4 May, 2009Issue 9.2Literature

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Ragged and Rugged Formalism

Stephen Ross

faceSherman Alexie
Hanging Loose Press, 2009
160 pages
ISBN 978-1931236706

Toward the end of his life, W.B. Yeats wrote, “All that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.” By ice and salt he meant the conventions of the traditional English lyric poem—rhyme, meter, and rhythm—through which poets preserve and consecrate the personal matter of their lives. While Sherman Alexie has no pretensions to writing deathless verse in the high Yeatsian mode, he has shown with his latest collection, Face, that, in his own unassuming way, he has taken Yeats’s advice to heart. One of the greatest joys of reading this volume is discovering the many ways Alexie has managed to pack the personal matter of his life in the ice and salt of clear, smart lyrics written with what he calls, in his poem “Unauthorized”, a “ragged and rugged formalism”.

Born in 1966, Alexie grew up in the small town of Wellpinit on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington state. His first book of poems, The Business of Fancydancing, appeared in 1992 to resounding critical acclaim. Since then, he has published 18 volumes of poetry and fiction, as well as screenplays for two feature films. His young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, won the 2007 National Book Award, securing his reputation as a major contemporary Native American writer. While Alexie has written predominantly about himself and about Native Americans, his writing has always been of more than local interest. Rather than a one-dimensional spokesman for notoriously troubled life “on the rez”, as many of his fans and critics would have him, Alexie has written of what he calls in Face the “sadly humorous” condition of Native Americans with infinite degrees of irony and self-consciousness.

Although questions of identity receive relatively oblique treatment in Face in comparison with Alexie’s previous work, they continue to inform his writing. Now an established figure, Alexie takes many opportunities to poke fun at the awkward social position of a highly successful Native American writer, confiding in his poem “Inappropriate” the depressing fact that “I spend a lot of time in hotel rooms preparing to give keynote speeches. It’s my job”. Later, he writes impishly: “As usual, I improvised my talk, because that feels more genuine, more relevant to the moment, and more tribally influenced.”

Yet, Alexie has also found many ways to take advantage of his incongruous allegiances to his Spokane roots and to the Anglo-American literary tradition, often asserting his right to have it both ways, as in “Tuxedo with Eagle Feathers”:

If I find it pleasurable

To (imperfectly) mimic white masters,
Then what tribal elders have I betrayed?
If I quote Frost from memory faster
Than I recall powwow songs, then what blank

Or free or formal verse should I call mine?
I claim all of it; Hunger is my crime.

Alexie’s occasional lapses into sentimentality (as in these lines) are at least kept in check by his accomplished use of form. Indeed, one cannot help but feel that Alexie’s “ragged and rugged formalism” redeems these poems, which, despite much superficial variety, orbit around a relatively short list of themes, all related to mortality: his recently deceased father, his wife and young sons, aging, and the lives and deaths of insects and animals. Alexie has a particular taste for slant rhymes (“gout/joint”, “thinner/thicker”, “children/silence”, and even “live/dialysis), which, though often more ragged than rugged, lend his poems a homespun structural cohesiveness.

While Alexie often writes in difficult verse forms like the villanelle, sestina, sonnet, and terza rima, he is also a seasoned novelist and short story writer who seems unable to resist bringing his storytelling gift to bear on his poetry. Many of his more successful poems mingle verse and prose and sometimes even bear footnotes that are themselves poems. Like his novels and short stories, his work in Face is, by turns, light-hearted without being light, colloquial without being cliché, and serious without being sententious. Alexie has learned to turn potentially tiresome moments of self-reference into occasions to break the fourth wall, as in the following lines from “The Oral Tradition”, which showcase the staleness and tawdry joys of giving poetry readings.

I spoke
About my father and my father’s ghost

Like I always do, and though I was bored
With myself, I was still keeping score

And counted the women whose eyes betrayed
Carnal ambition.

I’m the Mayor of Masturbation
City (and yes, for your information,

I know that this poem is pleasuring itself).

Entertaining as it may be, one could not persist through such doggerel for very long. Nor is one usually obliged to, as Alexie has a saving tendency to modulate the register of his verse from the low to the high with little or no warning (The Mayor of Masturbation City goes on to describe a man’s death by lung cancer). If nothing else, these modulations keep the poems interesting. At their best, Alexie’s meta-textual gambits and potty-talk allow him to make serious and candid statements that otherwise would have been too heavy to stand on their own. A memorable example occurs in “Inappropriate,” a sprawling poetry-prose hybrid that dramatises a dream encounter with the drunken ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald at the Seelbach Hotel (where The Great Gatsby was written). Lying in bed, Alexie hears Fitzgerald’s ghost mumbling outside his door:

“Go away,” I said to Scott. “Go back to your grave.”
But the ghost slipped under my door, smiled, threw me a wink,
And shambled into my bathroom and threw up in the sink

a disgusting and hilarious act that made me wonder if this ghost was actually my father’s ghost hiding behind a mask that made him look like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Can ghosts be that convoluted? I would guess that the haunter is only as complicated as the haunted.

Like many of Alexie’s poems in Face, “Inappropriate” meanders toward the subject of Alexie’s dead father, an alcoholic who would abandon the Alexie family for days and for whom the “live/dialysis” slant rhyme was concocted. It is more than a little bit awkward to find this heartbreaking joke about Alexie’s father nestled within the giddy, discursive narrative of an F. Scott Fitzgerald haunting at an academic conference at the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. But it is also typical of Alexie to belie the earnestness of the subjects closest to his heart by insulating them with humorous material.

Alexie seems to find looking directly at human suffering both too painful and too comic a task to undertake with complete seriousness (as we have seen in his poems about his father), allaying his uneasiness by cracking jokes. He is far more convincing when writing about non-human creatures. In contrast to most of his poems about people, his animal poems are never flippant, and as a result they constitute the finest portion of his work. The most interesting poems in this volume, such as “Avian Nights”, “The Sum of His Parts”, and “In the Matter of Human v. Bee”, ponder the thoughts, feelings, and even theology of insects and animals, ranging from starlings, crows, robins, snakes, and deer to bees, ants, mosquitoes, wasps, and spiders. More than anything else, these poems showcase Alexie’s acute moral sensibility, his greatest asset alongside his storytelling gift. Writing about the recent disappearance of bees in “In the Matter of Human v. Bee”, he succeeds in expressing the grief, love, frustration, and decency that characterise his best writing:

Nothing can stay
Because the bees

Are little gods

Who gave us grace
Bloom by bloom.

The bees are gone.

I sing this song
To bring them back,

Or say goodbye,

Or to worship
The empty sky.

Stephen Ross is reading for an MSt in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. He is Deputy Poetry Editor of the Oxonian Review.