Studies in American Indian Literatures 16.1 (2004) 87-90
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Everyone has a family, absent or present, but few people have spent as much time as Wendy Rose has researching her genealogy and imagining the lives of her ancestors. Rose's newest book, Itch Like Crazy, presents the intellectual fruits of this labor in poems that use the language of the personal to speak about the history of Indian-white relations and the true meaning of cultural identity. Itch Like Crazy revisits some of Rose's favorite earlier themes—her search for roots and belonging, the harsh realities of survival, the cruelty of colonialism—but addresses them in a different voice. While Rose's earlier voice was searching and political, brimming with the anger of the disenfranchised, her [End Page 87] new voice is knowing, rich with facts recovered from her research, in places empathetic, and always pointedly personal.
In the first of the book's three sections, titled "These Bones," Rose's great powers of imagination spirit her bodily across continents and oceans and back in time to the castles and cottages of her Irish, Scottish, and English ancestors, the creaking damp ships that brought them to America, the covered wagons that carried them west, and the unplanned human encounters with Miwoks and others that added new generations and new blood to the family tree. Rose describes the "itch" that drove her to research her multicultural family history and addresses individual ancestors in powerful dream-letters. To Margaret Castor, a great-great-grandmother who came to California from Germany, she poses the question,
Did you give one glance back,
one final goodbye, words
last a lifetime?
Rose gives herself the gift of family, but rather than inserting each new member into her life she travels back to insert herself in theirs:
If you are a part of me,
I am that crazy acorn within your throat
around which pioneer stories rattle and
I am the other voice
blasted from the mountain
by hydraulic cannons,
the other fetus
embalmed on your knee.
The language is evocative and lyrical, but in places the references to specific people and relations are confusing. This problem can be solved by turning first to the third section of the book, titled "Listen Here for the Voices." This section consists of black-and-white photographs of relatives and ancestors accompanied by prose descriptions of each person and his or her relationship to Rose. A significant new piece of information is [End Page 88] revealed in this section: that the Hopi man whom Rose had always thought to be her father might not actually be her father. Rose's mother had been married to an Anglo man named Dick Edwards, whom for various reasons, Rose was led to believe wasn't her biological father. The details aren't explained, but the new uncertainty about the identity of her biological father brings her perceptibly closer to her Anglo ancestors. Perhaps this is the source of her empathetic descriptions of their struggles, or perhaps personal knowledge of the men and women whose lives brought her into the world have softened her anger or opened her eyes to other kinds of suffering. Whatever the case, the short biographies in this section are lovingly rendered and provide important background information for understanding the poems in "These Bones."
The second section titled, "This Heart," is shorter and more varied than the first, but it contains some of the true gems and most timeless pieces in the collection. Leaving the terrain of family history behind, Rose picks upthe threads of her earlier concerns about the challenges of being "mixed," of being an American Indian in academia, and of wanting to honor her tribal heritage without having as much access to it as she would like. These themes found raw, powerful expression in earlier collections such as The Halfbreed Chronicles and Other Poems (1986) and Lost Copper (1980). In Itch Like...