Layli Long Soldier
Reviewed by Clara B. Jones
“WHEREAS confronts the coercive language of the United States government in its responses, treaties, and apologies to Native America peoples and tribes, and reflects that language in its officiousness and duplicity back on its perpetrators.” Publisher’s release
“I am 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.” Layli Long Soldier
Minority poets have found their voices, writing a variety of forms and themes from the conventional to the boldly experimental. Shortlisted for the 2017 National Book Award in Poetry, Layli Long Soldier’s reputation has catapulted into the limelight with the publication of her debut book, WHEREAS. With an impressive grasp on storytelling, common in indigenous and minority traditions, Long Soldier introduces readers to her personal and tribal histories—emphasizing acts of cruelty and dismissal relieved, emotionally and thematically, by her experiences as a daughter, a partner, and a parent (“Father’s Day comma I am not with you. I stare at a black-and-white photo of you comma my/husband in a velvet shirt comma your hair tied back and your eyes on the face of our sleep-/ing daughter.”). In order to decode many of the poet’s references, it is important to know certain aspects of Sioux history. The book’s epigraph, “Now/make room in the mouth/for grassesgrassesgrasses.”, refers to a tragic event whereby a trader, Andrew Myrick, refused food to a hungry group of Lakota Sioux, telling them to eat their own dung mixed with grass. Sometime later, Myrick’s body was found with grass stuffed in his mouth. Throughout WHEREAS, “grass,” and, to a lesser degree, “green,” appear (“…I grass/nothing/here I meta-/grass I sleep-/walk grasses….”; “…split/grass wires/little bulbs/silver/green/drop/lets….”), forcing the reader to share Long Soldier’s trauma and, possibly, rage. Indeed, many of the poems address identity, dreams, myth, and the unconscious, and it might be interesting for an analytical scholar to interpret the poems from a Freudian perspective (“…a symbol for/electric/current/something/having the shape/of i/ego…”). The poet does not stray far from politics (“…who what when where why/at behest of the local leadership/e.g. Officer, my name is __________/from Standing Rock….”). Long Soldier’s use of white spaces, erasures, and a variety of forms shows that she is intentionally disrupting formalist rules, though the poems retain musicality and are not didactic or literal for the most part. Part 2 of the book, WHEREAS, refers to a proclamation written by Barak Obama apologizing to Indigenous Americans for their treatment during the colonial period (and beyond?). According to Long Soldier, no Indigenous Americans were invited to the ceremony and, as I recall, the event was not widely reported in the media. In my opinion, Part 2 is the most moving section of the book, and a strong case might be made that it should be placed before Part 1, THESE BEING THE CONCERNS, in order to provide context and currency for the Myrick incident. WHEREAS, is written as a Proclamation in its own right, rendering a powerful response to Obama’s oversights (“I recognize/the special legal and/political relationship/Indian tribes have with/the United States and/the solemn/covenant with the land/we share.”). While Long Soldier’s stories are sometimes heartbreaking, her writing does not take the reader to the edge of despair. This young poet’s work is highly recommended, and I hope that, in future, the poetry community will embrace many more Indigenous American poets.
Bio: Clara B. Jones practices poetry in Silver Spring, MD (USA). As a woman of color, she writes about identity, culture, & society and conducts research on experimental poetry, as well as, radical publishing. She is author of three chapbooks, and her poetry, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in various venues.