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Reviews of Poetry Collections

Review of The Business of FancyDancing and Old Shirts & New Skins
by Kent Chadwick

Sherman Alexie . . . is the Jack Kerouac of reservation life, capturing its comedy, tragedy, and Crazy Horse dreams—those are "the kind that don't come true."

The Business of Fancydancing and Old Shirts & New Skins are companion collections, which introduce Alexie's broad skill, incandescent style and moral vision. These are Alexie's first two works, the sure foundation of a significant addition to American literature.

Through a brilliant use of interlocking characters, themes and phrases, Alexie crafts The Business of Fancydancing's 40 poems and five stories into a seamless, searing tribute to the people of the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene reservations.

Alexie's writing builds upon the naked realism and ironic wonder of Blackfeet/Gros Ventre writer James Welch . . . [and] adds a surrealist twist to convey comparable irony in his poem "Evolution" . . . . By the end of the poem, Buffalo Bill has taken "everything the Indians have to offer" and then changes the shop's sign from pawn dealer to "THE MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES." . . .

Alexie unflinchingly documents the "halfway" existence the reservation offers. In the story "Gravity" he notes that it is to the reservation "The Indian, no matter how far he travels away, must come back, repeating, joining the reverse exodus." . . .

Comedy abounds, though, in the survival responses of Alexie's characters. In logic that Jorge Luis Borges would be proud of, Thomas Builds-the-Fire loses control of his daily story in "Special Delivery," the very story that has bored everyone on the reservation for 23 years. . . .

Then there's love, if not exactly then approximately, and Alexie knows both. He can write the impudent "Reservation Love Song":

I can meet you
in Springdale buy you beer
& take you home
in my one-eyed Ford ..

and the tender series of "Indian Boy Love Songs." Song #2 ends with this stanza:

Indian women, forgive me.
I grew up distant
and always afraid.

Alexie reaches his deepest and most complex emotions when the father appears in the poems and stories. In the poem "Love Hard," the speaker wants to know why, "my wild pony of a father never died, never left to chase the tail of some Crazy Horse dream?" Hookum answers

'Your father always knew how to love hard,'
you tell me, crawling over broken glass, surviving
house fires and car wrecks, gather ash
for your garden, Hookum, and for the old stories
where the Indian never loses . . . .

In the title poem, "The Business of Fancydancing," Alexie makes striking use of the classical sestina form of Dante and the French Provencal troubadours, in which the end words are repeated in different orders through the stanzas. Alexie turns the sestina to hard-edged purposes, to cut away romanticism from the powwow dances and reveal the young men's hunger and hope. They travel with their friend who can fancydance, who is money in their pockets. "It's business, a fancydance to fill where it's empty." . . .

In [Old Shirts & New Skins this second book, Alexie continues to create a Crazy Horse poetry, a poetry built of anger and imagination. . . . Alexie's Crazy Horse poetry is a view of America from the grave, a grave that can't hold the dead. Crazy Horse keeps coming back to life. "How do you explain the survival of all of us who were never meant to survive?" Alexie asks in the final, crescendoing poem "Shoes." Crazy Horse stood when Custer fell; Native Americans have survived, but Alexie knows that they are just "extras" without billing in the film that is America.

That distance gives pain and clarity. In "Horses," an incantatory poem our grandchildren will be reading in their school literary anthologies, Alexie measures the pain in ponies: 1,000 ponies of the Spokane Indians shot by the US Cavalry and only one survived, survived to bear a colt who won the Kentucky Derby with the stolen name, Spokane. In "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," a wonderful double exposure of horror film and horrible history, Alexie rends with clarity:

I have seen it
and like it: The blood,
the way like Sand Creek
even its name brings fear,
because I am an American
Indian and have learned
words are another kind of violence.

This poetry speaks with a bleeding tongue because, as Crazy Horse says, "your language cuts / tears holes in my tongue." Alexie explores how the English he uses, the English that supplanted the language the old women spoke, has always been a weapon of war. He knows how far to trust it: "Because you gave something a name / does not mean your name is important."

Crazy Horse poetry battles with the idolized biographies that pass for American history. Columbus keeps sending postcards to Lester FallsApart, and he gets a few in return. George Armstrong Custer indicts himself when given the chance to speak, envisioning himself almost Christ chasing his twin, his "dark-skinned Lucifer," Crazy Horse, across the plains.

Crazy Horse poetry doesn't pander to sensitive, liberal readers. Alexie's "Nature Poem" answers its epigraph - "If you're an Indian, why don't you write nature poetry?"—with terse lines describing doomed Indian fire fighters caught in a burning stand of pines. You want earth poetry? This is all that Alexie will provide:

she, who once was my sister
is now the dust
the soft edge of the earth
from "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

from Kent Chadwick, "Sherman Alexie's Crazy Horse Poetry." Washington Free Press May 1993.

