- Another Indian Looking BackA Review Essay on Recent American Indian Poetry
In a poem late in Sara Littlecrow-Russell’s The Secret Powers of Naming, the speaker (implicitly the poet), dressed up for work, takes a lunch break. She sees a homeless man and gives him her Diet Coke money, but she doesn’t “want to look at him.” And “He doesn’t want to look at me either.” Or at least, so she supposes. Then she explains, in the poem’s closing words, that “Neither of us wants to see another Indian looking back” (68). What can or dare an Indian or an Indian poet see, or want to see, or fear to see in the mirroring gaze of another Indian or of another Indian poet? Littlecrow-Russell, an Ojibwe and, as a young lawyer, a self-confessed new admittee to what she calls the “Sue Tribe” (61), fears seeing “Indian ruins” (5), “Americanus Worthless” (6). She also fears not seeing Indian ruins. She has something to lose, and she supposes that the homeless man, no matter how worthless in the eyes of others and even, to a degree, in her own shamed eyes, still has enough pride to feel his failure lit up by her lawyerly, lipsticked, and “starched white” (68) reflection. But even as she denies looking and spoofs her fear of looking, she must have looked, or she wouldn’t see what she writes about. And she must have wanted to look.
Especially when, like Littlecrow-Russell, you are away from home and stumble on an unexpected reflection, then wanting to look and not wanting to look describe poles of possibility for Indian thinking, Indian vision, Indian poetry. Some poets, like Sherman Alexie and Adrian C. Louis, gaze steadily at the degradations of Indian life, mediating degradation with affection and humor. Others, such as [End Page 75] Simon Ortiz or Joy Harjo, gaze at the degradations but build on them to point their gaze at Indian people in other ways. Still others, like Jim Barnes, Carter Revard, and Louise Erdrich, gaze at Indians but gaze as variously in less specifically Indian directions. Yet more Indian poets, such as Luci Tapahonso and Kimberly Blaeser, fasten their eyes on Indians but without staring at suffering and degradation so much as they look lyrically, in calmly celebratory ways, at family and emotional connections and continuities.
In National Monuments, Heid E. Erdrich (Ojibwe), the most conspicuously literary and allusive of the poets considered here, ricochets many of her poems off other texts, whether articles from the daily news or earlier poets (national monuments, of a sort) from Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens to William Carlos Williams. In one series of poems, she spins variations on Williams’s “To Elsie,” the poem that famously begins “The pure products of America / go crazy” and then settles on Elsie, Williams’s fifteen-year-old servant:
marriage perhaps with a dash of Indian blood will throw up a girl so desolate . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . that she’ll be . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . sent out at fifteen to work(53–54)
Unlike Williams, Erdrich has her Elsie reflect on her own desolation: “Like most girls, Elsie avoided the mirror.” But then, in a restroom mirror, she catches her reflection reflecting itself in another mirror in an endless series and sees herself “Connected in all directions,” not a pure product but “a walking picture of infinity” (25). Amid so many recursive possibilities, the doubleness of reflection, the double bind of looking and being looked at, dissipates into what, in the title of her poem, Erdrich calls “Infinite Progression.” No longer constrained to her role as Williams’s servant, Erdrich’s Elsie eventually [End Page 76] imitates her boss. She finds one of Williams’s prescription pads and, having seen Williams write poetry on them, in a moment of improvisation she too starts writing poetry on the prescription pad. Soon she has to buy more paper—a Big Chief tablet, of course, for Erdrich keeps an eye on popular culture as well as on elite literary culture—and she “writes, and writes, straddles a canon, makes a name” (37).