Whereas, Layli Long Soldier, Graywolf Press, 2017
For many U.S. readers, November means Thanksgiving. It is not ironic and entirely intentional that it is also #NativeAmericanHeritageMonth. Most readers don’t know or think about the history of the Thanksgiving holiday, its origin and the events on which it was based. That erasure can blind readers to the hurt the holiday causes as well as to the incorrect and damaging way in which it portrays aboriginal North Americans and continues to reinforce the idea that they live only in the past. That’s part of my reason for posting this review/response at this time; the other reason is because Long Soldier’s poetry is powerful and worth reading, no matter the time of the year.
The organizing principle behind Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas is the structure of legal language. The book’s structure is a moving combination, using the language of the colonizer and, specifically, the language of the 2009 Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, to demonstrate the injustice done to aboriginal North Americans during the colonization and existence of the United States of America.
The first section of the book, titled “These Being the Considerations”, is filled with heart-breakingly beautiful poems describing Long Soldier’s nation’s language and geography. The poems include Lakota words; the poems both explain the meanings of and incorporate an existing understanding of these words. I am grateful to Long Soldier for sharing bits of the Lakota language, from words as universal as those to describe loss and those whose meaning is re-used to mean coffee. To me, it’s a vibrant way to make the people in her poems three-dimensional.
The final, titular, section of the book gets into the meat of the Apology, using its words, turning and evolving them, to see what they really say. Each of these poems ends with a semicolon, adding to the sense of legalese. The majority of the poems also contrast the legal language with what appear to me to be memoir/anecdotes from Long Soldier’s life.
Long Soldier’s poems use a great many concrete devices: they sprawl across the page, they right-justify, they build boxes, they mirror, they line-break in the middle of words.
What strikes me, in my ignorance and inexperience with the use of language to break down language, is how deft a writer Long Soldier is. While she clearly expresses the need to use the colonizer’s language against them, she is also clearly not one to do that without first infiltrating that language and becoming an expert in it.