Reviews of The Summer of Black Widows and The Business of Fancydancing

Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez

Alexie contrasts his most recent collections of poetry, The Summer of Black Widows, with his earlier volume, The Business of Fancydancing. . . . The earlier collection of stories and poems was very popular in Indian country, presenting direct and often raw depictions of reservation life. Its realities are stark and troubling, guaranteed to disturb any preconceived notions readers might have about Indian America. And the poems and stories are told with engaging strategies of oral storytelling traditions, including the humor and epigrammatic statements that sum up centuries of struggle. As Alexie writes in the title poem, "A promise is just like money./ Something we can hold

. . ./ It’s business, a fancydance to fill where it’s empty." The pieces in this book are orally driven and very accessible. In contrast, Alexie’s recent book of poetry has been received more positively by the literary community than in Indian country. He explains that the poems are more literary and less accessible to the broader audience he wants to reach.

The title poem, "The Summer of Black Widows," is a tightly crafted work in which Alexie uses repetition, meter, and alliteration to convey a story about the power to survive and endure regardless of the extent to which people and cultures attempt to silence them or twist them into lies. These are stories created by the woven webs of black widow spiders. Alexie’s choice of naming these story weavers "black widows" underscores the fact that the stories, like their creators, are venomous and dangerous. And even though some might try to destroy ("poison" ) or contain ("capture") the stories, there is no power in this world ("nothing, neither fire/ nor water, neither rock nor wind") that "can bring them down"—not literally from the rafters where they are safely out of our reach, nor metaphorically from their protected positions as harbingers of truth.

Alexie warns us that we fear the truths in these stories, so we try to capture them and poison them. Like the "bundles of stories/ . . . Up in the corners of our old houses," stories that previously fell like rain now must be protected from our reach so that we will not destroy them. Perhaps this poem, in some ways, serves as a metaphor for Alexie’s own writing as he grapples with the process of telling his stories and truths in ways that compromise neither them, him, or his readers. Either way, the poem, aimed at a literary audience, serves as a warning to his readers to respect both the presences and absences of stories.

from Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez, "Fancy Dancer: A Profile of Sherman Alexie." Poets and Writers January/February 1999: 54-59.

 Robert L. Berner

In Sherman Alexie's title poem, black widow spiders, appearing on the Spokane reservation in miraculous numbers, become a metaphor for stories. The summer is full of spiders and thus rich in stories, and even after the spiders disappear, their evidence is found in every corner of a place that remains rich in poetic possibility.

The Summer of Black Widows includes some of the most powerful poems in our literature about the experience of living on an Indian reservation surrounded by the world its tribe has lost. Consider three examples: a poem about Spokane Falls, "That Place Where Ghosts of Salmon Jump," in which the loss of the salmon to urban and industrial concrete relates to women mourning for children who cannot return home; "The Exaggeration of Despair," a catalogue of horrific cases of social and cultural disintegration; and "The Powwow at the End of the World," a denunciation of crimes against the environment and against Alexie's tribe which succeeds as a poem even though those who attempt to do this kind of thing usually fail.

Alexie shows a variety of other strengths as well. He is, for one thing, a richly comic poet. . . . But as always in the greatest comic art, the humor that makes us laugh is always underlaid with a sad wisdom. . . .

In this, as always in the best American Indian writing, its relation to American culture as a whole is a primary subject; but Alexie also suggests that the influences are mutual, and in "Tourists" he suggests just why America needs Indian traditional tribal culture. One of the "tourists" is Marilyn Monroe, who, to become a person, something more than a beautiful piece of female flesh created by popular culture, comes to the reservation, where she is stripped by the women and led into a sweat lodge to become one with them, to be at last healed and made whole again, a person rather than a cultural artifact: "Finally, she is no more naked than anyone else."

In previous collections Alexie has earned an important position among American Indian poets, but the quality of almost all the poems in The Summer of Black Widows suggests that his significance now must be more broadly defined.

from Robert L. Berner, Review of The Summer of Black Widows. World Literature Today 71 (1997): 430-31.

