistrusts simplicity. Goodness.

I'm not sure where I first encountered the Allison story, whether it was before or after Bastard Out of Carolina, for instance, but I taught it once, years ago, when I made the mistake of using Tobias Wolff's Vintage Book of Contemporary American Fiction in a workshop. Contributors include most of usual the heavy-hitters such as Mary Gaitskill, Tim O'Brien, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Mona Simpson, Ann Beattie, Jamaica Kincaid, Leonard Michaels, Jayne Anne Phillips, Dorothy Allison, and Richard Ford. It's an impressive collection. It's also depressing as hell taken as a whole. Both in terms of the content and in the conventional storytelling. Don't get me wrong: I love many (most actually), of these stories, and certainly think they are all worthy of being included in such a project, but as a whole, it's just depressing. Most of the stories are quite literally depressing. Story after story in which there is little to be joyful about. Not a lot of humour either. Some, not a lot. And though Wolff suggests there are divergent approaches, I think those differences are like the different pots at the Mr. Mike's salad bar. Different contents but you're still at Mr. Mikes, or Denny's, or whatever... You're still faced with the same little shivering display case.

But back to the Alexie poem, which as poems go, is quite a conventional one. It's a direct address, simply framed, one that like Allison's story, offers up suffering, apparently the poet and his people's suffering, for the readers consumption. The speaker stands at the door, and inviting the reader in,  offers an unwavering account in his listing. Doing so he doesn't quite demand empathy, but certainly earns it. It has a conventional lyric turn unwinding to the oh moment, but what is revealed certainly has more power than the usual quiet revelations. Unlike the Allison story there is humour in everything Alexie touches, and here we get it briefly, but I think effectively, in the old woman who bends over in front of the the strangeness of the details. In Allison's story the way children die becomes more and more surprising.

Thinking of this poem in relation to the reading last fall by Vanessa Place from Statement of Facts I wonder about the way conceptual writing deals with facts, how in working with the traces of the materiality of systems, and of excess, it soaks up such minor revelations into a motherlode of undeniable, and largely affectless, force. Seems to me that, like the lyric impulse, conceptual attempts to witness the singular by taking account of the sheer mass of material trace, and of the attempts we make to give account of ourselves: in courts of law, in newspapers, in testimony. It just doesn't want to do it on the personal level of the "I" as in "my experience", as Alexie does above, or filtering it consciously through the author in any case. Or at least not earnestly, or simply.

Of course, as Lisa Robertson has said, it's too late to be simple. Think about the way we think of the world now, and how we did twenty years ago. Much different. The revelations, the accumulations made over the past two decades make poems similar to the one above seem naive. I'm not saying  the poem above is naive. I think Alexie does more than gesture at connection, he actually does some of this work: opening the door and letting the bulk of suffering inside. So, no this poem isn't naive. (I think that many poems that attempt to do this are, but that's also not my point.) What I'm trying to think about is the scale. This is what seems quaint given what we are by now surely realizing we are being faced with: the sheer number of us, the escalation of human trauma, natural disasters, violent spectacles, and for better and worse, the increasing coverage of all these events that is now available to us. Globalization exaggerates everything out of scale. Alexie already knew this. 

I wonder, in the face of this, how various poetic voices--the lyric, the conceptual, the avant-garde, etc, deal with this compression of human experience, emotion, desire, and sorrow--as the world shrinks, and we are faced with so much? Aware of so much from the minutia of the banal to the catastrophic. We can't possibly take it all in. Which is why retreat is actually very compelling, and I for one, am constantly tempted by it (unplug, off-grid, rebuild the interior, bring on the irony, hell, any distancing devices...).

But I don't. And I don't because I feel that writing must help contextualize our experience of the world and as such one must face it. It must, as the speaker in Alexie's poem does, try to give voice, and to find away to inhabit the pain of being human. It must face it squarely. As he does, again and again in his work, with humour and grace. It must, perhaps, be a kind of breathing through, of embodying, that reminds us, yes, we can move through this. It's painful. And it passes. And it's painful, and it passes. And it's painful.

(Post updated 12:08 PM)

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