Native Songs

'Sing' spotlights verse by contemporary indigenous poets

The inherent flaw of the creative-writing workshop—the dominant pedagogical mode in many of today's university writing programs—is the inevitable homogenization of voices.

Whether striving to satisfy the expectations of a group, a teacher or literary-magazine editors, a young or beginning writer risks conforming to a unilingual mode of representation. Of course, standardization isn't the intention of writing workshops. But inevitably, in the same way McDonald's standardizes products to improve their efficiency, healthfulness and "greenness," something is lost along the way. What is lost is the human touch.

Sing: Poetry From the Indigenous Americas, a collection that brings together more than 80 living poets from the Americas—South, Central and North—is an attempt to wrench us, at least those of us who read modern verse, from our literary-ensconced sleep and to remind us that there are other languages, voices and experiences outside of the realm of workshops, open-mics, and YouTube videos—to help us recognize that terms like "empire" and "oppression" aren't academic for many people on this planet.

University of Nebraska professor Allison Adelle Hedge Coke is known for her own poetry (the excellent Blood Run, about the Native American historic site in South Dakota) and creative nonfiction (the harrowing memoir Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer). As wonderful as these earlier books are, her lasting contribution undoubtedly will be the series of anthologies of indigenous literature that she continues to assemble. Coke's previous edited volume, Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing, Pacific Rim, is a real treat, focusing on Pan-Asian voices from the Pacific region.

But Arizona readers will probably get a lot more out of Sing, written as it is in multiple languages, especially since Tucsonan and master Diné bard Sherwin Bitsui is included in this landmark effort.

His dazzling, image-rich poems essentially bookend the collection. "Calyx," for instance, serves as Sing's prelude, but it is more akin to an opening ritual, an initiating prayer to both man and God for the strength necessary to articulate the multilingual, geography-spanning, sacred visions and postcolonial anguish of these writers:

The night, our cornfield's glittering backdrop, splatters the windshield and we are flung / back towards dust, our minds forked with spilled ink tasting like turtle blood / under our hushed bodies. / How do I describe her daubing my face with a cornhusk?

How, indeed. The pressure of singing these songs of identity must have been immense and heart-rending. But the poets gathered here embrace the challenge and never disappoint. Of course, more than a few of the U.S. names are instantly recognizable to those who read contemporary verse—Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo and Lee Maracle. The latter's ode to going back to the Stó:lo Nation is unforgettable in its evocation of the Fraser Valley of British Columbia:

I'm home again.

Killer whales sidle their litheness alongside the ferry.

Cedar bows acknowledging my return.

Raven calls out a cackled hello.

Berries look ready to greet me.

Even the sea peels back its tide

To permit a trek across her mud just as I land.

I can see the wetlands from the hill near my cottage.

The tears come.

Another notable contributor for Arizonans is Simon Ortiz, who teaches at Arizona State University. Ortiz and Bitsui are part of the concluding series of voices. Indeed, the book's final section is called "Sing You Back," which Coke describes in her introduction as a "paean anthem of reclamation." What Ortiz and Bitsui reclaim is the lost memory of indigenous people and their experiences, which history, written by colonialists, seeks to erase. When Bitsui poetically conjures sunset and dawn, or the symbolic arc of an indigenous song of freedom, or moments of kinship and inclusivity, he shows us how to examine the world around us with fresh eyes:

The drum pulsed somewhere in the dark and I heard a woman unbraiding her hair. / I felt morning songs leap from the hooghan's smoke-hole and curl outward from the roof of the sky, gliding through us like rain. I sang, sang until the sun rose.

Coke's collection prompts readers to recall, as she so eloquently puts it, "the continual literary work of millions of indigenous people in the lands of millions and millions of migratory and settled birds, puckered with millions of mounds laid in tribute, testimony and homage, for all to know. Here is a bit of the music."

Thank you for this morsel, professor Coke. I'm eager to hear more.

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