The best poetry debuts are often lexicons. You can see a poet’s career in the words they use. How eerie to recall that the word “suicide” appears on Page 1 of Sylvia Plath’s “The Colossus and Other Poems” or that Ai’s “Cruelty” opens with a vision of entrapment. “You keep me waiting in a truck," she writes in one poem, "with its one good wheel stuck in a ditch.”
Writers who live between two languages face an extra challenge in their role as lexicographers of metaphor. They must create a mythology through language that acts like double-pane glass. As in, they must correct for the distortion of the words they are translating from one language to another.
In her debut collection, “Whereas,” the Oglala Sioux writer Layli Long Soldier manages this double-ness with the precision of a master glassblower. Writing in a variety of forms and with ferocious precision, Long Soldier uses the grit between the definitions of words in her language and in English to make poems that are transparent on the history of American Indians — a history that has been catastrophically opaque.
From its very first pages, “Whereas” reads like a book of robust corrections, parenthetical comments, footnotes and arguments with definitions. The words “as in” appear as often as the word “like” is used by teenagers, creating a jittery, stutter-stepping rhythm, one reinforced by Long Soldier’s tricky typographical arrangements.
You do not slip into this book on silken bolts of easy beauty, but scratch yourself raw on language disassembled into glittering shards: “He is a mountain as he is a horn that comes from a shift in the river, throat to mouth,” starts “He Sapa," a poem about how many beings tumble forth from two words.
The book’s long first sequence portrays a poet assembling her materials, admitting what’s missing — some of which is her native language. “This / was how I wanted to begin,” Long Soldier later continues, almost by way of explanation, “with the little / I know.” And since a disappearing language is often yoked to a disappearing history, Long Soldier’s urge is to, as she puts it, “shake the dead.” This is how she practices the crime-scene forensics and ancestor respect of a poet used to growing up on the erased people’s ledger of American empire.
Two of Long Soldier’s great strengths are the use of repetition like a hammer on concepts she believes need breaking, and lyricism when she believes a reader needs to feel wonder. When she must be absolutely clear on what’s happened, Long Soldier writes in prose. Take, for instance, the bravura poem “38,” a riff on the 38 Dakota men hanged in December 1862, just days before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. “It could be said,” Long Soldier writes, referring to a treaty and an exchange of land for money, “this money was payment for the land the Dakota ceded; for living within assigned boundaries (a reservation); and for relinquishing rights to their vast hunting territory which, in turn, made the Dakota people dependent on other means to survive: money.”
The most extraordinary section of the book, though, is its title series, “Whereas,” which begins with the first word of the U.S. government’s official apology to American Indians, “whereas,” and then proceeds to peel legal politesse from an undercurrent of lies. In the actual written document, folded into a defense authorization bill in 2010, the word whereas signals that whatever actions described and apologized for that follow whereas do not form an actionable grievance. In essence, it was an apology that took no responsibility.
Long Soldier’s “Whereas” is both a rewriting and a response, not unlike Solmaz Sharif’s extraordinary 2016 debut, “Look,” which uses words from a U.S. Department of Defense manual to write poems grieving her own uncle, killed in the Iran-Iraq War. As with Sharif’s elegy, there is a mournful sense of the impossible about Long Soldier’s poem. The land, “ceded (taken)” from her ancestors in treaties that historians have made clear were designed to trick, will never be returned. Even as she types in ”Resolutions,” “this land this land” all across the page like a chant, the words' symbolic meaning feels impermanent.
All she can do here is make assertions that fall under the category of things that are not legally actionable — or that ought not to be. Like her identity: “The term American Indian parts our conversation like a hollow bloated boat that is not ours that neither my friend nor I want to board,” Long Soldier writes, “knowing it will never take us anywhere but to rot.” Again and again, these poems return to the poet's body as a contact point with politics and power. Long Soldier’s “Whereas” statement continually returns to her body, because it is through her body that experiences, witnesses, are let down. “My eyes left me, my soldiers,” she writes at one point, “my two scouts to the unseen.”
There are a few poems in “Whereas” that are becoming more prominent in collections by writers of cultures maligned by violence. The insensitive-audience-Q&A poem, the well-meaning-white-person poem, the poem-so-disassembled-that-the-language-doesn’t-make-sense-anymore poem. Long Soldier’s inclusion of this work doesn’t mar her magnificent book, but it highlights the enormity of what she accomplishes with the rest of it. She has rubbed two languages together and made their shared silences into gravel — paving a perch from which a reader can see clearly. Like all balconies built of stone and glass, you will not believe how strong it is, but you can stand on it. She is, after all.
Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s. His debut collection of poems, “Maps,” will be published in the fall.
Layli Long Soldier
Graywolf Press: 120 pp., $16