America the Beautiful: The Final Poems of Paula Gunn Allen
Nine days before her own death, Paula Gunn Allen sent her last volume of poems to her publisher; this manuscript is not a musing upon the poet’s own impending end, but rather an evocative representation of the cultural landscape that she spent her life [End Page 111] studying, representing, and analyzing. Time, for Allen, is more like a wheel than a line; she writes in the poem “America the Beautiful IV” that “time is a rhyming thing / which i suppose in the algebra / of wisdom means / space rhymes as well” (10). This last collection, crafted by Allen in her final illness, expresses a conviction that every life passes, but is never truly past, and that every place changes, but remains essentially constant.
Even before this collection of poems, Allen’s writing might be understood as speaking in two voices: one voice addresses the immediate material conditions of her audience, and the other voice uncannily imagines how the invocation of those immediate conditions will echo in posterity. For instance, her 1997 poetry collection, entitled Life Is a Fatal Disease, presented a darkly comedic rumination on the contemporaneousness of history. Likewise, her 1983 roman a clef, The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, traces several cultural histories in order to chart its protagonist’s progression into an ever-widening future. Additionally Allen’s critical monographs both pioneered an expressly Native feminist episteme and, at the same time, asserted that Native women’s roles in shaping an epistemological discourse were possessed of an a priori presence to which Euro-American feminism was silently or unconsciously indebted.
America the Beautiful, then, is Allen’s ultimate work in its finality and its thematic scope and artistic crafting. The volume is bifurcated into two parts. The first, which shares its name with the volume at large, employs a narrative voice that is both collective and individuated. The speaker presents observations and introspections with a testimonial quality. The second half, entitled “There Is Another Shore,” contains poems that seem at once more removed and more personal than the thirty-six poems in the first half.
In the “Note to the Reader,” which serves as the introduction to the volume, Patricia Clark Smith makes note of Allen’s “myriadmindedness.” The ways in which Smith’s thoughtful reflection on her friend and colleague’s life and work seems to suggest that what makes America the Beautiful a rich and compelling collection is that it reveals its writer’s broad set of interests, all of which, though disparate, coexist quite naturally on the pages of the book. The second [End Page 112] through thirty-sixth poems in the volume share with one another the title the volume has taken, followed by a sequential number. Some of these poems play with the aural qualities of English, Spanish, and words that both of those European tongues borrow from indigenous languages. Others, like the one quoted above, simultaneously ridicule and celebrate poetry as medium for sharing meaning.
Almost all of these poems examine the ways nature is entwined with culture. For instance, the third poem in the sequence begins with a conversation between the speaker and various natural forces—the “soft wind” (line 1), the “summer surf” (line 5), the “deep night stars” (line 9)—about whether or not the earth is capable of conscious thought. In the last two stanzas of the poem the speaker is questioned by “quasar songs” that suggest that the earth is aware, is moving and dancing and dreaming. Allen’s choices of diction unify two ways of understanding the universe; the empirical study of nature and the physical forces that move it cannot be separated from the philosophical, spiritual, and theological questions about whether that motion is the result of some higher power, who is acutely aware of the small lives it shapes. Not all of these explorations of the natural world’s interaction with human ambitions are this expansive. There are also poems that consider the exploitative labor practices that produce well-manicured flower beds, and the ways that an acculturating influence constrains and redeploys natural beauty. Poems that explore this influence through palatable floral metaphors—noting how the “well-bred roses here are grown / in pens to keep out deer” (15)—appear alongside more gritty examinations of how suburban sprawl encroaches on wild spaces—“a furry bit of blood smearing the asphalt. / rabbit? chipmunk? squirrel?” (20). The poems in the volume’s first half are a wildly inclusive, stylistically varied amalgam of the profane and the sacred.
