- 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...