Layli Long Soldier
Graywolf Press
Review by Amélie Frank

“Apology is policy.”—The X Files

Thanks to Graydon Carter for jump-starting this review. Carter — the publisher of Vanity Fair who famously coined the term “short-fingered vulgarian” to nail Donald Trump’s character — recently dubbed White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer “the M.C. Escher of the English language.” That instantly brought up memories of reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches, which examined the ways in which language and truth were fragmented during the Vietnam War. Information flies by in that book like shrapnel–sharp, dangerous, damning, injurious. The casualty, of course, is narrative and what the reader, the historians, the survivors, and the innocent bystanders are all supposed to make of it. Tens of thousands of psyches returned from that war permanently shredded, and they struggle to reconfigure and reclaim reality. Today, sentient millions of all persuasions struggle to process the chilling fallout of last November’s election. It has become difficult get a grip on what is real. For those too young to recall the pronouncement in Herr’s day that we have to destroy the village to save it, these last few months have provided them the first ghastly taste of how fascism can take root, then thrive unabashed in this country. Atwood, Orwell, Brecht, and Shakespeare all warned us about the manipulation of the language to suit the ambitions of empires. And because we never seem to learn, Steve Bannon has made it clear that he intends to destroy the village.

Of course, history cycles through, and this is not North America’s first dance at this particular rodeo. Whether we shred the language to justify war or contort it into geometric nonsense to fleece the public and enrich the newly minted kakistocracy, ours is a history of breaking our word. Case in point, Trump’s prompt reversal of Obama’s stay of DAPL as if Standing Rock were not happening before our very eyes. Case in point, a muted apology to the five million First Nations people of our country in 2009. Largely unannounced and unnoticed, the apology was buried in a 67-page defense bill that contained over 70 different amendments on DOD-related issues including North Korea, WWII and Alaska, torture, SNAP benefits, Israeli missile defense, Guantanamo Bay, satellite TV, and failure to construct a road in Swain County, North Carolina. Here is the apology in full:

Apology to Native Peoples of the United States
8113.(a) Acknowledgment and apology

The United States, acting through Congress—
(1) recognizes the special legal and political relationship Indian tribes have with the United States and the solemn covenant with the land we share; (2) commends and honors Native Peoples for the thousands of years that they have stewarded and protected this land; (3) recognizes that there have been years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes; (4) apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States; (5) expresses its regret for the ramifications of former wrongs and its commitment to build on the positive relationships of the past and present to move toward a brighter future where all the people of this land live reconciled as brothers and sisters, and harmoniously steward and protect this land together; (6) urges the President to acknowledge the wrongs of the United States against Indian tribes in the history of the United States in order to bring healing to this land; and (7) commends the State governments that have begun reconciliation efforts with recognized Indian tribes located in their boundaries and encourages all State governments similarly to work toward reconciling relationships with Indian tribes within their boundaries.

(b) Disclaimer Nothing in this section— (1) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or (2) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.

That’s it? Yes, alas. That’s our sorry-assed apology to 560 federally registered nations and an equal number not registered. President Obama signed this bill to zero fanfare (it was closed to the press) on December 29, 2009. It was not read aloud. In contrast, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper broadcast his government’s 2008 apology to its First Nations citizens to 30 million Canadian people. Lise Balk King of Indian Country Today observed that “Canada’s work in repair and reconciliation has been specific and actionable. It refers to the harm done by assimilation practices of the government, and in particular the abuses of the residential school system.”  Such citations of specifics in the United States’ original preamble were purged before the final version. To wit, Canada officially apologized in public. America mumbled in private. And then, we advanced goon squads to reenact evil anew at Standing Rock.

This anemic in culpa sumis (the word “genocide” is fobbed off as “conflicts”) opened a vein of resolve in poet and artist Layli Long Soldier. Her response is WHEREAS, a damning volume of poetry that subverts bureaucratic corrosion of words into a passionate and acutely personal polemic, one that translates the personal and particular into a language that must belong to everyone.

Layli Long Soldier was a professor of English at Diné College, a community college of the Navajo people, set in the Four Corners region of Arizona. Her book is divided into two parts. Part I (“These Being the Concerns”) undertakes the struggle to negotiate her response as she balances precariously between English and the Lakota language. She leads off with a quote by poet Arthur Sze, “No word has any special hierarchy over any other.” This could be puzzling to any native English speaker who might cling to hierarchies in grammar (number, proper nouns, subordinate clauses, the idea of love over hate), but Long Soldier is in charge here, and she admonishes us to listen.

Make room in the mouth
For grassesgrassesgrasses

Thanks to lunch at Denny’s with my friend Christopher Day, who is himself half Oglala Lakota, I learned that Long Soldier is speaking here of the buffalo grass (shown on the book’s cover in a still image from the film Modest Livelihood). Day posits that she is politely instructing, “Hush and listen. You are about to be fed. Your mouth will be full of the grass that sustains us all, and while your mouth is full, you cannot speak, so listen.”

What inspired this book was the birth of Long Soldier’s daughter. “WHEREAS her birth signaled the responsibility as mother to teach what it is to be Lakota, therein the question: what did I know about being Lakota? Signaled panic, blood rush my embarrassment.” In Part I, she wonders how to impart her fractured experiences to her daughter. “What did I know of our language but pieces? Would I teach her to be pieces. What is the grass? What is the land she stands upon. What is its history?”

This mother will not countenance an officious dismissal of their truth and their heritage. She launches her attack on syntax by uprooting and dismantling her own native tongue, returning it to its source, the land. From the first poem, “Ĥe Sápa”:

Ĥe is a mountain as he 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. Remember. Ĥe Sápa is not a black hill, not Paha Sápa, by any name you call it. . . .