The poems in the volume’s second half are equally thought-provoking and complex, if a bit less tightly sequenced and more loosely developed. Some of the poems pose responses to current events and employ an informal voice that reprimands mass media and popular culture. Others seem to memorialize tiny moments of experience. Whether the scope is large or small, whether the mood is ranting [End Page 113] or elegiac, each of these poems works to probe impressions formed from within a subjectively defined space. For example, “Wayward Girl’s Lament” uses a closed formal structure, the villanelle, to examine a character who rejects the same sort of constraints the verse form imposes upon the poet. The content and the form are at odds with one another, an affect that is best manifested in the tension between the first and second refrains. The poem enacts a progressively heightening tension between the titular girl, referred to in the second person, and the third-person “they,” who would restrain her waywardness to keep her safe. However, just as the repetition of the first refrain, “how bogus are the locks,” is the correlatory response to the second, “think outside the box,” so too is the recursive chiding of the “they” to “you.” The illusory qualities of safety the locks protect is only revealed to the girl brave enough to open them. “They” cannot ever see the sense in the wayward girl’s critique of “their” haven, because “they” are unwilling to view it from her vantage point. Later in the book the poem “Self-Portrait and a Wish” seems to present the poet (who intentionally encourages the conflation between herself and the narrator here) as envious of this sort of outsider subject position. The poem, written in a free verse shaped by the copious use of the em-dash and wonderfully weird enjambment, has a much more open form than the villanelle, but the speaker finds herself unable to occupy the outsider perspective sufficiently. The poem ends with a desire that is also a lament: “I wish I was action-packed, loaded for bear, / right on kind of girl” (80).
Many poems in both sections of the volume are riotously funny, like “Coyote rhymester on the lam.” This poem revisits a trope from Dineh culture that Allen made her own in many iterations. Like the Coyote poems in her second collection Coyote’s Daylight Trip (1978), this poem’s speaker is a trickster who begins by “jacking all tradesters / mastering none” (84). Like the earlier Coyote poems this poem amuses readers and redeploys cultural traditions from a specific Native national history. As always, the joke is on Coyote, but this time it is not entirely funny. When Allen writes “it’s not matter of what it means / a poem shouldn’t mean but be / life is meaningless thank the lord / I think and so i’ll never be,” there is a poignancy [End Page 114] that comes from the reader’s knowledge that Allen’s life has ended. Her critique of the Cartesian model of identity is political and personal in that moment. By opposing the division of mind from body intrinsic to her revision of Descartes, Allen also reminds readers that her body of work—her thoughts—will outlast the material evidence of her being—her body.
Allen’s death, even two years before the collection’s appearance, also colors interpretations of the book’s last poem “How Near, How Far.” The poem begins:
A fine spring day in the East Bay. The first this year. I am preoccupied realizing exactly that what slouched toward the White Sands to be born is grown, already getting old.(97)
The allusion to Yeats here is somehow frightening and sad. On a historical level the ways in which potential for annihilation was cultivated on the Trinity site at White Sands are resonant for all Americans, but none no more so than Allen’s family and people, many of whom live in Cubero, directly downwind of Los Alamos. It is important to note that Allen wrote the poem in Berkeley, California, in 1999, almost a decade before her death, but the ways in which she considers her personal history—“a young married in Grants, New Mexico / a generation and a half ago”—seems to participate in a nostalgic reconstruction and a grotesque representation of the land of her birth. She fled the historical and systemic subjugation that is emblematized by the degradation of Mesa Verde only to find new emblems elsewhere. The poem’s ending is a reminder that things are always and never what they seem; this duality, in all of its complications and contradictions, seems appropriate as the final offering from a poet whose work has always lamented and celebrated the significance of the multifaceted aspects of her own identity and history with mingled fear and pride. [End Page 115]
Sandra Cox completed her PhD in English at the University of Kansas in 2011 and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities at Shawnee State University. Her most recent article, which examines the craft and politics of Two-Spirit Menominee poet Chrystos, was published in Interdisciplinary Literary Studies. When she is not encouraging her students to reread Silko’s Ceremony, you may find her chasing short-legged dogs in the foothills of Appalachia or hard at work on her first monograph, which explores the ethical challenges of ethnographic criticism of contemporary fiction by American writers of color.