Sunday, April 02, 2006

Sunday Poet: Sherman Alexie

What the Orphan Inherits


I dreamed I was digging your grave
with my bare hands. I touched your face
and skin fell in thin strips to the ground

until only your tongue remained whole.
I hung it to smoke with the deer
for seven days. It tasted thick and greasy

sinew gripped my tongue tight. I rose
to walk naked through the fire. I spoke
English. I was not consumed.


I do not have an Indian name.
The wind never spoke to my mother
when I was born. My heart was hidden

beneath the shells of walnuts switched
back and forth. I have to cheat to feel
the beating of drums in my chest.


"For bringing us the horse
we could almost forgive you
for bringing us whisky."


We measure time leaning
out car windows shattering
beer bottles off road signs.


Indian boys
sinewy and doe-eyed
frozen in headlights.

Some biography from the Academy of American Poets:

Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, was born in 1966 on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. He received his B.A. in American studies from Washington State University in Pullman. His books of poetry include One Stick Song (Hanging Loose, 2000), The Man Who Loves Salmon (1998), The Summer of Black Widows (1996), Water Flowing Home (1995), Old Shirts & New Skins (1993), First Indian on the Moon (1993), I Would Steal Horses (1992), and The Business of Fancydancing (1992). He is also the author of several novels and collections of short fiction including Ten Little Indians (Grove Press, 2003); The Toughest Indian in the World (2000); Indian Killer (1996); Reservation Blues (1994), which won the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award; and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), which received a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Among his other honors and awards are poetry fellowships from the Washington State Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts and a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award.

Alexie and Chris Eyre wrote the screenplay for the movie Smoke Signals, which was based on Alexie's short story "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona." The movie won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998 and was released internationally by Miramax Films. He is also a three-time world heavyweight poetry slam champion. Alexie lives with his wife and son in Seattle, Washington.
I first met Sherman Alexie at a poetry reading in Seattle, in 1997. At the time, he was the rising star of the Seattle literary scene, soon to break at the national level with a rave review of his poetry in New York Times Book Review.

Over the next couple of years, he gave readings from Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and from Reservation Blues in the bookstore where I worked. He was young, brilliant, and angry. He took joy in ridiculing upper middle class white women who held the stereotypical view of Native Americans: wise indian or drunken indian.

I enjoyed his anger at that time in my life, because I was angry, too -- just for different, less noble reasons. But even more, I envied the ease with which he produced new work -- not just good poems, but brilliant poems, amazing poems, poems that could tear out your heart or lift your soul.

His short stories were even better, especially that first collection. The novels were good, but nothing compared to the poems and short stories.

I sensed in his work then, and still feel it now, that poetry is healing for him. He filters the myths and stories of his tribe, of his region, and of his nation through language in a way that offers healing for the pain beneath so many of the experiences.

He is not just an "indian poet" or a Pacific Northwest poet. He is an American poet. His visions are American visions. Good, bad, and otherwise.

Little Big Man

I got eyes, Jack, that can see
an ant moving along the horizon
can pull four bottles shattering
down from the sky and recognize
the eyes of a blind man

who told me once, The future is yours
and I believed him until he left me
without a campfire, without an axe
to chop down a tree and build myself
a chair, house, cold drink.

Jack, how much pain is there
in the world? I think there's only one kind
and we all keep moving around it in circles
like clumsy pioneers, over the same ground
until the landscape becomes so familiar
we settle down and call it home.

Seems like everybody wants to be an Indian.
Why should you be any different, Jack?
Still, when you rub the red dirt off your pale nose
your little insanities vanish.
Listen: the proof is glass.
When an Indian looks through a window
it's like a mirror. When the Indian looks
into a mirror, it's like a window.

I know you have dreams, Jack. We all want
an acre of land, love, and a full stomach.
Without that, we couldn't listen to the wind
without anger. But I've been sitting in a cold room
watching stars through a hole in the roof.
That bright star to the north doesn't have a name
I know. Like everything else, it will break my heart.

There aren't too many of Alexie's poems available on the web. Here are a few resources.

Slipstream Press: Four poems from I would Steal Horses
Modern American Poetry page on Sherman Alexie
Alexie links on the web, includes poems, essays, and audio.
Sherman Alexie's homepage.

One more poem (I decreased the font to try to keep the couplets together, but the lines are too long):
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.


Umguy said...

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is an amazing book. One of the best short story collections I've ever lucked into buying.

Thanks for the poems and the links.

Anonymous said...

I really liked the poem exaggeration of despair and said alot of what people go threw today.