by Merrill Cole on Aug.27, 2011
While today’s young Native-American poets do not wish to deny, refuse, or dismiss the longstanding themes of native poetry, including that of vision, they do not—indeed, cannot—approach such charged subject material in the same manner as their literary forebearers. Such poets as Sherwin Bitsui, Santee Frazier, and Erika Wurth throw native language and customs into drastic contrast to the detritus, as well as to the charms, of contemporary American culture. Stylistic innovation serves as the only methodology that can honestly register the divided subjectivity resulting from irreconcilable demands. This discussion will focus primarily on M. L. Smoker’s “The Necessary Bullet,” from her breakthrough 2005 first book of poems, Another Attempt at Rescue [Brooklyn: Hanging Loose P]. “The Necessary Bullet” is of particular interest because it directly addresses the theme of vision. The poem is bold enough to announce “this is prophecy,” but Smoker tempers the claim to vision by explicitly framing it within both the anthropological gaze of a “science” that would encase Native-American culture in the museum and a theatricality that inevitably contaminates native self-expression in the context of a white audience. The poem demands “do not use myth or legend”—in other words, do not retreat into the storytelling past. It concludes by metaphorizing native anger and integrity in explosive, non-traditional terms: “ask the Indian whether she’d take / the million dollars or the match. / gasoline is on the shelf in all our houses.” Intensifying prophecy with critical perspective, “The Necessary Bullet” redefines what is at stake in poetic vision.
In the title poem of Another Attempt at Rescue, Smoker asserts, “I am from this place.” And in an interview that I conducted with her over email, she again emphasizes her commitment. “I have a sense of humility about even being thought of as part of Montana’s rich literary landscape,” she explains. “I feel a strong connection in particular to Richard Hugo, the mentor, friend and teacher of Jim Welch.” Welch is the Native-American poet of the previous generation to whom she gives the most credit for helping to establish her own creative voice. Hugo is Montana’s most famous poet, and Smoker frames her volume between two letters to him. While these letters—which are actually prose poems—evoke the terrain that is also so important to the white poet, Smoker expresses an ambivalance not only about a landscape that has been expropriated, but also about the project of writing Montana poetry, which Hugo inaugurated. Importantly, the precise location in question in the letters is an artificial reservoir, hardly virgin territory, where the speaker’s grandparents “put on their moccasins and beadwork and danced for FDR when he rode the train out to see the finishing touches of this great industrial project” (“Letter to Richard Hugo (1)”). Undecided in the first poem if this performance “is something I wish to be proud of,” she writes in the second poem that “the language my relatives spoke while getting ready for the dam’s inaugural ceremonies is close to extinction” (“Letter to Richard Hugo (2)”). Even though there are a few Assiniboine passages in Another Attempt at Rescue, the speaker in the second letter has decided not “to take the risk of saving” the native language. Yet she cannot easily take comfort in the English language. As she writes to the dead poet, toward the end of the first letter, “I almost thought of not returning to finish the writing program you began.” Yet while English is the language of the settlers, she implicitly shares what she terms Hugo’s “severe desire for language.”
Smoker is not a poet who shies away from the question of vision. In the interview, she asserts, “[l]ocating vision can be a mysterious, even mystical experience. In many ways I feel that locating the inner push of creativity is of the same vein. I am often amazed by the very act of creating a poem. It feels often as though I serve as a conduit for something greater than myself.” Another Attempt at Rescue never avoids the contradictions inherent in the project of going beyond the self, the conflicts that arise between the native past and the American present, Assiniboine and English, beadwork and satellite television. Rather than resort to escapism or solipsism, her poems incorporate contradiction as part of their very structure. In “The Necessary Bullet,” Smoker juxtaposes three different voices—one in brackets, one in italics, and one in regular print—that circle around the questions of origins, settlement, and prophecy, without attempting to resolve these ultimately painful matters. In the opening stanzas, as elsewhere in the poem, the voice in brackets supplies stage directions. The voice in italics seems to cast doubt on the hypothesis that native peoples migrated to the Americas from Asia. The voice in regular print recasts the italic voice in a language at once more critical, more metaphorical, and more visionary:
[begin excited, anticipatory voice]
surely this is the route, the very route
[lose excited, anticipatory voice]
. . . we never once moved across. In how
many ways can we make this argument?
