Review: Whereas by Layli Long Soldier

How do I language a collision arrived at through separation, Layli Long Soldier asks in her debut collection of poems, Whereas. The collection is a response to the Congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans, an apology signed by President Obama in 2009. Is an apology an apology if no one is there to accept it? There were no Native Americans present when the apology was issued. What purpose can such an apology serve? Whom is it serving?

The question of "how to language" is central to the collection as a whole. Where Long Soldier's poems are confident in their interrogation of the "language, crafting, and arrangement" of the Apology, they are uncertain, curious, probing in their relation to identity and heritage. What did I know about being Lakota, the speaker asks upon the birth of her daughter, to whom she must somehow pass down a sense of identity. What did I know of our language but pieces? The work of this book is to allow the pieces to all be laid out next to one another, none being privileged over any other. In order for wholeness to exist, none of the pieces may be omitted. My hope: my daughter understands wholeness for what it is, not for what it's not, all of it                the pieces;

Long Soldier writes about separation and sequestration, but she also enacts the violence of separation on the page in a myriad of ways, one of the most powerful examples arriving at the end of the titular "Whereas" section of poems. By removing words that represent complex ideas—such as "spiritual," "belief," "Creator," and "customs"—from the transcript of the Apology and then placing both the Apology (sans these words) and these words (suspended in white space) on separate pages, the poet forces the reader to engage in a "collision arrived at through separation". As readers, how do we hold both at once? The evasive language of the Apology alongside the loaded silences of unlanguaged complexity? The Apology and its missing words are separated by a poem so that they are not on facing pages; the reader must turn the page back and forth in order to keep them both fresh in mind. I can't help but think this mimics our experience of time and history, how we must constantly be moving between the present moment and the past—be it a personal past or a historical one—in order to inform the present.

Whereas is sweeping in its occupation of dualities. In a poem titled "38" after the 38 Dakota men who were hung in the largest legal mass execution in U.S. history, the poem emphasizes the jarring difference between Abraham Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and his orders to have 38 Dakota men executed by hanging. These actions are irreconcilable, yet they occurred in the same week, at the orders of the same president. Only one of them is widely remembered; that is, we as a nation, afraid of complexity, are only able to hold one of these truths at once. But as long as we refuse to make room for the contradictions of history to exist inside us, we are not whole.

Perhaps that's why, after finishing this book, I was compelled to turn back to the first page, to the powerful opening stanza:


            make room in the mouth

            for grassesgrassesgrasses

The land is something Long Soldier returns to again and again, at one point even proclaiming, I don't trust nobody/but the land. This comes halfway through the poem "Steady Summer." The land has no memory, which means it is unable to forget. What has happened has happened, has stained its layers, has shaped its growth. The land toils not in language nor in silence. Though she does ascribe to it a consciousness which takes the form of listening: you understand the grasses/hear me too always/present the grasses/confident grasses polite/command to shhhhh/shhh listen.

Without language, the grasses command. What then, does language have to offer? Or perhaps more importantly, how does this poet balance listening and speaking? Both being acts of defiance in the face of a country that asks her to forget.  

For the poet, the page is one of strength and elasticity—pages are cavernous places—places for duality. Long Soldier is a citizen of the United States and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, and in this dual citizenship, she writes, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live. We might also add here the dual citizenship of the page, where listening and speaking happen almost simultaneously—where in the body do I begin; —a question we might ask of any poem. In this particular instance, we know the answer: make room in the mouth. Of course, knowing where isn't the same as knowing how. 

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Darla Mottram