- Dissolve by Sherwin Bitsui
by Sherwin Bitsui
Copper Canyon Press, 2018
dissolve, published by Copper Canyon Press, is the third collection of poetry by Sherwin Bitsui, a Diné poet of the Bįį’bítóó’nii’ Tódi’chii’nii clan and is born for the Tlizilłani’ clan. Bitsui’s first collection, Shapeshift, threads traditional myth with the clangor of capitalism, and his second, Flood Song, is a vivid linguistic flood. Dissolve marks a powerful shift, conveying ongoing dispossession and a world out of balance, mapped in Bitsui’s careful typography. The poet’s new clashing multiverse creates a disquieting ecocritical scene in which snapshots of industrialism, and the people and wilderness affected by it, are superimposed. Bitsui has stripped the water—to use Stanley Kunitz’s expression—from these poems so that each word is distilled, extracted carefully from the mind’s eye. Dissolve captures contemporary uncertainties, including “the digital cloud” (19), that stream across the paths of a neoliberal world.
The soundscapes in Bitsui’s poems, which form a long sequence of snapshots, provide an auditory extension of urban and rural southwestern landscapes from a Native perspective. Cacophonous word arrangements, such as “dust-dappled mist in its craw, / engine fluid trailing its gullet” (10), embody the increasingly pernicious Anthropocene and its effects on nature, including our bodies. Bitsui’s work is accurately described as “kinetic,” yet his language doesn’t move predictably; it pulses, spins, warps, and expands like the cosmos. For example, his use of nouns as verbs such as “obsidian” (59), “sistering” (51), and “sunlighting” (58) contributes to the collection’s rhythmic pulse and reflects the verb-centered structure of the Diné language: “Diné is thought in motion,” Bitsui asserts in an interview with Hunger Mountain magazine. Many of the italicized words throughout the collection offer an illuminating interanimation, while others reflect “a kind of exile,” as Bitsui mentions in BOMB magazine. For example, in phantom places called “Nowhere” (32) and “the somewhere parts” (20), urban light pollution creates a “sheath of starlight” covered by “cisterns of smog” (32), each phrase packed with precision.
Other poems concerning ecological threats in Dissolve are powered by a linguistic synesthesia. As one poem explains, “I replace what I saw with what I heard.” We can hear, for example, “the uranium pond” (19), underlining the [End Page 140] cancerous aftermath of uranium mining on the Navajo reservation. Drought also returns in this collection; the dry “lake’s bite marks” (20) remind the reader of the 191 horses found dead in northern Arizona in the spring of 2018 due to unbearable drought. Bitsui candidly uses the backdrop of post-colonial industrialization to point to this devastation: “This plot, now a hotel garden, / its fountain gushing forth—/ the slashed wrists of the Colorado” (21). He reminds the reader that the Colorado River is alive, though perhaps not for long, and that what we do to nature, we do to ourselves.
A haunting quality, in fact, inhabits Dissolve, for instance, “my fingers’ ghosts” (17) and “the Reservation’s ghost” (19). Another ghost appears in “The Caravan,” one of the most impactful pieces in the collection, in which a troubled, drunken twenty-five-year-old is robbed by a ghost, perhaps a metaphor for postcolonial society itself. Likewise, Bitsui’s haunting word choice—“these hands glocked”—makes us vulnerable enough to notice these realities. Even language is a phantom that has shifted in our Anglo-phone, digitalized world. It has been excavated like dried-out rivers but is still clinging; it “tethers moonlight to firelight” (17), an umbilical cord of the elements. “Hollowed-out dictionaries” (21) also emphasize English domination over Native languages. It is no wonder, then, that Bitsui’s poetry is contrastingly nuanced, inventive, and overflowing.
Dissolve is a unique wake-up call to our postcolonial society, its reductive commercialization, and its ecological footprints. Beyond this wreckage and heightened tension, however, there is a wider sense of escape in Dissolve; Bitsui punctures holes in the pages, letting the reader “breathe it in” (35). He leaves a space for calm and stillness and insists that “there’s a way out—” (29). Crystalized images illuminate the pages, contrasting...