Asia is the blanket flashed across eyelids
the final scene unwinding, crumbling
against black edges.
Perhaps Asia is an alibi used in some way to cover over the truth, perhaps an Asiatic origin withdraws into the unreachable past, or perhaps what seems to be the past still waits before us, unaccomplished, unfinished. The reader is also reminded of the infamous blankets given to Native Americans that were contaminated with smallpox. The passage’s undecidability of meaning serves to amplify its apocalyptic tone.
Smoker, however, tempers the language of apocalypse with mistrust. Apocalyptic rhetoric always risks turning into bombast or despair. The next stanza, then, cuts the apocalypse down to size by changing the frame of representation, as the “final scene” transforms into a film scene:
[movie set make-up trailer, artist applies
heavy bronzer with care]
we are our own proof.
At the same time that the italicized voice asserts an unassailable authenticity, the bracketed stage directions indicate that which we witness is not genuine history, but some Hollywood version of it, complete with white actors posing as Indians. The stanza thus brings into question all that came before it: we cannot be certain on whose authority any of these voices speak, or whose interests apocalypse might serve. What seems to be authentic might turn out to be a carefully designed distraction, and this applies as much to poetry as to film.
For the entirety of the fifth stanza, after the italicized voice has offered itself as proof, the regular print voice elaborates on what such proof might consist:
our language, July’s mosquitoes, a man
with medicine all within three-four-five
dimensions as frozen waters subside.
it was the shape of our unspoken names
that etched out badlands and red rock plateau.
Science tells us that in the distant past, glaciers carved out the Montana landscape. It was during an ice age that a land bridge formed between Asia and North America, allowing people and animals to cross. Alluding to natural history, the stanza places human language in ambiguous relation to natural events. Are native words as natural as mosquitoes, and did nature itself name and call forth native peoples? Are native practices, like medicine, intimately connected to natural events, like the shrinkage of glaciers? Smoker does not here so much affirm as suggest such possibilities, in lines that revive the apocalyptic tone. The phrase, “the shape of our unspoken names,” derives power from its resistance to the possibility of representation, from our being unable to visualize it properly, the same rhetorical move that occurs in passages of the poetry of the British Romantics, when they attempt the sublime.
Unlike William Wordsworth, however, Smoker places the sublime in a critical perspective that does not allow awe of nature to supercede political concerns. For her, there is no uncontaminated landscape: the high regard her poems hold for Montana is tempered by the knowledge of all that has been lost. She is also keenly aware that the evidence of natural connectedness her stanza presents will not satisfy everyone, for what counts as proof changes between cultures. The two stanzas that follow complicate the relationship between the human and the natural, as well as the relationship between representer and represented:
[university library, child seated among
high book stacks]
we will not ask again—do not use myth or legend.
another antelope crests the hills to the north
of a town remembered for the slaughter of wolves,
wolves stacked high beside train tracks—you build
such strange monuments to yourselves
she says to the view.
The image of the child in the library suggests a young person trying to understand the past through research, rather than through community storytelling, the myth and legend that the italicized speaker abjures. Yet the command not to use myth or legend also holds for the poem as a whole, which refuses the comforts of such narrative cohesion. Indeed, in the interview, Smoker asserts her desire to “dispel myths.” In the antelope stanza, it is no longer a question of the white gaze upon native culture. Instead, the stanza gives us the reverse: the italicized speaker ironically refers to piles of slaughtered wolves as the monuments the settlers built to themselves, the dominant culture’s eradicative standard of proof.
In this stanza, Smoker deliberately juxtaposes the “high book stacks” to the “wolves stacked high,” but why she connects systematized learning to extermination only becomes clear at the end of the poem. The final three stanzas of “The Necessary Bullet” repeat the sequence of bracketed speaker, italicized speaker, and plain type speaker. The two penultimate stanzas begin with an abrupt change of scene, as happens with the movie set and the library:
[archaeology lab, expert explains
the value of carbon dating]
there is no other way to take these things.
it is dark, there are train tracks to the east
under ice. Men touch down palms to the cold
each knowing the others are thinking
this is science, most holy of holies.
