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Native Voices: Bridging Time, Space, Culture, and Languages

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Native Voices: Indigenous American Poetry, Craft and Conversations
Edited by CMarie Fuhrman and Dean Rader
Tupelo Press, 2019, $29.95 [paper], 978-1-946482-18-1
521 pages
Reviewed by Jennifer Key

CMarie Fuhrman’s and Dean Rader’s new contribution to literary studies, Native Voices: Indigenous American Poetry, Craft and Conversations, is a wonderful, vast, and eye-opening anthology containing the work of forty-four Indigenous American poets. One of its strengths is its wide-ranging repertoire, culling the best poets from different regions, styles, topics, and time periods. The widely-read Louise Erdrich, Simon Ortiz, Joy Harjo, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Linda Hogan are here, as well new vital voices like Sherwin Bitsui, Craig Santos Perez, and Jennifer Foerster, as well as others writers who might be a discovery to some. Loosely chronological, Native Voices begins with Carter Revard, born in 1931 and “one of the great elder statesmen of Indigenous literary studies,” and culminates with Layli Long Soldier, born in 1972 and winner of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award for her collection Whereas. It is a testament to the poets and editors that the content feels fresh and urgent. Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Poem for Myself and Mei: Concerning Abortion” is as relevant today as it was in 1981 when it first appeared in her collection Storyteller.

Native Voices features a preface and introductions by both Fuhrman and Rader. Their introductions for each author identify major dates and literary works as well as tribal memberships. The editors also include a brief sketch of each poet in the anthology’s projects and thematic concerns. So thorough and insightful were these additions, the only thing I missed was an index, though that is a small quibble indeed. More than making up for any missing index are the poets’ individual ars poeticas written in prose and addressing literary influences. Occasionally, the poets will supply another poet’s much-admired poem. Audre Lord, Robert Frost, and Delmore Schwartz are three of the non-native poets who serve as muses. Through such varied inclusions, this anthology unveils layers of influence that span much of . For readers who consider themselves educated in modern American poetry, Native Voices still provides a unique and capacious education.

Of particular interest are Leslie Marmon Silko, Carter Rivard, and Elise Paschen’s essays on their poetic inheritance. Rivard delivers a seminar’s worth of information on Native American poetry in his essay “Herbs of Healing: American Values in American Indiana Literature,” which the editors liken to the anthology’s keynote address. He explains his essay’s scope and purpose: “We are talking about a so far undiscovered country, five hundred years after Columbus mistook it for Japan or China or India or the Earthly Paradise. We are talking about some undiscovered writers whose work is good for this America. I wish you the joy of it” (28).  A common thread for poets in this anthology is the sensation of navigating two worlds: tribal and a dominant Western culture that seeks to silence or obliterate the first. Suzanne S. Rancourt writes: “As artists, we have a foot in both worlds. We are bridges” (278). These poets bridge great divides of time, space, culture, and even language.

Leslie Marmon Silko’s reflection on her poetic influences contains a letter she wrote to James Wright, dated September 12, 1979. It offers a rare glimpse of a private exchange between two major writers of the twentieth century.  Silko praises Wright for his use of “the language America speaks” (107). She explains: “When I say American language I mean it in the widest sense—with the expansiveness of spirit which the great land and many peoples allow” (107). In her admiration of Wright, Silko expresses a caveat on the language she inherited as an Indigenous writer: “To have a ‘standardized’ language in a land as big and geographically diverse as this certainly seems ridiculous to me. Pre-Columbian America had hundreds and hundreds—maybe thousands—of completely distinct languages” (108).  Here, Silko speaks for the multitude of native poets who must use the language of the colonizer to recount the erosion of her indigenous culture and history.

One poet warranting individual attention for her moving and accomplished work that illuminates American history is Deborah Miranda. She examines the violent and degrading acts committed by Catholic missionaries who arrived “to settle” California. In a series of stunning poems, she exposes the Spanish missionaries’ depravity towards the native population already settled in the region. In her ars poetica she describes her project as a “literary genealogy” of the “California ‘Mission Indian’ experience and inheritance” (290). Her pieces puncture California’s “mission mythology,” an imagined history in which kindly Franciscans interacted peaceably with the indigenous population. Instead, Miranda illustrates the Spaniards’ zeal to eradicate native cultures, peoples, and traditions. It is these losses Miranda seeks to recover and, in doing so, unearths shattering realizations. As the poet herself expresses it, her project is no less than writing “across the chasm of genocide” (295).

A single composition that serves to articulate the larger project of Native Voices in small-scale is Heid E. Erdrich’s “Little Souvenirs at the DNA Trading Post.” (Heid’s poem, “Lexiconography I” was published by Broadsided in 2012) In her contrapuntal poem, Erdrich contemplates the scientific discovery that a mother’s body harbors her infant’s DNA long after she gives birth. In this way, a mother is both progenitor and inheritor. The paradox of motherhood holds true for indigenous American poets. In giving birth to new work, a poet internalizes the past so that past and present are inextricable. “ODDEST KNOWN REVERSAL OF MATERNITY,” the speaker exclaims before drawing a parallel to other tokens from the past: “Cowgirl purse, leather-worked in miniature from Out West, / Stone postcard labeled Artifacts of Ancient Inhabitants” (300). Her poem closes on the question “What did you bring me?/ What did you bring me?” This inquiry both indicts American history and offers an answer to what history bequeathed: this poem, the speaker implies, this creative force.

