SHEILA BARE Reviews
What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned by Sherman Alexie
(Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, 2013)
The Ludic and the Lamentable: “Equal parts joy and hurt” in
Sherman Alexie’s What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned
If, like me, you have grown to expect and enjoy Sherman Alexie’s wit and dark humor in his many works, then his new collection of poetry, What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned will not disappoint. And if I can summarize Alexie in one word, that word would have to be irreverent. We see this throughout his new collection by his use of juxtaposing the sacred with the profane and crafts it into “equal parts joy and hurt” (23). The mash-up of words, images, and forms in Alexie’s hand result in poetry that is at once ludicrous and mournful, something perhaps, the coyote trickster himself might have invented.
A good example of this juxtapositioning is the way in which Alexie plays with form. The high form sonnet, for instance, in Alexie’s creation often does not look and sound like a typical sonnet. Here, fourteen lines and iambic pentameter have gone the way of the dodo. He hints at the form through the title, as in “Sonnet with Slot Machines”; or he otherwise numbers each stanza, fourteen of them containing differing number of lines and are often in free form, which can be seen in “Hell.” In a number of “sonnets,” Alexie does not bother to delineate the stanzas but rather writes in free form altogether. A whole section of the book is dedicated to “sonnets” alone.
Content follows form in the way in which Alexie juxtaposes images and ideas. Returning to “Sonnet with Slot Machines,” Alexie fuses gambling as tradition, with the slaughter or “murder of mammals” and the “economic sovereignty for indigenous peoples!” with the “slot machine ritually murder[ing] the gambler’s soul” (32). After noting what the average patron gambles per night, and then calculating that to a monthly and then a yearly equivalent, the speaker tells us, in the Alexie form of the sonnet, “12. O trust me, I’m trying to find the poetry in these numbers. 13. Wait, here it is, make the ‘b’ silent, and pronounce it ‘nummer,’ as in ‘remove sensation, especially as a result of cold or anesthesia, as in ‘remove emotion.’ 14. If you punch a kid once, then he’ll cry. If you punch a kid once an hour for a year, then he’ll learn how to make the fists feel like flowers” (32). If casinos and slot machines provide for native sovereignty and allay the poverty of some natives in their reservations, then it is also equally true that gambling as an addiction anesthetizes and therefore prevents the addict from any feeling. Given the well-rehearsed history of the U.S. nation-state’s genocide of Natives (“murder of mammals”) and of stealing (as in “slot machines”) their land, it isn’t a reach for the reader’s imagination to apprehend that what is being anesthetized here is the pain of history. To “find the poetry in these numbers,” then is to remember this painful past.
Perhaps an Alexie invention, the “monosonnet interrupted” is also a mash-up of the fourteen- line sonnet interrupted between the octave of the first stanza and the sestet of the last stanza by free form verse. Alexie’s “sonnet” is a “monosonnet” because the lines in the octave and sestet contain only one word per line. In “Monosonnet for the Martriarchy, Interrupted,” rhythm can best be found in the free verse than within the stanzas: “When / A / Woman /Asks / You / To / Owl / Dance /,” the first stanza tells us, “(O, O, O, O, the owl dance, two steps forward, one step back, O, O, O, O listen to the drummers attack that drum, O, O, O, O [. . .]),” (30). Here, the reader can almost hear or at least imagine the “O”s in the poem representing a beat of the drum. Linguistic choice and content echo and mirror one another.
In “Monosonnet for Colonialism, Interrupted,” this auditory playfulness is replaced with a playful image within the free form stanza and a reference to music in the sestet: “Yes / Colonialism / Created / George / Custer / And /Andrew / Jackson // [. . .] // But / Colonialism / Also /Created / Miles / Davis,” reminding us that history is “equal parts joy and hurt” (42; “Powwow Ghazal,” 23). The free form verse that interrupts, marries the “genocidal maniacs,” of the first stanza—without which there “would not have [been] action-adventure movies like Die Hard”—with an “improvisational and highly American olio of poetry, film, and comedy” through the figure of Emily Dickinson (42). “I am a man who loves cinematic gunfire and American poetry, if not equally, then with parallel passion,” the speaker tells us. He then continues to note that he has “considered writing an action-adventure movie about Emily Dickinson” and that he has designed a poster and a tagline: “The poster features an actress [think of the latest and greatest young and muscular American actress] dressed in a tattered white gown while holding a large automatic pistol at an acute angle to the ground. The movie is called Emily. And the tagline, the little phrase that will sell the movie to millions, is ‘Her Life Stood a Loaded Gun’” (42). Here, the first line/title of one of Dickinson’s best-known poems is then used to redefine the introverted and reclusive poet into someone bold and brash. Poetry and high culture is also juxtaposed with popular culture (also read as low culture) through cinema, and anyone even vaguely acquainted with the American poet, Dickinson, cannot help but snicker at the juxtaposition of images. Introverted recluse turns badass in Alexie’s hand.
