Wordplay as dissent in Layli Long Soldier's Whereas
Over the course of twenty poems, Layli Long Soldier's Whereas (Graywolf Press, March 2017) provokes discomfort—that woozy, nauseous feeling that comes from confronting one's naiveté for the first time. "Now / make room in your mouth / for grassesgrassesgrasses," the book begins, and the earth seems to shudder.
Long Soldier, who is Oglala Lakota, writes poems that respond to political events, from protests at Standing Rock to the 2009 Congressional Resolution of the Native Americans. Formally, the poems are eclectic: some are straightforward prose poems; others invoke unexpected typefaces, margins, footnotes, and borderlines. They testify that the ground we stand is still disputed and English is a weaponized language.
The first poem in Whereas calls out the injustice of re-naming. A mineral-rich mountain range in South Dakota is known, in English, as the Black Hills. The Lakota, who lived there until the 1870's, call this land by another name: "Ȟe Sápa is not a black hill, not Pahá Sápa, by any name you call it," Long Soldier writes. "Its rank is mountain and must live as a mountain." These lines come to us in the present tense because efforts to reclaim stolen lands are still alive and well: In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the Lakota what is now $1.3 billion as compensation, but, to this day, the tribe refuses to settle.
Long Soldier refuses to partake in the delusion that the past is over and America is forgiven. In "Waȟpániča," the speaker wonders what it means to depend on the language of her oppressor:
I dig through my pockets dresser drawers bookshelves comma meticulous picking comma because I must write it to see it comma how I beg from a dictionary to learn our word for poor comma in a language I dare to call my language comma who I am. A sweeping chill my stained mouth just oil at the surface comma because I feel waȟpániča I feel alone. But this is a spill-over translation for how I cannot speak my mind comma the meta-phrasal ache of being language poor.
Poverty here is less "about money," as Long Soldier writes, and more about the currency we use to express ourselves. Is writing in English an act of betrayal? How can native poetry be subversive, if it's written in the colonizer's tongue?
Stranded between two languages, Long Soldier invents her own. She revolutionizes English from the inside, making it more inclusive and, therefore, more American. To this end, many of her poems resemble dictionary entries. "Tókȟaȟ'an" opens with what seems a clear-cut translation of its title: "To lose, to suffer loss, to be gone, lost." Here, as always, the translation is imperfect—something is always "tókȟaȟ'an," always lost. So the speaker waives objectivity: "It is the talk we engage the unnoticed way this shadow rears back, with black arms and twig teeth it engulfs me, your love, whole." Using metaphor, Long Soldier closes the gaps between two languages. She cannot speak for all Lakotas, but she does speak for herself.
Throughout the collection, Long Soldier draws a parallel between the laws that govern how we live and how we write. She opens "38," a poem about the killing of the Dakota 38, by punning on the word "sentence." "Here, the sentence will be respected." she writes, riffing on the term's linguistic and political meanings. The rest of the poem challenges the terms of a capital "sentence" by resurrecting, momentarily, the lives of 38 Dakota warriors, who were hanged for their role in the Sioux Uprising of 1862:
The Dakota 38 refers to thirty-eight Dakota men who were executed by hanging, under orders from President Abraham Lincoln.
To date, this is the largest "legal" mass execution in US history.
The hanging took place on December 26, 1862—the day after Christmas.
This was the same week that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the preceding sentence, I italicize "same week" for emphasis.
There was a movie titled Lincoln about the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
The signing of the Emancipation was included in the film Lincoln; the hanging of the Dakota 38 was not.
By playing with the one-to-one correspondence between words and their meanings, Long Soldier draws attention to the gap between narration and lived experience. She destabilizes the popular, soothing version U.S. history, and teaches us what it leaves out.
In the second part of the book, Long Soldier responds to President Obama's 2009 Congressional Resolution of Apology to the Native Americans, which she exposes as just another instance of political cowardice. The structure of this section mimics that of the Apology itself, replete with "Whereas Statements," "Resolutions," and a "Disclaimer." But Long Soldier's interpretations are irreverent; she toys with language that purports to be definitive. In the fourth resolution, the word "apologizes" is redacted from an excerpt of the Resolution. Long Soldier writes:
In many Native languages, there is no word for "apologize" The same goes for "sorry." This doesn't mean that in Native communities where the word "apologize" is not spoken, there aren't definite actions for admitting and amending wrongdoing.
In this view, the best apologies are like actions—they transform.
From start to finish, Whereas is palpably contemporary, a rejoinder to the notion that Native Americans are, somehow, less present than anyone else. Long Soldier's poems take on new forms and subjects at a pace that outstrips summary. Together, they "ink-inject the permanent reminder: I'm here I'm not / numb to a single dot."
Gillie Collins writes about books, movies, and visual art. Her work has appeared in Guernica, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Seventh Row.