Jennifer Reeser: INDIGENOUS
Robert Frost famously stressed the difference between griefs and grievances, how the latter was the stuff of politics and the former the domain of the lasting values, of the arts. Certainly the widespread and long-lasting misery of the Amerindian population has birthed both grief and grievances. Their diminished numbers have suffered genocide and still undergo the blights of racism today in the lack of economic opportunity, voting rights suppression, police repression, general lack of sufficient health care, all the evils visited on minority groups in the United States, today as yesterday. They have the further disadvantage of being less visible than other groups, save when their land is needed for a pipeline.
Jennifer Reeser’s latest volume of poems, Indigenous, is a themed collection dealing with her Amerindian ancestry. While there are a few more general poems of protest, most of the book reflects the native experience through her family history, thus emphasizing the personal over the polemical while still her family serves as a microcosm of the larger world. This approach allows a greater scope for the human while still never losing touch with the larger focus of the suffering and diminishment of a people. But there is great pride and spirit obvious in the book: defeat does not bring death of spirit whatever outward indicators suggest.
The book begins with one of the strongest poems in the collection, “Enigma.” The speaker (here I think it’s safe to assume, the poet) as a young girl is perusing the fables of Aesop while her grandfather is working on a crossword puzzle over coffee and then, finished, offers the girl a sip of his brew: “To draw his spirit into mine, I drink.” The entire book is a drawing of the spirit into the present and many of the motifs that subtly appear in this poem repeat throughout the collection. The poem is a humbler parallel to Gjertrude Schanckenberg’s “Supernatural Love,” even using the same form. That the poem does not suffer from the comparison speaks to its strength.
“Thunderbird” tells of the announcement of the speaker’s birth being broadcast to her father from a helicopter, unsafely revealing his position to the enemy; still, the speaker is pleased to think that her “name came through the heavens from a Thunderbird,” one of many appearances of the bird motif in the book. “Black Flies and Berries” shows how native customs honoring the recently dead can seem strange, even disrespectful, when seen from another culture—this becomes emphasized when those two cultures meet in the same family.
Many of the poems make use of both Amerindian and Christian beliefs and practices; while some poems, such as “Perhaps My Patmos” show the obduracy and hypocrisy of some Christians, still the Indian who suffers their disregard in this poem is also a Christian. Probably only “Red Jacket to the Seneca, on Religion” seems to deliver an anti-Christian angle, but it only seems to do so in the absence of the rest of the book. Clearly most of the people in the book have adopted Christianity, while still keeping faith with native beliefs. It would be interesting to get more of a sense how this happened—it would be unfair to criticize a book for what it does not attempt to do, but the question does linger. Obviously, the characters are able to accept the faith despite the hypocrisy of how its messengers live it. And the anger justly felt is sometimes vividly portrayed:
brothers shot their shafts through your hard hearts
That such righteous anger could still see the value in the alien creed of their oppressors is of interest, seemingly showing a fine discrimination of judgment under what must have been circumstances that would normally elicit a more categorical response. And the situation is not exactly paralleled in the situation of the slaves, who were not deemed enemy but property.
One of the collection’s most interesting poems is also one of the most puzzling, at least to me. “Ka No Gi S Di Asks the Amorous Commander” is a Shakespearean sonnet and begins with what might be bargaining over a dowry of sorts or perhaps a claim for some sort of restitution:
Divested of the leathers of first daughter
This is followed by: “Two feathers and a squirrel’s tail, says the Jackson / Distinguishing the Red Sticks from my kind.” The Red Sticks were a faction of the Creeks who opposed the more submissive and integrationist other Creeks of the time. William McIntosh was a chief of the Lower Creeks who opposed the Red Sticks and even became a major for Andrew Jackson. (For an Amerindian today, the sight of Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill must be as diminishing as if Pol Pot were to appear on the Cambodian riel.) The speaker is obviously a Lower Creek. The next two lines read: “In autumn fields of Creeks flayed by the flaxen / What brotherhood should I expect to find?” Does the ‘by’ refer to the site of the action or to the perpetrator? For ‘flaxen’ here could be the plant or be shorthand for blond, i.e. the European. The next two lines are: “Beneath me on these leaves of brown and rust, / I know it is impossible to speak” seems to speak to my condition, while the sonnet ends:
see, I am an enemy to trust
Is the speaker an enemy who can be trusted or someone who is in enmity to the concept of trust in this situation? Ambiguity can be a powerful tool, but ambiguity couched in uncertainty may be pushing things. This is a strikingly memorable poem but one that remains at least partly closed till one knows who Ka No Gi S Di is and more particulars about her situation. My internet search provided no illumination whatsoever. Would the fascination of the poem outlast its mystery once the outlines became clearer? I am certainly in no position to answer that at this point.
As mentioned above, this poem was a Shakespearean sonnet. Indigenous has an abundance of forms including sonnets, villanelles, Sapphics, and other repeating and nonce forms, which are for the most part handled very well. There are a few translations from the Cherokee language as well as poems making use of Cherokee sounds. But the great majority rely on traditional English prosody, and gives the lie to more faddish claims that the poet is showing her oppression by using the prosodic styles of the oppressor. Such a claim could be made against the adoption of Christianity, though I would thoroughly deny its validity, but has no footing at all when it comes to prosody. For prosody is not something imposed politically but linguistically. Reeser is writing in English and makes full use of the natural rhythms of that language. Cherokee might lead to a different prosody entirely, but, again, it is the language that dictates the prosody. The reasons a particular language is used may be the result of historical imperialism but language is rarely entirely the choice of the individual. It usually comes with the breath.
There are a few mechanical quibbles. The third stanza of “Chickasaw Plum”—“The European pear, instead, / She left to me, on which to lean-- / Ashamed and shorn—my maiden head, / Spotted, bottom-heavy, green” seems rather convoluted syntax which may not say what the poet means. Likewise the syntax of lines such as “Unwind and spread across my chest your braids” seem tortured to fit into form rather than natural. In a few poems the identity of the speaker is unclear. “The Civil Execution of Joshua Martin” is written in six 10-line stanzas that rhyme ABABBCCDCD, which indicates not only the pattern of rhyme but also of sound, i.e., the A rhymes rhyme with each other the entire poem, the B with B, etc. That means the poet must find 18 B rhymes, 18 C rhymes, 12 A, and 12 D. These are followed by an envoi rhyming CCDCD, upping the C count to 21 and the D to 14, though each verse as well as the envoi use the same concluding line, thus reducing the number of different D rhymes somewhat. The scheme gives a ceremonial air to an execution without ceremony, but Joshua Martin’s most uncivil treatment gets a bit lost in the pyrotechnics; one becomes so intrigued with the performance of the poet that the subject runs the risk of getting lost.
But Jennifer Reeser’s book is an impressive accounting of the Amerindian struggle in an occupied land. There are moments of understandable anger but pride and love are much more in evidence, along with an interesting meld of Christian and native faiths. The Indian view of nature is also much in play. The Romantic view of the natural world treats the natural world as something to be read, more panentheistic than pantheistic. The native view is not so easily summarized because there is less distance involved. Jennifer Reeser’s poetry seems at home in both worlds, though contained by neither.