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Reviewed by:
  • The Dirt is Red Here: Art and Poetry from Native California
  • Dean Rader (bio)
Margaret Dubin , ed. The Dirt is Red Here: Art and Poetry from Native California. Berkeley CA: Heyday Books, 2002. xiv + 82 pp.

Why is it that when we review books we only talk about the content of the book and not the book itself? When we read or teach a poem, we usually draw attention not simply to the thematic qualities of the poem but also to its formal elements—the way it sounds, how it's put together, the way it looks. In short, why don't we judge a book by its cover?

I raise this issue in regard to The Dirt is Red Here for two reasons. The first is largely inconsequential, but I think it bears mentioning here. The second I'll try to use as springboard for a less topical review of what actually comprises this anthology. To my first point: when I picked up The Dirt is Red Here for the very first time and opened the front cover, it fell apart in my hands. Literally, the binding completely came unglued, and pages tumbled to the floor. Normally, this wouldn't bother me, as I have dozens of books that are coming apart at the seams, but this particular incident disappointed because the book and its binding were new in every way. I mean, it had never been used as a coaster or a makeshift writing surface. I hadn't trashed the spine making illegal copies for my classes or cracking the spine to save my place when I went to answer the phone. It simply fell apart, and in my mind, new books shouldn't do that.

However, the real reason the poor binding disappointed is because The Dirt is Red Here is a beautiful book—a fact that I hope will serve as a moderately elegant segue into my second point. Comprised of poems, photographs, paintings and reproductions of sculptures, this collection of texts is so well done in terms of layout, graphics and document design, it is doubly painful that the binding was at variance with the quality of the internal aesthetics of the book. It feels lovingly put together, carefully laid out, meticulously planned. The poems and paintings work well together. The thick glossy pages feel good to the touch. The balance of text, image and white space suggests a keen eye and an artist's sensibility. In brief, when the cover is not falling off and the pages not coming unhinged, the book is a model of sophisticated design and printing and demands to be regarded as such. [End Page 82]

And it is the art that sets this book apart from other similar anthologies. Of course, there are poems from some of my favorite poets, such as Janice Gould, Deborah Miranda, and Wendy Rose. So, I already have the poems reprinted by these folks. That being said, I did enjoy the work of Stephen Meadows. In fact, the first line of his poem "Grass Valley" provides the title of the collection itself. "Reweaving the World Ohlone," the final poem in the collection, serves as a kind of metonym for the book, making palpable connections between art, artisans, renewal, movement, beauty. I was also moved by Shaunna Oteka McCovey's provocative poem "I Still Eat All of My Meals with a Mussel Shell." Two poems woven into one bolded and italicized text, McCovey's piece moves like a Native L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem, though it remains much more interesting and resonant than most from that genre, and I found myself going back to that poem as much as any other.

But it was the paintings and the photographs that kept arresting me. Well-known artists like Harry Fonseca and Frank Lapena sidle up alongside newcomers (for me) like Frank Tuttle, Bradley Marshall, and the photographer Lorencita Carpenter. Carpenter's photographs stood out among the other visual texts, first, because they are photographs and not paintings, installations, or regalia, but secondly, because their subject matter is not overtly "Native" whatever that may mean. I still don't know what...


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