Its rank is a mountain and must live as a mountain, as black horn does from base to black
Horn tip. See it as you come, you approach. To remember it, this is like gravel.

She challenges the argot of lynching (“Two”), language’s place as a literal square in space and time (“Three”), the word “gold” embodied as the eagle, not the commodity (“Four”), language in which “Not one word sounds as before” (Five). She endeavors to rework words in the metaphor of fibers and fabrics. In “Four,” she parts her baby daughter’s hair. In “Look,” she pulls up grass by its roots, works a shuttle across a loom of meaning, strings beads then strikes out her own words to attain “original design,” As she struggles to attain “Diction,” she channels Native American Renaissance author James Welch to guide her as she flushes the sorrow
of Wounded Knee into slopes of right-justified text with key portions of words missing. When another poet fusses to Long Soldier about creating “a straw man for leftist critique,”

to respond/
I separate I /
culture and /
romantic it:”

She then handily weaves a man out of straw (“such straw hair goldly / easily refuted”). If people are going to monkey with the language around her, she will deal with it on her terms.

In Part II, WHEREAS is divided into “(1) Whereas Statements, (2) Resolutions, and (3) Disclaimers.” This is her rebuttal to President Obama’s apology. “I am,” she writes, “a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation—and in this dual citizenship I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.”

It’s a daunting undertaking in which, she comments, “Pages are cavernous places, white at entrance, black in absorption. Echo.” White pages like the colonies close in on promised territories to devour, obliterate, and plunder, wielding language to decimate people, their way of living, their sky, their grassesgrassesgrasses, their voices. She resists, needlepointing her angry refutations with acuity and precision, threading her tools fearlessly, using meditative cadences to keep her stitches metric and even, playing out skeins of melancholy, loss, and betrayal until she has produced from her individual voice an epic declaration for an entire people.

Of her declarations, the one that hits closest to home for anyone who has been bullied is how she hates the act of laughing to accommodate the sensibilities of European settlers. Calling to mind Maya Angelou’s “The Mask,” she worries about her young daughter laughing to hide her true feelings after she falls and skid on her knees and palms. As she washes off the blood, she tells her smiling child, “Stop, my girl. If you’re hurting, cry . . . in our home in our family we are ourselves, real feelings. Be true.”

One can ask what kind of poetry this is, and to whom can I recommend this book? WHEREAS is language poetry (Long Soldier keeps a journal of language she encounters every day), personal poetry, structural poetry, political poetry, Native American poetry, highly experimental poetry, Holocaust poetry, nature poetry. I daresay the entire book is one epic poem. It is a poetry of history, territory, and the sacred lands of the heart comprised of prose pieces, short lyrics, longer narrative sequences, lyrical proclamations, and spunky disclaimers, some broken off so that the sentences look like patterns for a tapestry or a square around an empty space. In the poem “We,” comparative statements are disconcertingly divided by a thick vertical line (damn Trump and his silly wall). The reader might feel cheated out of the complete idea or perhaps forced to make sense of a statement deliberately cut off or reshaped by forces beyond the poet’s control. Each page could be viewed as the larger United States closing in on the territory of poem, attempting to mute the poet with legalese or militarized corporate flunkies. Long Soldier has described the writing of this book as a project of working within constraints. Whether the prevailing forces are nature or predatory nations, the effort to communicate takes on the voice of the survivor. Nevertheless, she persists. Are we listening? Do we hear her?

As for its audience, I will not lie. It is a challenging read because the poems become fragmented like pieces of artifacts. It is not in the English I understand, but it is in the English she forges for herself. Yet, WHEREAS is for everyone who gives a damn and everyone who should just know better. Teach this work in the schools. Trust me, even though there isn’t a profane word in the entire volume, some idiot will try to get it banned. Nothing is more offensive to patriarchy than
a woman who seizes the obliteration of her past and exposes patriarchy’s lame dismissal as it presumes to point her and her kin to the future. She will chart her own destiny without their help, thank you, and she will be a player in the bigger story.

“I did not desire in childhood to be a part of this but desired most of all to be a part. A piece combined with others to make up a whole. Some but not all of something. In Lakota, it’s hanké, a piece or part of anything . . . I think of Plains winds snowdrifts ice and limbs the exposure and when I slide my arms into a wool coat and put my hand to the doorknob, ready to brave the sub-zero dark, someone says be careful out there always consider the snow your friend. Think badly of it, snow will burn you. I walk out remembering that for millennia we have called ourselves Lakota meaning friend or ally. This relationship to the other. Some but not all. Still our piece to everything.”

As much as I like to think of myself as an outsider divorced from the warped way our majority culture stupidly and cruelly pulverizes the other into oblivion, I am a daughter of that culture. As one who has benefitted from my heritage more than I have suffered from it, I am uncertain how we who have sinned can right our undeniable wrongs. The only thing I am certain of is that we MUST. First, we accept the premise that there exists a responsible “we,” that our true apology acknowledges what has been, that we express sincere and public remorse, and then we make appropriate and meaningful amends. We use concrete words and bolster their truth with concrete actions. This is the only way any country that has undergone civil war or genocide has managed to carry on past traumatic conflict into a better future. Our failure to realize a Reconstruction with reparations continues to thwart our progress and threatens to crack us in half. This is not a lesson well understood in the United States, where, ridiculously, we find ourselves once more devolving into character assassination against immigrants and religious minorities. With WHEREAS, Layli Long Soldier teaches us that the more we include and are included, the more genuinely American we become.

Amélie Frank is a regular book reviewer for Radius.