Wednesday, October 03, 2012

"SAVAGE SUNSETS" by Adrian C. Louis

My favorite Potawatomi grandfather, who writes poetry and sometimes runs a trap-line and even possibly plays the grand piano, has been a friend since the Nineties when we were on the same listserv and had such a heated exchange that Carter Revard cautioned us.  The other day he sent an exasperated email to this funky old white woman noting that traffic had nearly stopped on the last remaining Native American literature listserv.  NATIVELIT-L@LISTSERV.ILLINOIS.EDU   Either there haven’t been any messages for a long time or else I’ve been taken off the list in one of the periodic blood-quantum purges.  (Since I’m zero quantum.)   Or maybe the tech support has collapsed.

My friend wanted to stir things up.  Indeed, everyone is so busy making money or pursuing the finer points of French post-modern philosophy (those French loooove Indians) or hooking up with eager little Ph.D. scholars, that there’s not much interest in speculating about what’s happened to all those great writers we used to know and argue about and with.  I got down my cherished copy of “Smoke Rising: The Native North American Literary Companion” (1995, Visible Ink Press)   While I was at it, I looked to see what that press was publishing now.  Sure enough, the NA writers at Visible Ink have been made invisible by Blacks and vampires.

It gets worse:  Adrian C. Louis was not listed in “Smoke Rising.”  He was not the romantic gentle-but-sad Jim Welch, nor an indignant Red Feminist, nor the crowd-pleasing Sherman Alexie (now writing YA novels about masturbation -- very funny, they tell me) nor was he one of the suicides,   But he is closer to the Red Heart of Truth than many of those others.  More than anything else, he is a survivor and that’s a good a definition of what it means to be indigenous.  

There are many strategies for survival, so naturally not all of them conform to expectations.  But those of us who live on or near the big prairie reservations will recognize Adrian’s work.  He’s been able to move around in the disciplines of newspaper editing and university teaching.  Twelve books of poetry, two novels, one of them (“Skins”) made into one of few truly authentic Indian big-screen Hollywood movies.  His fellow poet, Lee Ann Roripaugh, blurbs:  “A mournful howl and raw elegy, sliced through with the razor-flecked wit of an acerbically world weary jester, Adrian C. Louis’ Savage Sunsets veers between the sacred and the profane, the terrible and the mundane, the lewd and the transcendent in tautly-welded lines that are both searingly elegant and fiercely plainspoken.”  That about covers it.

No need to market Louis as an “Indian."  Anyway, he’s not a bare-chested guy on a horse waving a spear at some buffalo, which is the way people want to see Indians.  Take a look at the reality.  Other blurbs from James Tate and Sam Hamill.  A vid at  

The people I know best who write like this are white but not among the anointed.  That means nothing.  This is human.  Labels don’t stick.  Except one:  love/grief.  This last collection includes poems of mourning because of the death of Louis’ wife after a decade of Alzheimer’s.  The sound of these poems is not the drum -- it’s the whip.  Also traditional.

When I reviewed an earlier book of poems on this blog  Dec 8, 2006.  (“Adrian Louis’ Strong Brown Wings.”)  and sent him my usual courtesy copy of the post, his response was more or less “I’ll be over to do the honors.  You don’t live that far away.”  A little startling, but that direct response turns up in the poems.  The consequence is a jolting return to rude and preposterous reality.  

Here’s a demo from “Senor Skull’s Parade”:

“Today at work a white girl,
a secretary I like too much
said (half in jest, I hope),
“Do a rain dance.  It’s been
so dry & my tomatoes --”
Yes, do a “rain dance.”
As if . . . As (fucking) if . . 
my blood contained all
azimuths of red arcana
& I could produce such
utilitarian wetness at will;
“I wish I could,” I said, but,
jack-in-the-box Senor Skull
snorted out a snide aside:
Darling, tonight I’m going to 
sneak into your pale garden
&cornhole your tomatoes,
make them wet & juicy
one moaning globe at a time.”

Tomatoes are indigenous, once considered dangerously toxic “love apples.”  But many female readers consider Indian men to be “safe” to romance because they aren’t quite real and there are too many manifestos about frontier white women preferring the red warriors who captured them.  But Adrian is as real as any human in a tractor hat ever gets.  All the politicians are worrying about the “middle class” with never a care for the “working class” -- often indigenous of one sort or another -- that never quite gets ahead.  And yet . . . is never entirely crushed.  Louis is enrolled with the Lovelock [sic] Paiute Tribe which is federally recognized.  It’s in Nevada, but he’s spent most of his working life in South Dakota, sometimes as a teacher of English.

At my martini limit,
I come face to face
with a typically lame
Freshman essay holding
a plenitude of platitudes
in drippy, run-on sentences
that feature tense changes
& ampersands plus a lexicon
of abused or misspelled words.

The kid, mostly silent in class
is rambling about his lifelong
love of baseball & it must be
the ghost of horsehide on
my fingertips that glides,
warps the breaking curve
of a C into an A & then I
slide into bed, safe at home.

If the Dakotas and Nevada don’t teach you survival, teaching freshman English surely will.  The epigraph of Louis’ “Wild Indians & Other Creatures” is from Thomas Merton.  (The Seven Story Mountain.)  

“Therefore all the things around you will be armed against you, to deny you, to hurt you, to give you pain, and therefore to reduce you to solitude.

“And when you have been praised a little and loved a little I will take away all your gifts and all your love and all your praise and you will be utterly forgotten and abandoned and you will be nothing, a dead thing, a rejection.  And in that day you will begin to possess the solitude you have so long desired.  And your solitude will bear immense fruit in the souls of men you will never see on earth.”

Rain on tomatoes is nothing.  Do you agree, Potawatomi grandpa?  (He did.)

1 comment:

rachel said...

Ha. I love this poet.