- To Be There, No Authority to Anything: Ontological Desire and Cultural and Poetic Authority in the Poetry of Ray A. Young Bear
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 50, Number 4, Winter 1994
- pp. 89-115
- View Citation
- Additional Information
ROBERT DALE PARKER To Be There, No Authority to Anything: Ontological Desire and Cultural and Poetic Authority in the Poetry of Ray A. Young Bear The WORDSWORTHiAN preoccupation with identity, targeted by writers as diverse as Robert Pinsky, Jacques Derrida, Kathy Acker, and Charles Bernstein, takes another kind of hit in the poetry of Ray A. Young Bear, deep-image surrealist, Mesquakie, cultural isolato, and—at the same time—communal cultural nationalist. Young Bear's first two books, Winter of the Salamander: The Keeper of Importance and The Invisible Musician, have a contemplative intensity that often risks the indecipherable. His third and latest book, Black Eagle Child: The Facepaint ¡Narratives, explains itself more patiently, integrating cultural exposition with poetic narrative, at times almost like a novel. The blend might recall the way some of Leslie Marmon Silko's poems displace anthropological annotation by having an elder explain things to a child (Mattina 146-47), except that Young Bear's irreverence keeps the sensibility more ironic and slippery. In all three books Young Bear pursues something like a Euro-American surrealism while also writing more thoroughly from within a native culture than any other Native American writer I know of. Readers often feel lost amid the esoteric reference points; and the abrupt, often dream-inspired zigs and zags do little to accommodate our bewilderment . (A typical title, for example, is "in dream: the privacy of Arizona Quarter!} Volume 50, Number 4, Winter 1994 Copyright © 1994 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1610 QORobert Dale Parker sequence.") The tight, crowded cultural frame is possible, perhaps even likely, for a Mesquakie, because the Mesquakie, compared to most other American Indian peoples, have a history of tenacious cultural and linguistic independence.1 With the mix of the Mesquakie and the surreal, it is difficult for non-Mesquakie readers versed in European and American poetic tradition, and I should think for those Mesquakie readers not so versed, to pick out what in Young Bear's poems we can usefully call surrealist, Mesquakie, or somehow his own. Young Bear also writes against some thorny cultural resistances. The Mesquakie prefer to keep their culture to themselves. When Fred McTaggart went to the Mesquakie settlement expecting to find people happy to tell stories for him to record and write about, he should not have been surprised to find them courteously uncooperative. Young Bear himself insists that there is much he cannot say.2 Moreover, he writes in a larger culture that is mostly too ignorant, impatient, or hostile for the immensely detailed ontological routine of Mesquakie life and thought. Even compliments, of course, can betray. A favorable review of The Invisible Musician dwells on the beautiful cover, praising Stella Young Bear for the photo of a beaded bag without realizing that the cover credits her for beading the bag, not for photographing it (Kallet). Mesquakie culture is a self-reinventing flow of the present, not a relic of the past. Meanwhile, as Robert F. Gish writes, "Young Bear is generally acknowledged by poets, critics, and students of American Indian literature as the nation's foremost contemporary Native American poet," and is "destined for even wider and more fulsome recognition." Still, this is a curious claim for a writer who remains almost unwritten about, daunting to read and teach, and much of whose work is out of print.3 For now, Young Bear's readers are confined to the small if growing audience committed to reading Indian poetry, rather than the still small but much larger audience for American poetry in general. That sorry limit need not be so big a problem; many Indian writers are quick to say that they write mostly for other Indians. Young Bear doesn't discuss other Indian poets, but two of his poems address nonIndian poets' and editors' readings of Indians in general and, in one case, of the Mesquakie in particular. The same two poems, "in disgust and in response to indian-type poetry written by whites published in a mag which keeps rejecting me" and "for the rain in march: the black- The Poetry of Ray A. Young Bear91 ened hearts of herons" (Young Bear has a particular genius for...