Jan/Feb 2012  •   Reviews & Interviews

Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas

Review by Kimberly L. Becker

Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas.
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Editor.
University of Arizona Press. 2011. 352 pp.
ISBN 978-0816528912.

Go ahead and judge this book by its cover: Steven Yazzie's New Territories, a chorus of color and composition, perfectly complements this landmark anthology, inviting readers to "let the music in" ("Aesculapius Unbound," Carter Revard). If The People Who Stayed: Southeastern Indian Writing After Removal gathers many genres from one region, then Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas gathers one genre, from many regions. More than a landmark literary event, Sing is a postcolonial multilingual riff of witness by the people who have always been here: "No, no nos vencerán. No, they will not defeat us." ("Canto a la Dignitad/A Song to Dignity,"Ariruma Kowii, translated from Quechua —Kitchua—and Spanish by Graciela Lucero Hammer.)

Of particular note is the perpetuation of oft-endangered Native languages through printing the original alongside the English. Languages represented include Mayan, Kamsa, Anishinaabe, and Comanche as in "Taa Numu Tekwa Huruunu / The Loss of Our Language," by Juanita Pahdopony:

Ukitsi tse se huitsi tah ka
Numu Tekwai?yu
Ta Numu Takwapuha tsa tu yi mia yaa
Subetu mah.

Today, few speak
its loss—a bitter lesson.
That is all.

Whether or not the reader can interpret the original, like sheet music the notes are there, claiming space and claiming kin with other Indigenous melodies. Often unsung, the translators, then, are integral to the resounding success of this volume. Paula Nelson translates her own work from the original Cherokee, layering tone on tone in a poem powerful in any language:

A-ni-no-gi-i De-s-gv-i

A-ni-no-gi-i De-s-gv-i
Wa-na-i A-ni-ne-ga
A-ni-wo-ni De-s-gv-i
Ha-tv-gi-sdi-sge-sdi Wa-na-i A-ni-wo-ni-s-gv-i
Ga-no-lv-v-sga U-no-le
Hi-go-ti Di-ya-sv
De-s-gv A-na-da-so-la-de-sgi
A-ni-no-gi-s-gv Ha-tv-gi-di-ge-sdi
Ha-tv-gi-sdi-sge-sdi Wa-na-i A-ni-wo-ni-s-gv-i

Trees Are Singing

Trees are singing
Softly they Speak
Speaking are the trees
Hear them softly speaking
Blowing is the wind
you see it coming
The trees are waving,
Singing, Listen to them
Hear them softly speaking

Whether in English or in the original language, contemporary song is tuned to ancestral resonance much as calls of a whale "have deepened slightly/ as a result of aging, / but are still / recognizable." ("Ishi at Large," Deborah Miranda)

The Indigenous poet's voice is attuned to land and nature, affirming interconnectedness of people and place:

"We are one says the spirit of the crane: your song and my song" ("Crane Spirit and Quechua Spirit," Fredy Romeiro Campo Chicangana, translated from the Spanish by Cristina Eisenberg)
"Rain, a living being" ("Living Rain," Judi Armbruster)
"the language of plants and old pines" ("Activist" Laura Tohe)
"island of crane / all one mind / altogether/ speaking / our first language" (Linda Hogan, "First Language")

The poet may invoke traditional songs: "Grandfather my sister and I sing the song you taught, sitting on your /porch all those years ago, we still sing to old grandfather crawdad." ("Old Crawdad the Fisherman" by Rain C. Goméz). When songs are not recalled, however, that is no impediment to singing—the poet simply remakes the ceremony:

He didn't know
the ceremonial song
so instead he sang
Swing Low
Sweet Chariot
Coming for to carry me home

      —"In the Absence of Bone Pickers" by Lara Mann

The immediate provenance of song is less important than assurance of a preexistent rhythm: "I scrape the enamel chips of morning songs / from the kitchen sink" ("Flood Song," Sherwin Bitsui)

It is the poet's prerogative to take what is useful from the past and adapt it to new uses, as survivors have always done, secure in Indigenous identity. Chip Livingston's "Punta del Este Pantoum" varies received form and offers the stunning line, "Clamor to hear, water scarab, what the tampered heart hears."

Song is medicinal—"Singing gets rid / of many things" ("After the War, the Head Nurse Gives Advice to Wives Visiting the Ward," Roberta J. Hill) and "leaves my throat / healed at last" ("Ghost Road Song," Deborah Miranda)—even when "an un-lung song" (Layli Long Solider, "Burial Flight"). Moreover, song has the power of reclamation: "I sing I am home again" ("I'm home again," Lee Maracle); "America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in." ("America, I Sing You Back," Allison Adelle Hedge Coke)

Sing is a timeless collection, where time is not linear but circular, joining elder and younger in unending song: "A thousand whiles... / become part of the notion of forever" writes Simon Ortiz, while his daughter, Sara Marie Ortiz, invokes "the cord of memory."

Throughout the collection, individual phrases ring out: "velvet chairs the color of wounds" ("Black Magic Brother," Natalie Diaz); "the deep red song of an appeasable desire" ("Deer Woman" by Karenne Wood); an infant "on the edge of sleep, gnawing at its knuckle" (Santee Frazier, "Coin Laundry"). Often, repetition reinforces tone: "dig in, and sleep, / dig in, and sleep" (Jerry Brunoe's "Love Poem #13: How Many Aubades Have Passed This Year Alone?").

Sing reminds us that "Stories are alive beings, / little animals who drink from the creek / of my spirit" (Tiffany Midge, "Stories Are Alive Beings") and shows over and over again how "This is not the end of language" (from "Ats'íísts'in," Orlando White). Instead, these songs will nourish and delight a new generation of readers like "sweet dark syrup / tastes like life" ("Dibiki-Ziigwaagaame: Night Syrup," Margaret Noori) and will cause the reader to exclaim, "dayum, that's good" ("Grease," Asani Charles).

Ofelia Zepeda, of the Tohono O'odham Nation, writes in her Native language of "a beautiful song in the distance. / It has come near us... It has come upon us" ("In the Midst of Songs") With Sing, songs have indeed come upon us. Let the reader receive and rejoice.


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