Adrian Louis, too, writes of a "people beyond definition" ("notes from Indian Country" 3), but his characters are more dead-ended, without the resilience and bemused detachment that give Alexie's characters the color and dimension of folk heros. Louis himself is a thorny, passionate presence, at once angry at his people, angry on their behalf, and very much a part of them. In other words, he speaks as both an observer and a prime example of a condition, as both the accuser and the accused. His voice rings through this collection as it did in his previous one, Fire Water World, with perverse vitality: "I am the untrainable dog that bites / all he sees and stains all the rugs of the world," he says in "Degrees of Hydrophobia" (64). In this collection Louis makes a little more peace with his people and his origins, if peace can be understood as an acknowledgement of a ragged sort of love, and of the immutability of his own difficult "fire-water" self.
This is an extract from a review of five books of poetry, published in the Kenyon Review, XV, #3. The other books reviewed were South America Mi Hija by Sharon Doubiago, The Business of Fancy Dancing by Sherman Alexie, At The Helm of Twilight by Anita Endrezze, and The Ice Lizard by Judith Johnson.
Whereas Alexie's book has metaphysical overtones, Louis's has elegiac ones as it relentlessly depicts the bleak landscapes, both inner and outer, that characterize life in and around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, near the Nebraska border. He describes the reservation itself as "the land that time forgot . . .," a "sad, welfare world . . .," where "wind from the Badlands brings / a chorus of chaos and makes everything dirty" ("Dust World" 17). What lies outside it offers no salvation:
- each outskirt
without fail gives the illusion
of white high-rise towers
into the constant disappointment
of dirt-hand grain elevators
surrounded by squat lack of vision
and skewed midwestern boredom.
This is the real world of rednecks.
("A Funeral Procession of One" 60)
Against this backdrop, the inhabitants of Pine Ridge simply grow in on themselves, giving themselves over to liquor and doggedly surviving as their own worst enemies. Although several poems in this collection mourn specific wrongs committed against Native Americans in the nineteehth century, the majority ring out as Louis's indictments against himself and his tribe1, simply telling it like it is in the present-day scheme of things:
|We struggle against|
|We live in a world of denial|
|We live in a world of denial|
|Our race is puffy, uneducated|
|and waiting to die,|
|I tell my old lady|
|as we drive the three miles|
|to White Clay, Nebraska|
|to buy the medicine|
|of tolerance and bravery.|
("Friday Night at White Clay" 48)
Louis seems always to be running a finger across a hot blade in these poems, turning his pain and anger into a vitalizing force that bears witness to, and protests against, the devitalized world of his people. It is a world where liquor is a constant adversary and salvation, where even the most beautiful Indian girls have rotten teeth, and the neighbor's yards are filled "with the flotsam / of American advertising: used Pampers, dead cars, punctured tires, and empty beer cans . . ." (Notes from Indian Country" 3). The Sioux Nation Shopping Center sells "greasy green hamburger" (2), and the Indian college where he finds himself in the absurd profession of teaching sentence and paragraph structure is "run by white UFO's who pull strings / of visionless Indian administrators" (4). The whites who have infiltrated this world range from naive do-gooders and "wannabees" to deadly "long distance killers with college degrees" who drop "`smart bombs' on dumb women and children . . ." ("Red Blues in a White Town the Day We Bomb Iraqi Women and Children" 83). The real bite of Louis's bitterness, however, settles on the red man for his complicity in his own demise:
- These white men strut into our lives
with invisible robes.
Their imaginary halos encircle our throats
until we look like those African women
in National Geographic
with stretched necks.
We like their credo of dominion.
We gratefully accept the results: knives
into our wives, children
dumped along the highway and refrigerators
lined with government cheese.
Yes, we know what is best and stage the old ways
unaware of our blasphemy
unaware of our Grandfather snickering.
("Sometimes a Warrior Comes Tired" 35)
Liquor is a recurring emblem in these poems - as it is in Alexie's - of the impulse toward dream and self-destruction, and also of the craziness that gives Louis his ambivalent sense of identity. In a series of poems at the end of the collection, he writes of moving out of the reservation, a move which in the white world would be applauded as progress toward sobriety and self-improvement. And indeed Louis has sought self-improvement on terms of his own, as he refers in several poems to his efforts and resolve as a recovering alcoholic. Yet his move from the reservation and all it represents is a numbing respite from strong feeling, from a wildness which, like the liquor he constantly longs for, both nourishes and depletes him. From a white house in a redneck Nebraska town he writes, "I have murdered an inner conflict. / I have no anger, no remorse / and the white world / can just sit on my face / if it wants to" ("Breakfast at Big Bat's Conoco Convenience Store in Pine Ridge" 81). But we know this is only a tired warrior talking, and that his exhaustion is only one side of the balance. In the final poem he vows, "We're moving back to the reservation / soon when we grow weary of sanity" ("Small Town Noise" 84).
Finally it is a kind of insanity that Louis embraces as necessary to a maintenance of vital boundaries within himself - thorny barbed-wire boundaries hold him intact even as they tear at the skin. He never pays the homage to his tribe1 that Alexie pays to his beautiful cousin, but he does pay homage to his condition as a Native American, showing his strength as witness and survivor in poem after poem, but especially in this image from "Burning Trash One Sober Night:
- driving the reservation . . .
I saw the white man's green
winter wheat slice up through remnant snows.
An arrogant and sex-starved skunk
driven by early spring weather
danced into the gaping jaws of my T-Bird.
Well-perfumed, I drove in balance,
on the red road toward
the rest of my life. (38)
© 1993 Leslie Ullman