Alexie’s ludic play of words continue in the juxtaposition of words in “Powwow Ghazal” (23). Students of poetry will probably recognize the poetic form “ghazal,” a song/poem from South Asia that invokes the panegyric and celebratory and/or the elegiac and mournful. In Alexie’s hand, the play of words cannot be missed in the poem’s title, invoking both the Native American “Indian” and the Indian from South Asia. Both the powwow and the ghazal are, of course, forms of performance or repertoire; as songs and dances, they are embodied performances and part of the repertoire of culture/cultural memory. But the act of writing and/or recording, however, brings in the notion of archiving and an invocation of Western epistemologies and the Western anthropologic and colonial project. In other words, this “production” of culture in the colonial project, becomes a product to be consumed for Western audiences to ascertain the “knowability” of the “other” and perpetuates the exoticization of the other. The other thus becomes an object of analysis, stripped of subjecthood/personhood. The archive privileges western thought by privileging writing over embodied performances of the putatively “uncivilized” others. But as ghazals are traditionally self-referential as they include in the final couplet the poet’s name, signature, or any reference to the poet, then rather than an outside observer looking down into his/her/hir object of analysis, what we have, instead, is the voice of a tribal member recording and describing a ritualistic, ceremonial performance. Instead of an “object of analysis,” what we have is the rendering of the speaker’s subject, a rendering of subjecthood. In Alexie’s ghazal, his subjects come to life. The performers in this powwow perform in the present tense: they “spin,” “talk,” “sing,” and “dance” (23-24). There is also the use of gerunds: the fancydancer is “weeping! The girl is going insane with drums;” “That nostalgic Indian is wearing blue suede shoes” (23). It is clear, these “Indians” are not from a distant past; they have not disappeared as the myth of the “disappearing Indians” would have us believe. They are alive and they are performing their culture and they enact their history through this powwow. If assimilation is the name of the game in the colonial realm, there is also reciprocity. If the non-native has appropriated the natives’ culture, then we have in the “nostalgic Indian” appropriating white culture through his performance of Elvis (who, as it turns out, was appropriating black culture in his dances). Note that the only “nostalgic Indian” is the one who is yearning for a product of “white American culture.” If nostalgia is a wistfulness for a static past, then the only static past in this powwow is Elvis. Though the colonial project is a tragic tale to tell, there is also “equal parts joy and hurt” as we see in this depiction cultural survivance (23). The drummers are both “kids” and “elders” so that culture and tradition are handed down through the generations (23). In this way the production of knowledge, culture, and tradition are circulated throughout the tribe by the tribe’s elders and bearers of culture. Finally, if the performance is a re-membering of the past, a suturing of history into the present, then we have history coming alive with every performance, a reiterative act. In every powwow, in every recitation of the ghazal, history is not relegated to the past, but rather comes to life. Equally important, the intellectual and artistic property of cultural performance belong to this native poet.
“Equal parts joy and hurt,” to use Alexie’s own words, best describes this collection. In the juxtapositioning of the sacred and profane, Alexie has brought together a painful national and personal history—there is also the pain and suffering from the loss of his father and his sister juxtaposed with anger from an inability to reconcile these relationships—with his signature dark humor and irony. Though he has “stolen” forms from the high culture of poetry, wherein Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas to name just a few, make a cameo appearance, he has also skillfully “earned” his craft as writer and poet.
 See Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham and London: Duke UP. 2003.
Sheila Bare is an independent scholar and a life-long student. Lately, she has been studying Buddhism. When her nose is not in a book or in a cooking pan, you may find her on a yoga mat or out for a run. And there are those days when she tries to write. Best to stay away from her during those times. Unless, of, course you bring with you a good bottle of wine and talk about books. She was raised by two parents and now lives somewhere on planet earth.