Jennifer Elise Foerster takes up the question of inheritance in her poems. Her straightforward and image-rich “Leaving Tulsa” itemizes a series of expulsions, most recently due to suburban sprawl that encroaches on her family’s “Indian allotment.” Colonialism isn’t relegated to the past as it continues to blight the landscape. There is no end to its greed as it transgresses boundaries initially established by colonists seeking to suppress indigenous peoples. Now, one poem narrates, a parking lot erases burial lands as her family’s acreage is junked. In her ars poetica, Foerster writes that poetry is “a way of seeing what cannot be seen” (409). Thus, the parking lot stands in for her tribe’s slaughter. Not even the vestige of land carved from original tribal lands offers freedom from modern-day western expansion. Foerster artfully compresses the history of the Muskogee tribe, their trail of tears, and the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, into a powerful narrative lyric.

Native Voices makes vivid what is buried and erased, gathering stories, languages, places—really a whole cross-section of our nation’s history. CMarie Fuhrman and Dean Rader present the breadth and depth of native peoples’ contributions to American poetry. This collection animates a past that some of us conveniently forget. After all, as Linda Hogan writes at the end of her poem “The Fingers, Writing”:

Some of us have to tell
what has been done,
what they will do
now, even tomorrow,
the truth of what happens.

The Broadsided Poem:

Stand,” Broadside by CMarie Fuhrman with art by Theodore C Van Alst, Jr. (published as part of our NoDAPL Responses feature, February 7, 2017)

3 Questions from Broadsided; 3 Answers from CMarie Fuhrman

Bsided: How did you go about selecting the inclusions for your anthology? Were any particular aspects of the project especially surprising or daunting?

Fuhrman: We were very purposeful in both our call and our direct solicitations for Native Voices. It was very important for us to reach out to poets all over the US, Alska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam. And we wanted to hear from voices both recognized and new, poets with multiple books, and some with no books at all. This, we knew, would allow for a spectrum of voices and Native experiences across the US. We also made certain to solicit poets whose voices were absolutely indispensable to Native poetry and whose work epitomized what we consider poetry in general. We were delighted with the response and fortunate that Jeffrey Levine, publisher at Tupelo Press, gave us no page limits. This allowed us to say yes to over forty poets.
I can’t say that any part of the project was daunting. It took a lot of effort by everyone, including the poets, to bring it to fruition. If anything, I would say it was enlightening–the process of writing the introductions to each poet and their work was taken on by co-editor Dean Rader and I and it became a succession of reviews which meant reading the work of each poet carefully and understanding, highlighting, and writing about their different styles, techniques and voices. I loved that.

Bsided: Of particular interest tome in Native Voices is the poets’ discussions on the writers that inspire and guide them. These seemed like genius inclusions. What inspired your decision to include the poets’ literary autobiographies, so to speak?

Fuhrman: So often, as Native writers and Native people in general, the focus is on context. Not that this is unimportant, but it leaves the writer, the poet, the artist as some sort of unnoticed entity. This was problematic to me because I felt it trinkitized the person behind the words making the poems another item that nonNatives might collect without ever getting to know the poet. We wanted a chance for these poets to talk about the work and to acknowledge, as many of our tribal communities do, our ancestors. The range of the essays is quite outstanding and the influences know no ethnicity, age, or even human form. For some poets the inspiration is in the old stories, creation stories, and for another, it is in mayonnaise.
These essays also become teachers. When I was teaching at the University of Idaho, my Native students always had to listen to reviews of native work distilled through white minds. In this anthology, the student carries forty-four teachers with them. It is a talisman of sorts.

Bsided: Your own poem “Stand,”which appeared as a Broadside in February 2017, uses a deft metaphor from nature to address the endless oppression of white supremacy. Would you describe yourself as an eco-poet? How does the natural world influence your poetry?

Fuhrman: “Stand” was written during the days at Standing Rock. Every day I would read reports or look at photos of the camp while looking out my own window to the heavy snow bending the small aspen in the woods beyond my cabin. For years Native people have born the burden of white weight or oppression, and every year we rise again. This seemed a metaphor that could be wholly understandable, that was deft, yes, but also hopeful.
I don’t think I can separate any of my writing from the environment as so much of who I am and my experience is wilderness and outdoor-based. I also cannot separate my knowledge of what is happening to these wild places, these last native inholdings, as similar to the colonization of the Native people of the West. I have never been much for labels, so I don’t know if I would use eco-poet, but i can honestly say that cleaving my work from my experience in the wild or the outdoors, would leave me without a way to understand and to explain. I know myself through my environment and it is how I have come to know and write about everything else.
Jennifer Key is the author of The Old Dominion (University of Tampa), and her work has appeared in Callaloo, The Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, and Poetry Daily. Her creative nonfiction received an AWP intro journals award in 2018. Recently, she was a John and Renee Grisham Fellow in poetry at Ole Miss. Her other honors include a Diane Middlebrook Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin and a Henry Hoyns Fellowship in fiction at the University of Virginia. She lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and is pursuing a PhD in English.
About Broadsides to Books: To honor and celebrate the writers we’ve published, we began Broadsides to Books in the spring of 2018. Here, we feature brief mini-reviews of books by Broadsided authors followed by a few questions about how broadside and book connect.