Friday, December 08, 2006

ADRIAN LOUIS' STRONG BROWN WINGS

From the NY Times Book Review:

LOGORREA by Adrian C. Louis (Tri-quarterly/Northwestern University, cloth $39.95; paper, $14.95)

Review by Joel Brouwer

With his customary mordant humor and beery weltschmerz, Louis writes in his new collection about lousy jobs undertaken to make ends meet, the perilous pleasures of alcohol, lost loves still pined for and loves far better forgotten, humanity’s twin addictions to money and brutality, and, most poignantly, the “dark, violent red land” of America’s Indian Country; in particular the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where Louis lived and worked for many years as a newspaper editor and teacher. Louis’s conversational style and salty language can bring Charles Bukowski to mind, but Louis is less prone to self-pity, and his indignation feels more righteous: “We cannot tell you why we spent/ a lifetime crawling when we had wings that were strong,/supremely brown, and so holy.” Relatively new themes for Louis in this collection are the skulking approach of old age, and ever-sharper jabs at academia, portrayed here as a kind of intellectual rez where Louis has reluctantly taken refuge from poverty. Louis sometimes seems to strain to make his poems sound fancy, calling his television a “cabled machine of thoughtlessness” and writing that after a poetry reading “the congregation adjourned to a local gin mill,” when he simply means the audience went to a bar. I don’t know why Louis thinks such rococo locutions are necessary, since his greatest strength as a writer is his point-blank bluntness, on particularly forceful display in the poems here about a loved one with Alzheimer’s: “Two of your toes have curled/into claws -- two of your fingers/ did until they chopped them off./ God forgive me for okaying that.” In fierce and clear lines like these, Lous burns away all traces of mendacity and cant and shows us a scalded world made purer through his vision.

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Adrian Louis is the author of the novel “Skins” which became a particularly powerful movie, not least because the Native American actors were able to embody the mix of sodden brutality and tender love that is characteristic of Louis’ work, as well as the love of language smashed up against the inability to finally convey the “Indian experience.” This vision (and it’s not so invented -- just read the police reports in any rez newspaper.) is an intense kind of Native American literature, read openly by college whites and covertly by middle class Indians.

It’s interesting that Charles Bukowski so often is invoked as a bridge between rough white experience and rough red experience. He’s not a type who catches my interest, but I have good friends who find him somehow liberating. Maybe it’s because he breaks up the idea that only Indians are drunks who sleep in the weeds by submitting frankly his own life. (There has been recent “chatter” here and there about the three movies based on his life, most notably probably “Ironweed.”) For more gently raised folks, there are two surprises in such stories: the first is that anyone can survive such a life and the second that the survivors are often intelligent, charming, and moral.

Brouwer values the blunt, simple terms -- “We cannot tell you why we spent a lifetime crawling when we had wings that were strong, supremely brown, and so holy.” (Check out the paintings of Tom Gilleon at timberlinestudios.com to see those brown winged warriors embodied -- a striking convergence.)

Brouwer complains about “cabled machine of thoughtlessness” for a television and “the congregation/adjourned to a local gin mill”, but I think it’s because he doesn’t imagine them in the mouth of the actor Graham Greene, thrown away as multi-syllabic sarcasm at the pretentiousness of such matters as TV and poetry readings.

As for the incredibly painful lines at the end about Louis’ wife’s Alzheimer’s, they are indeed “scalded” free of mendacity. He has written before about her sinking away into that darkness and already made it clear that he will care for her body, still here though her mind has left, with the total devotion one often sees in Indian families, no matter how grotesque that care may become. No question of parking her someplace and forgetting her.

As for academia, how can one NOT be indignant about institutions so pretentious and multi-syllabic, but so helpless when it comes to equipping anyone at all with wings of any color. In the end I guess the poets and artists must save us, just as they always have.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mary--Often, the reason that I leave no comment on your posting(s) is because you leave me breathless...wordless. Admiring your work, in silence, is sometimes the best that I can do. Thanks for your beautiful, thoughtful writings.
Cop Car

prairie mary said...

Thanks, Cop Car.

I hope you find some books by Adrian Louis. He WILL leave you breathless!!

Prairie Mary