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  • Unraveling Ethnicity:The Construction and Dissolution of Identity in Wendy Rose's Poetics
  • Sheila Hassell Hughes (bio)

Even at its most personal and confessional, Wendy Rose's poetry is primarily a social practice that seeks a sharing. Products of a self-proclaimed urban "half-breed," her poems do not simply express the struggle for identity; they actually do the work of identity construction itself, through interaction with imagined interlocutors and actual readers over the symbols, practices, and experiences of diverse cultural and religious traditions. This process of self-creation never begins ex nihilo. For Rose, it always depends upon the "given" or "found" aspects of ethnicity and tradition, even when those elements constitute a denial or erasure. Indeed, Rose's work operates doubly. For every act of self-conception, there is a concession to dissolution, and the poetry works as much to undo identity and unravel ethnicity as it does to secure them. Rose's project of self-invention through the act of poesis, or making, is therefore a ritual that must be both actively shared and endlessly repeated.

Exploring the dialectic of conception and dissolution in Rose's work, I will analyze both patterns of address and her use of specific images drawn from multiple traditions, for evidence of how her poetics might contribute to larger debates about ethnicity, authenticity, and the politics of identity in literature and society. After laying out some of the identity issues in Native American studies and Rose's subsequent dilemma as a mixed-blood author, I will consider how a "constructionist model of ethnicity" has been applied to contemporary American Indians from another disciplinary perspective. I use this as an entrée to [End Page 14] Rose's work in order to highlight the real-world embeddedness and the larger implications of her sociopoetic practice. In sociologist Joane Nagel's systemic analysis, which recognizes ethnicity as an interactive and recursive process, I find a helpful structure for drawing out some of the complexity of Rose's identity project. Rose's dialogic poetics are ultimately richer and more subtle than the sociological framework, however. Indeed, her poetry provides a set of conceptual metaphors for re-envisioning ethnicity that both challenge and supplement the "portfolio" figure proposed by Nagel. I explore Rose's imaginative structures of identity in the second half of the essay, as I turn to examine more closely issues of memory, embodied imagination, and collaboration in her work. Images of material conception and dissolution are prominent in Rose's poetry, and the nest, which is both a home perpetually (re)constructed from variously found objects, and a space for conception, emerges as one especially important metaphor. Rose weaves it for us, at once tenuously and stubbornly, with strands of multiple ethnic traditions.

The "Authentic Indian" and the Mixed-Blood Author

For a poet writing as Indian—situating herself within the tradition of Native American literature, and contributing to its increasing visibility over the past three decades—the issue of ethnic identity is an important one. There is, after all, a troubling history of whites not only appropriating Indian land and culture but also actually impersonating Native identity.1 If to become more "real" means taking on a singular and solidified ethnic identity—as either "white" or "Indian"—then Rose is destined to a world of shadows and pre-birth. To become white (an identification complicated by her dark skin) would mean the annihilation of her Indian self, the forgetting of her Hopi and Miwok relations. To become wholly Indian is also problematic, however. To be authentically Indian in the eyes of whites would seem to require another kind of dissolution, since in popular American imagination today, the only "real Indians" are dead ones. Modern, urban, bicultural poets don't fit the museum-based image. And, for genealogical reasons, her tribal [End Page 15] identity is also tenuous and unofficial, unacknowledged by the Hopi tribe.2

As Rose's reflections in the autobiographical essay "Neon Scars" reveal, her early naming and training were at odds with both halves of the identification "Indian writer": "How do you reveal that you were a bag lady at fourteen, having been turned out of the house . . . dropped...


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