Layli Long Soldier, Whereas, Graywolf Press $16.00
The OED defines ‘whereas’ in a number of ways, including ‘Taking into consideration the fact that; seeing that, considering that. Chiefly & now only introducing a preamble in a legal or other formal document’. It also defines it as ‘Introducing a statement of fact in contrast or opposition to that in the main clause’. This latter meaning is the ‘usual’ usage of ‘whereas’ as introducing a subordinate clause. Long Soldier in this long book, it runs to 100 pages, plays with both of these meanings. She establishes those meanings in a very careful context for the ‘poems’ in the book. ‘Poems’ in inverted commas because the range of typographical devices in the book often turns the texts in ‘concrete poetry’. And a very careful context for the texts because Long Soldier introduces the ‘Whereas’ section of the book by reminding the reader that ‘Barack Obama signed the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans’ with no witnesses or recipients from the tribal nations. She goes on to declare that she is ‘an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation’. It needs to be mentioned here, that these statements occur roughly halfway through the book. So, although the texts of book sit within that context, the texts never drift into agitprop. However, this is certainly poetry with an agenda.
The first half of the book is called ‘Concerns’. In this section, Long Soldier links, with considerable deftness, landscape and the language which describes it. Some of these poems are a kind of exegesis of the way tribal names relate not only to the naming of the place but also to the very experiencing of these places. The opening poem, ‘Ȟe Sápa’ begins with this sentence ‘Ȟe is a mount as hé is a horn that comes from a shift in the river, throat to mouth. Followed by sápa, a kind of black sleek in the rise of both.’ Thus, Long Soldier brings a beguiling density to the writing, shifting the content through a number of subject areas quickly and skilfully. The writing moves through concrete things through to the interestingly metaphorical ‘black sleek’, all the while pulling the reader almost into the debate Long Soldier is creating in the texts. The poem continues, ‘Remember. Ȟe Sápa’ is not a black hill, not Pahá Sápa, by any name you call it. When it lives in the past tense, one would say it was not Red Horn either; was not a rider on horse on mount and did not lead a cavalry down the river and bend, not decoy to ambush and knee buckle’. Thus Long Soldier mixes language knowledge with history and place, and the deft moving between registers with the formality of ‘one would say’.
One of Long Soldier’s central concerns is the displacement of language. As we have seen, this can be a technical working with grammar. But also with the guying of the legalise of the congressional resolution. This concern with displacement is the cause of a number of the typographical displacements in the texts. Some of which, unfortunately, it is impossible to reproduce here. The sequence called ‘Diction’ has texts with words and phrases struck through. Long Soldier is also fond of texts with lines and phrases which are broken at the line ending. One such has the lines all right-justified: ‘Plains Indi-/til 1890, when a//Wounded Knee. By/left in the continen-/on at the time the/By way of contrast, /were still coming. By /Knee, the population of’. And I apologise to the poet for my reproducing her words in this way. In the hands of someone else, such ‘concrete poetry’ might seem tricksy and/or sentimental. And occasionally, Long Soldier moves into metalanguage about her attitudes to, and construction of the language. But throughout this extensive book, Long Soldier uses the typography to make much of this material deeply moving.
This wresting of language is present throughout the second, ‘Whereas’, section of the book. As noted above, this section is a kind of riffing on the formality of the language used to frame legislation around the tribal peoples of the United States. Much of this is a blisteringly sarcastic reframing of that language to show just how inadequate is the legal response to the history and needs of those tribal peoples. However, Long Soldier is entirely capable of working in other registers. She describes her daughter picking up ‘new habits from friends’; one result being that when she runs and trips, the child gets, ‘Deep red streams/ down her arms and legs, trails on white tile’. Long Soldier’s daughter’s response to this is to feign a grin. To which the mother’s reply is, ‘Stop, my girl. If you’re hurting, cry.’, to which the child responds by ‘let[ting] it out, a flood from living room to bathroom.’ Then later, the mother reminds the child, ‘in our home in our family we are ourselves, real feelings. Be true.’(Long Soldier’s italics). Thus, Long Soldier is able not only to reveal a family dynamic but couch it in a way which seems direct, without sentiment to the reader, and without betraying the life of the child. And also juxtaposing that legal response to nationhood with the humanities which such legislation may trample on.
Whereas is a book which seems a complete entity. Sometimes such a carefully constructed book seems stifling and monolithic, particularly a book of poems where felicitous juxtaposition creates resonance throughout a complete book. But the weight and heft of this book transcends that construction.
by Ian Pople