While the italicized voice might seem at first to affirm the value of carbon dating, the elaboration of her words in the following plain text indicates quite the opposite. The culture that treats science as a religion has no qualms about destroying the natural world, metonymically referenced in this poem by the wolves. Indeed, such a culture places value on what is dead, for what it kills, it can catalogue. Smoker here implicitly critiques the American desire to see native culture as dead, frozen and still behind the glass in set museum pieces.
In “Several Poems for the Non-Indian in Me,” she implicates herself in the cataloguing project, connecting poetry composition to helping the enemy, which in this poem is the dominant culture. As the subject of “Several Poems” “casts language about,” she finds herself “unable to remember / the most accurate truth”:
a) she might have learned indifference, to forget
the stories she never heard one grandma
speak of. b) she listened to each story, careful
to set them down in true Boaz form.
The choice presented here is either to disremember native storytelling, or to reframe it in the scientific terms of the dominant culture’s anthropology. Thus she risks joining the cold monastary of science evoked in “The Necessary Bullet.” Against the image of a brotherhood of men, “each knowing the others,” the final stanza of “The Necessary Bullet” presents a distinctly feminine perspective:
can you hear the sound of old women clacking
their old tongues to the roofs
of their mouths in the dust?
this is prophecy so never
ask the Indian whether she’d take
the million dollars or the match.
gasoline is on the shelf in all our houses.
The necessary bullet, is not, as it turns out, the one that slays the big bad wolf. Nor is it the literal explosion that the poem’s final image evokes. Rather, I want to argue, the necessary bullet shoots holes into the false representational choices that both cultures, native and non-native, might ask a person to make. No one should be asked to choose between “the million dollars or the match,” between totally selling out to the dominant culture (perhaps by agreeing to take compensation for stolen land), or violently attempting to destroy it.
In “Call It Instinct,” Smoker presents another alternative. As the speaker rides a train, she meditates on poetry and graffiti, contrasting the word “fantastic” in a friend’s poem to “fantastik,” spelled with a “k,” that she sees on the end on a boxcar. She travels away from home. Although she finds that “[e]ach time I return to Missoula / it gets more and more difficult to leave for home,” she states unequivocally, “[t]his is not a betrayal of home.” In other words, it is possible to leave home, to change landscapes, but to remain faithful to the place from which she came. The question of how nativeness, language, and nature relate, posed more obliquely in “The Necessary Bullet,” becomes explicit in the final stanza of “Call It Instinct”:
What are we native to? All along
I have said it was landscape and the language
wrought there according to wind and need.
It seems for a moment that Smoker would assert a seamless, romantic continuity between wind, word, and people, but she posits such correspondences only to place them in doubt:
But I have begun to change my opinion, not of where
and who I come from, but of how
we might establish a particular resonance.
Language is not determined by natural forces, however benign they may be. Neither does landscape control the language we use. Rather, the poem asserts, we have the freedom to “establish a particular resonance,” to make our own music, to say things our own way, without betraying any place or anyone.
The poem concludes,
The “fantastik” [with a “k”] we all might choose—if given the chance—
to name ourselves over again.
I asked Smoker about the significance of the final phrase, “to name ourselves over again”; and she replied that “[a]s native people we have the right to reclaim, retell, recreate.” Native culture, then, is not something dead, a pastness set in place permanently, which we might locate in a museum or reference in a library, but something that changes as living people respond to a changing environment. It is important to note the tentativeness that Smoker expresses, in terms of “if given the chance.” To name ourselves over again is no easy accomplishment, for it does not suffice, as she terms it, to resort to “standard forms of expression.” The accomplishment of Another Attempt at Rescue is to envision this renaming, to set the stage, neither for a cowboys-and-Indians melodrama, nor for yet another captivity narrative, but for new means to represent and to challenge the contemporary world.