Review: Whereas by Layli Long Solider (Gray Wolf Press, 2017)
Reviewed by Michelle Mitchell-Foust
I was lost, looking for a wedding in the Valley of Fire, Red Rock, Nevada. At every curve in the road, I thought the towering stone formations might reveal my friend’s white dress. When it was clear I wouldn’t find the party, I parked the car and wandered into the crevices between the rocks. I waded through the fine, pink sand to the place where I could see the petroglyphs carved into their faces. Around me were creatures who looked rabbit-human, goat-human, and spirals, and horned insecta. I walked deeper into the rock, looking for more of the 3000-year-old language, the setting sun making the world more red. It became clear to me that the Native American people who carved and painted these images were certainly among our first surrealists. Theirs is a visionary language with a visual rhetoric.
Now I’m thinking, years down the road, I’m thinking about that literary traditions such as these carry on with the poet Layli Long Soldier, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who writes a poetry that is akin to the visionary surrealism of the Red Rock drawings. She weaves the language that we use to talk about language with fragmented imagery in a way that seems alchemical.…in poems with varying physical presences. At the same time, her Whereas calls out fatal perversions of language and promotes the idea of language as place, as hearth. She writes to purify:
their mother in a dream wherein they visited
me in a stanza where we could be nearest each other
These alliterative lines appear in the poem “Left,” whose speaker finds, in the third stanza, a baby abandoned in a filthy train station bathroom. She thinks at first that he has been left for dead, and then she knows the truth. She decides in seconds to keep the infant and to heal his deformities. The “moldy sink counter,” “the cloudy mirror,” “open sores,” and the baby and his “loose flab of nose flesh” form a composite image of dreamed urgency, a sublimation. The discovery’s context is the blood that precedes it–the speaker’s miscarriage described in stanzas one and two. In stanza three, the chimera, the speaker not only discovers the baby, but then sees his older brothers come to take him. And the speaker wants to keep safe all three safe. We might call this a poem of loss, but Long Soldier reminds us that these children came together with her in the dream, and then in the poem, where things are regained.
Long Soldier makes the connections in “Left” between creation and taking care. In her mind, this connection applies to people as much as it does to poems.
She makes clear that the writing itself needs care in the following intensely enjambed and fused excerpt from “Vaporative”:
my love my sleeves pushed
to elbows like the old days a sack
of flour and keys I push them
typography and hotcakes work
seduce a poem into believing
I can home it I can provide it
white gravy whatever the craving
poem eat and lie down full
poem rest here full don’t
lift a single l
I admire the alliterative direct address in these lines, the “poem eat and lie down full” and the “poem rest here full,” and then the last soft command “don’t/lift a single l/etter.” In many ways, this is my favorite part of the book, where the creation of cake is folded into the coaxing of a poem not only into being, but also into believing…that the poet can home it. In this way, the poem comes to rest in the poet. The poet does the heavy lifting for the poem. The speaker is acknowledging that the poem itself must be agreeable to the process of becoming. This is the way it feels for the poet when the poet listens to the poem at the moment of its creation and pays attention to how it arrives, and what form it wants to take. Creation of a poem is then an act of faith and mutual trust.
In an even broader sense, Whereas promotes the tenet that the “giving” and “taking” of language should always be an act of trust. Many of Long Soldier’s poems start with a drawing out of the meaning of a single native American word from the Lakota language, the language most known as the language of the Sioux. This linguistic commentary is often coupled with detailed imagery as illustration and elaboration. For example, the word for anything that has been boiled has been exemplified with, among other images, the accidentally boiled rabbit whose cage was not moved out of the sun, as well as that and description of the speaker’s heartbreak.
Often, Long Soldier uses an etymological approach with the intent to express how diction has the potential to become savior, for example in “̌W̌ahpa’niča,”
Because w̌ahpa’niča 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 heads blue-black lakes comma historic glass across
the pillow. She’ll keep this.
More magic like this happens in Whereas, where at the book’s center, we find the poem “38.” ̌This is Long Soldier explaining how careful she will be to attend to the “rules of writing.” She is “the conveyor of thought” in sentences, who tells the story of the Sioux Uprising and the subsequent hanging of thirty-eight Dakota men “under orders of President Abraham Lincoln.” She blatantly describes the abhorrent perversion of language by the American government in the form of treaties and revisions of treaties that left the Dakota people starving and dying:
You may like to know, I do not consider this a “creative piece.”
I do not regard this as a poem of great imagination or a work of fiction.
Also, historical events will not be dramatized for an “interesting” read.
Therefore, I feel most responsible to the orderly sentence; conveyor of thought.
“38” is one of the poems that drives the political content of Whereas, together with the Whereas Statements, Resolutions, and Disclaimer that comprise the book’s second part. Whereas is the place where Long Soldier can examine the officious language of oppression and apology. She will respect the sentence as she squares off with the sentencing of her ancestors. She says in “WHEREAS I tire…,”
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. Does it matter. I’m lila blugo. Stuck, I
What is most important about Long Soldier’s Whereas is how she speaks to the problem of place in the ongoing narrative of the Lakota tribe. Her poetry makes literary language the place of existence–the way of people whose Native American descendants have been dislocated from their sacred places or who have seen their homeland shrink to the point of unsustainability. She says:Remember that Long Soldier says, “…they visited/me in a stanza where we could be nearest each other.” She goes on in “WHEREAS her birth signaled…,”
… I listen as I reach my eyes into my hands, my
hands onto my lap, my lap as the quiet page I hold my daughter in. I rock her back, forward,
to the rise of other conversations
about mother tongues versus foster languages, belonging. I connect the dots.
Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas is an ambitious book that speaks from her experience as a tribal member, as a person between languages, and as a poet. She makes important points about language and habitation, the body, and the creation of space. The various ways that her poems sit on the pages of the book, her lexical play, her “pigeonhole” spacing between words, and her “transparent” erasures give the reader a visual understanding of the astonishing terrain of this place we call language.