Oct/Nov 2017 Reviews & Interviews


Layli Long Soldier.
Graywolf Press. 2017. 107 pp.
ISBN 978 1 55597 767 2.

Review by Carole Mertz

Buy now from Amazon! Layli Long Soldier dedicated her 2017 poetry collection, Whereas, to her mother Loevia Hockley, her father, Daniel Long Soldier, and "with great tenderness" to her daughter, Chance Ohitika Alexie White. These very names intrigue this reader about the sequestered history they may represent.

In her portrayal of the losses and legacies of her people, Long Soldier succeeds in conveying the ring and substance of her native tongue. But the reader can sense the struggle she faced, the bending and twisting of the English language she had to manipulate, in order to express her pain about her disenfranchised ancestors and her concerns for their lands and rights.

American history cannot hide its injustices toward its indigenous peoples and Long Soldier confronts this with the poetical content of the first part of her collection and with the original and legal language of the second part, "Whereas."

In a prose poem, "Wahpanica," the poet calls herself "language poor" (44), though readers can easily recognize the effective and rich eloquence of her diction.

Because wahpanica means to have nothing of one's own. Nothing. Yet I intend the comma to mean what we do possess so I slow myself to remember it's true a child performs best when bonded with a parent before the age of five closely comma intimately. Next to you comma our daughter closes her eyes and you rest your headsblue-black lakes comma historic glass across the pillow. She'll keep this.

In the Whereas segment, the poet speaks about her father's language, the Diné language (Long Soldier is Lakota). "What did I know about being Lakota?" she writes. In the following passages, she considers identity and conveys a blood-sweat striving. She rocks her daughter as she listens to "multiple musics" at a ceremony to honor the Diné Nation's first poet laureate (75).

...I'm reminded of the linguistic impossibility of identity, as if any of us can be identical ever. To whom, to what? Perhaps to Not. I hold my daughter in comfort saying iyotanchilah michuwintku. True, I'm never sure how to write our language on the page correctly, the written takes many forms yet I know she understands through our motion. Rocking in this country of so many languages where national surveys assert that Native languages are dying.

Long Soldier learns from her father how to express the concept "tired" (74). She writes:

...and who knows better what tired is than the people. How much must I labor to signify what's real. Really. I am five feet ten inches... Really, I climb the backs of languages, ride them into exhaustion—maybe I pull the reins when I mean go. Maybe kick their sides when I want down... Beware, a horse isn't a reference to my heritage.

When she quotes with uneasiness the statement "Native Peoples are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," she suddenly realizes the dissonance expressed in "their Creator" as opposed to "the Creator." Why a Creator-split, she asks (70). And using a hammer-shaped poem (93), she alludes to the former wrongs and a "commitment to build on the positive relationships of the past and present to move toward a brighter future where all the people of this land live reconciled as brothers and sisters..."

Though she expresses pain and regret in this remarkable volume, Long Soldier's overall tone is one of informing and educating, of continuing to seek restitutions, and of honoring her Native Peoples "for the thousands of years that they have stewarded and protected this land" (90).

At this writing, Whereas has just been long-listed for the 2017 National Book Award.


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