- I Swallow Turquoise for Courage
Hershman R. John's first book is infused with Navajo history and culture. At the same time his engagement with non-Native cultures is also clear, in allusions to, among others, Basho, Anne Sexton, Langston Hughes, the Statue of Liberty, and Midas. Grandmothers and Coyote figure prominently, as do references to the Navajo creation story, turquoise, and weaving.
In a book of great formal variety, the use of juxtaposition is particularly noteworthy as a structural principle and a mode for creating meaning and tone. "A Sheep Dog Locked in Photograph" [End Page 104] and "Coyote's Ad Infinitum" offer very different examples. The book exemplifies some of the traits of contemporary Navajo poetics described by Luci Tapahonso: "symbolism, concrete diction, and imagery. [. . .] rich, connotative allusions to time, surrounding physical conditions, and historical as well as spiritual imagery" (25). Further, "The combination of [traditional Navajo genres and poetics with 'written literary techniques'] results in poetry [. . .] that is innovative in terms of format, use of space [. . .] and, most important, a tonal quality that is at once historical, literal, and spiritual" (33). John's book also reflects saad:
our way of seeing the world and of relating to all things [. . .] sustained [the Navajo people] [. . .] and thus the acquisition of knowledge or saad remains important today. Saad [. . .] is the essence of what we were taught: that as long as we recognize our responsibilities to each other and the world we will go on.(Tapahonso 35)
With this book, Hershman John joins a strong company of contemporary Navajo writers, only a few of whom I will mention, to suggest how I Swallow Turquoise might be located in relation to this larger body of work. Perhaps the most recognized of these writers is Tapahonso herself. While she does not avoid painful subjects, her poems and stories tend to point toward grounds for hope. With a grounding as solidly Navajo as Tapahonso's, John's poems more commonly suggest persistent sadness or tensions. The traditional "mythological" elements on which the two writers most explicitly draw also differ, and it may be that, by alluding most directly to early parts of the creation story (the first two worlds), John creates a context not only in which uncertainty and screwups, danger, and pain are likely (as they also are in Tapahonso's work) but in which outcomes are uncertain.
The elusiveness of resolutions is also characteristic of the work of Laura Tohe and Sherwin Bitsui. Tohe's dominant focus on boarding school and its aftermath is the source of her book's predominant bleakness, anger, and implied questions about the future. The immediate sources of pain in John's poetry differ: deaths, children's alienation from elders, radiation poisoning, and [End Page 105] the destruction of the buffalo are among the causes of the griefs he probes, and though some poems promise love or solidarity (e.g., "A Postcard from Van Gogh," "Grandmother Moon"), ambiguity or outright dread or sorrow are more common in his poems. Examples include "Gambling a Good Night Away," "Four Days, Four Nights," "Buffalo Head Nickel," "Spider Woman's Children," and "Refusing to Be Blessed." Finally, Sherwin Bitsui's recurrent references to conquest, exploitation, and violence create a tone that often approaches the apocalyptic, with images that fuse the surreal with the recognizable real, and often nightmarish, effects. Throughout, Bitsui suggests the presence of resistant energy, but his poems afford practically no hope until the final pages, and even here that hope seems tenuous.
Grief, painful knowledge of history, and resistance are variously evident in all of these writers' works; tonally, Hershman John's poetry stands between the relative serenity of Tapahonso's, on the one hand, and, on the other, the furious bleakness of Tohe's and the difficult, driven energies of Bitsui's.
Meditating on mortality, locatedness, and the necessity of stories, "The Dark World" exemplifies many of this book's strengths. The creation story, begun by Grandmother Spider, is continued by "Altsé Hastiin, First Man," speaking from...