Finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry
WHEREAS her birth signaled the responsibility as mother to teach what it is to be Lakota therein the question: What did I know about being Lakota? Signaled panic, blood rush my embarrassment.
Finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry
WHEREAS her birth signaled the responsibility as mother to teach what it is to be Lakota therein the question: What did I know about being Lakota? Signaled panic, blood rush my embarrassment. What did I know of our language but pieces? Would I teach her to be pieces? Until a friend comforted, Don't worry, you and your daughter will learn together. Today she stood sunlight on her shoulders lean and straight to share a song in Dine, her father's language. To sing she motions simultaneously with her hands; I watch her be in multiple musics.
--from "WHEREAS Statements"
WHEREAS confronts the coercive language of the United States government in its responses, treaties, and apologies to Native American peoples and tribes, and reflects that language in its officiousness and duplicity back on its perpetrators. Through a virtuosic array of short lyrics, prose poems, longer narrative sequences, resolutions, and disclaimers, Layli Long Soldier has created a brilliantly innovative text to examine histories, landscapes, her own writing, and her predicament inside national affiliations. "I am," she writes, "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." This strident, plaintive book introduces a major new voice in contemporary literature.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-12-19
- Reviewer: Staff
Keep in mind, I am not a historian// So I will recount facts as best I can, given limited resources and understanding, writes Long Soldier, a 2016 Whiting Award winner, in her formally ambitious and gut-wrenching debut collection. Long Soldier may not be a historian, but she gives a vivid account of the realities of life as a Native American mother, unfurling a series of poems that relate the duplicitous behavior of the U.S. government toward indigenous peoples. Her poem recounting the fate of the Dakota 38, hanged for the Sioux Uprising of 1862 in the largest legal mass execution in US history, serves as a microcosm for and a focal point of the collection. Long Soldier leans heavily on the legal speak and congressional language of apologies and broken treaties that mark out centuries in sorry. Employing discrete lyric, conceptual, and concrete forms; extended sequences; and sprawling prose series, she asks, how do I language a collision arrived at through separation? The work is difficult for its often stark, dispassionate language as well as the heaviness of the feeling that refuses to be stifled by the means of delivery. Long Soldier underscores how centuries of legal jargon have decimated peoples, their voices, and their languages: Although I often feel lost on this trail, I know I am not alone. (Mar.)
Women poets who challenge boundaries
Offering invaluable perspectives on gender, politics and life on the domestic front, these four diverse poets work in a range of styles to create work that’s moving and deeply personal.
Channeling the quick-change nature of contemporary experience, Morgan Parker’s intoxicating There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé is both an of-the-moment book and a collection for the ages. In aggressive poems packed with pop-culture references, Parker explores her identity as a black woman, often writing without the constraints imposed by punctuation. The freedom gives her work a sense of breathless, unchecked urgency.
From Beyoncé to Michelle Obama, Parker invokes a gallery of cultural icons as she probes the nature of African-American womanhood. “Will I accidentally live forever / And be sentenced to smile at men / I wish were dead,” she writes in “The President’s Wife.”
Filled with mid-stanza mood shifts, the poems track the movement of Parker’s mind, flying high on a cloud of grown-up sophistication one moment (“records curated to our allure, incense, unconcern”), then telling the world to go to hell (“I don’t give any / shits at all . . .”). “I live somewhere imaginary,” Parker writes. That place, the reader suspects, is poetry.
Afro by Morgan Parker
I’m hiding secrets and weapons in there: buttermilk
pancake cardboard, boxes of purple juice, a magic word
our Auntie Angela spoke into her fist & released into
hot black evening like gunpowder or a Kool, 40 yards of
cheap wax prints, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a Zulu
folktale warning against hunters drunk on Polo shirts and
Jägermeister, blueprints for building ergonomically perfect
dancers & athletes, the chords to what would have been
Michael’s next song, a mule stuffed with diamonds & gold,
Miss Holiday’s vocal chords, the jokes Dave Chapelle’s
been crafting off-the-grid, sex & brown liquor intended
for distribution at Sunday Schools in white suburbs, or in
other words exactly what a white glove might expect to
find taped to my leg & swallowed down my gullet & locked
in my trunk & fogging my dirty mind & glowing like
treasure in my autopsy
Excerpted from the poetry collection There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé published by Tin House Books. © 2017 Morgan Parker.
A POISED DEBUT
Layli Long Soldier creates a work of dignity and power from the seed of a single word in the haunting collection WHEREAS. A member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, Long Soldier draws upon the bureaucratic language of the U.S. government—specifically that of the 2009 congressional apology to Native Americans—using the term “whereas” as the foundation for an extended cycle of poems that includes brief, concrete pieces and lengthy prose narratives. Tension simmers beneath the surface as she reflects on her culture, sense of identity and family: “Whereas her birth signaled the responsibility as mother to teach what it is to be Lakota, / therein the question: what did I know about being Lakota?”
In ways that feel fresh and innovative, she plays with word patterns and typography to produce poems that appeal to the eye as well as the intellect. She can stop the reader cold with a stunning image, as in “Steady Summer,” when “two horseflies love-buzz / a simple humid meeting / motorized sex in place.” Long Soldier is such an assured, versatile poet that it’s difficult to believe this is her debut.
Pastoral poems typically celebrate the beauty of the great outdoors—Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” is a classic example—but for Rebecca Dunham, the pastoral tradition’s benign portrayal of humans at one with nature is no longer valid. She upends the tradition in Cold Pastoral, an urgent collection inspired in part by her research into the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Dunham interviewed oil rig workers, oystermen and others affected by the spill, and she incorporates their stories into poems such as “To Walk on Air,” in which crew members jump from the burning rig: “. . . feet cycling air. / Their boots / pierce cloud as they crash / into a sea stirred to wildfire.” For the men in “Pump Room,” the earth is “a blue balloon,” the bit of the oil drill “a pin pushed / as far as it can go, until—everything / that could go wrong was going / wrong.”
Filled with images of desolate beauty, Cold Pastoral does the important work of bearing witness. In “Black Horizon,” Dunham writes of “dark / pools oiling sands of blinding / white”—a vision that “never fails to shock.” Dunham’s work preserves and reminds us of that shock at a time when we can’t afford to forget.
Hard Child, the second collection from award-winning poet Natalie Shapero, is a book of abrasive beauty. Detached and Plath-like, Shapero’s approach can be clinical at times, and many of her poems seem cold and removed. Yet she creates connections with the reader through the use of black humor and unexpected rhyme and wordplay.
In first-person poems that often portray the narrator as an outsider, Shapero explores motherhood, gender and history. In “Secret Animal,” she writes, “I would rather / eat straight from the cup of my palm, as / though I’m my own secret animal: fed / from the far side of a link fence, trusted / in spite of warnings.” For the poet, everyday experience is often spiked with menacing signifiers. In “Monster,” a new baby outfit reminds the speaker of the jacket a child wore in Schindler’s List, inspiring a bleak consideration of the past.
Shapero’s poetic voice is at once irascible and appealing, cynical and comical. It’s a tone she employs without isolating her audience—one of the many pleasures to be found in this engaging collection.