West End Press ($19.95)
by Michael McIrvin
Why write history and facts and story and autobiography in poetry? "Poetry is the true revolution," Rimbaud says, "that will end the discord between history and idea." —Sharon Doubiago
Pound famously defined epic as the "tale of the tribe," and just as famously we stopped believing him sometime after mid-century—feminists especially, who rightfully noted that any meta-narrative is an assertion of control, that Odysseus's rage, for example, is codified as a masculine value and therefore perpetuated. Consequently, the field of human action that is history dissolved to a mere rumor in our poetry; and the human speaker as a dynamic and self-conscious product of, that omnivorous force turned inscrutable cipher for nothing more than a myopic self, as if being-in-time were being-in-a-vacuum. Which is a delusion, of course, and a denial of responsibility, but more of this in a moment.
Although our fear of language as a means of control is justified, the elision of history as a response is simplistic and in actuality an acquiescence to the pathetic way-things-are, to the diminishment of human meaning and the attenuation of identity, presently a mere marker for a set of values defined by the marketplace: a demographic representation, the member of a target audience, some modicum of market share to be aimed at, corralled, controlled.
Sharon Doubiago's Hard Country, originally published in 1982 and, thankfully, recently reprinted with a new insightful afterword, represents a much more courageous response to the conundrum of the meta-narrative: the need to speak our time in order to understand it and to change it despite our fear of enshrining a set of values that must be subscribed to. What Doubiago knows is that to speak is to participate in the enterprise that is Western Civilization, frequently even against our will in as much as we must use the language of the fathers and risk our own words being turned on us; conversely, she knows that to remain silent is to abdicate the poet's primal responsibility: to bring to the level of attention what we incipiently know about the world and thereby to forge a viable self that a reader can interact with and explore in order to achieve a momentary viability him/herself.
What Doubiago knows is that we carry history around as a trace in our bodies which is manifested as both a dream and, for the descendants of the conquerors, a grief we can barely survive. For her, the very ground we walk is filled with bones from which ghosts rise to haunt the real epic of our time and place, as opposed to the innocuous and apologetic shades that fill the anti-epic of mass media. It is a burden-almost-unbearable, and perhaps another reason less courageous poets of the present have ducked the responsibility of history altogether.
Doubiago says, as she walks the streets of Cody, Wyoming on her journey across America, as she walks the remains of the frontier West where our ancestors took what they wanted and left only dry corners in which the aboriginals beg and weep and drink themselves to death:
The last time I opened to the fuck of history it broke me from the man I love and the time before that it broke me from my art.
and when [I] . . . heard the earth crying Viet Nam I took a vow never to be a poet
because I was taught the law and order of poetry and saw my brother become a killer as he obeyed the law and order of the Army. I was taught the words of a woman are almost worthless.
because art I was taught is too delicate to sing of genocide. But what else could I sing while people were being murdered in my name?
The conundrum is real, to speak with all its attendant risk or to remain silent, but there is really only one answer. For genocide is but the crime leading a long dark list, and if the poet does not speak this negativity, then he/she lies and thus participates in the status quo without meaning to. And the result of silence is self poisoning. Doubiago says later in the same poem:
. . . I understood years in my wild places writing is a physical act, erotic and dangerous, the lowering of the self into a well almost too deep. I must bring up the words or perish from their rot left inside.
This is the poet's impossible imperative, to tell the truth to the degree he/she can apprehend it in an age when the truth is diminished, or stolen and transformed, even as it is spoken. In short, the poet must endlessly offer up correction and emendation.
What Hard Country deftly enacts, however, is not merely the writer's role inflecting history as it is played out in her own psyche, but the map of that psyche itself and how it is emblematic and individual at once. The poet can say in the poem "Headstone," as she recognizes the necessary polyvocality of the tale of the tribe:
I understand we come from a truth we each wholly and separately possess to a particular house and street and time to tell the story only our body knows and our tragedy will be we will not tell it well because our witnesses will be telling their stories . . .
but also say,
I am five, I will never understand why we are stranded in our selves but in this moment I know my own story is understanding our singleness that I am destined to move my body and time into the body-time the story of Others.
The true poet's job is not the solipsistic rant of the tiny, alienated "I" of postmodernity, but the exploration of the personal as it bleeds into the inclusive, an exploration that might help us understand our suffering in its context and its complexity.
Doubiago says that as a girl she read books written by men while their women and children slept and vowed to "write books / as the woman awake," as her man and children slept ("Idaho Is What America Used To Be"). And the voice in Hard Country is very much a woman's, the equal of Pound and Williams' voice, and even of Whitman's barbaric yawp at times. And it is stridently the voice of a feminist whereby Hard Country expands the scope of the epic, which will only be complete when the race achieves radical equivocity, that hopeless dream. Herein lies the poet's greatest responsibility of all: not everyone can speak for him/herself due to lack of skill, lack of opportunity, or lack of privilege. Therefore the poet's hyper-literacy is a gift he/she owes the world.
In a fit of Whitmanic transcendence, Sharon Doubiago:
I see a dirt road inside myself and on it I am walking. At the far end where the sun is setting are my children, all the western scattering of my flesh.
Here are the voices I hear, the unaccountable melancholy, the dark hearts of my grandparents, storied in my flesh. When I look to the hills I hear shattering like glass, the red in the loam soaked from me.
Near the cabin at the clearing's center I hear a mournful Scottish melody. When I walk amidst flowering dogwood a thousand tongues lift their words to me.
Call my name in the act of love. I am full of loss and the shadowy Cherokee. At night I fall into our migrations, settlers drifting across the Great Barrier.
The cold winters you say, the loss of war paint, the images tattooed on the skin of my brain. My daughter in the river we drink, its body lifting her before she knew the body of a man.
When you call me, your face, bald as the eroded hills, is blessedly here, between me and these scenes. But when we ride the boy in your scrotum, which stores, like glass, the ruins of this place, you pull houses full of blood, mountains full of smoke, down on top of me.
The dead and the dispossessed speak in and through the poet and for a moment we are at home here, among the ruins. The ground may be stolen, but all those who have passed are present, whispering the truth of who we are, a truth without which the tribe cannot long survive.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000