 [On The Summer of Black Widows]

For prolific poet and novelist Sherman Alexie . . . "Indian" culture is not a frozen set-piece, but a field of vital, co-mingling influences that includes playing basketball, watching for Sasquatch or admiring Fred Astaire. . . . Moving among sites of personal and historical tragedy, as well as joy (the Spokane reservation in Washington State, Brooklyn's F Train, Dachau), the first-person speaker of these poems is shadowed by remembrance and loss: "On the top of Wellpinit mountain, I watch for fires, listen to a radio powered by the ghosts of 1,000 horses, shot by the United States Cavalry a century ago, last week, yesterday." While lacking the raffish elegance of Frank O'Hara (though engaging elegies for James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are included here) and with the acknowledged influence of Ted Berrigan, Alexie, at his best, opens to us the complexity and contradiction of a contemporary multicultural identity. Repeatedly invoking the liar paradox (perhaps because "Indians...don't believe in autobiography"), Alexie poses a question for all of us: "Do these confused prayers mean/ we'll live on another reservation/ in that country called Heaven?"

from Publishers Weekly 30 Sept. 1996: 82-83.

 [Review of First Indian on the Moon]

Reading this latest offering of poetry and short prose pieces from Native American writer Alexie (The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven), it's easy to see why his work has garnered so much attention. Working from a carefully developed understanding of his place in an oppressed culture, he focuses on the need to tear down obstacles before nature tears them down. Fire is therefore a central metaphor: a sister and brother-in-law killed, a burnt hand, cars aflame. Tongue in cheek, Alexie inserts images from popular songs and movies, and catalogues aspects of traditional reservation life that have been sacrificed in America's melting pot. "After 500 years of continuous lies / I would still sign treaties for you," he says in one of this volume's many love poems--a love so powerful it threatens to engulf readers as well. Alexie renews the nearly forgotten sense of language equaling power. And the language in these sequential works is flawless, each section picking up from and expanding upon the previous one, poetry and prose working naturally together. "[I]magination is all we have as defense against capture and its inevitable changes," he writes. And he proves his point.

from Publishers Weekly 8 Nov. 1993: 70.

Review of First Indian on the Moon
By Scott Kallstrom

As with his earlier work, the thematic center of First Indian on the Moon lies within modern Indian life in and around Spokane—the city and Indian Reservation--as well as those areas in between. Unlike many of his predecessors--writers of the so-called Native American Renaissance, including Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch and N. Scott Momaday—Alexie . . . grounds his work nearly exclusively in the present, a world of drive-ins and Laundromats, HUD housing and 7-11s, and, of course, bars with names like the Breakaway Bar and the Powwow Tavern.

Yet throughout First Indian on the Moon, Alexie's poetry and lyrical prose continually "creates metaphors to compensate for what has been lost," the loss of five hundred years that began with Columbus's arrival in the Americas. Yet, despite the dark and hopeless exterior of reservation life, poverty, alcoholism and powerlessness, Alexie's powerful voice goes beyond the pain and grief to those things which could not be stolen; "smiles which are everything and a laughter that creates portraits in the air."

In what otherwise might be unbearably grim subject matter, Alexie's uneasy yet honest humor salvages what might otherwise be exhausted through repetition. The cast of characters throughout this collection are as rich as any in literature, and even their names, Dirty Joe, Ernie Game, Broken Nose, Little Dog and Lester FallsApart, reflect the harshness or reservation life, while playfully hinting at an ironic sense of life that is felt by both Victor, the narrator of most of these poems, and Alexie himself. The unifying voice maintains this solemn, ironic humor that can laugh at the "stupid wonder of it all," with the likes of Little Dog who "drowned when he passed out and fell face down into a mud puddle, probably the only mud puddle left in that year of drought."

Lurking behind this uneasy humor, though, is an anger that most often resists leaping directly onto the page, but sometimes escapes, as in the description of history and myth in "A Reservation Table of Elements."

"Pick up a chair and smash it against the walls, swing
it so hard that your arms ache for days afterwards,
and when all you have left in your hands are splinters,
that's what we call history. Pick up an aluminum can
and crush it in your fingers, squeeze it until blood is
drawn, and when you cannot crush the can into any
other shape, that's what we call myth."

And although history is not immediately present within Alexie's work, it is in this anger, and the cruel images of Custer and Columbus, and even in the magical appearances of Crazy Horse, that history is expressed, and with these poems and sketches Alexie is rewriting myth.

Ultimately, though, as in the opening poem, "Influences," the body of Alexie's work "is not about sadness" but "the stories / imagined / beneath the sleeping bags / between starts / to warm up the car . . . stories / I told my sisters / to fill those long hours waiting outside the bar, waiting for my mother, my father to knock on the window." And these are stories which are sure to be repeated for generations to come

from Scott Kallstrom, Review of First Indian on the Moon. Sycamore Review 6.1 (1994).

Review of Water Flowing Home
by Kelley Blewster

In truth, Sherman Alexie's literary output can't be circumscribed by a label focusing on its racial themes. An elegant little chapbook of love poems titled Water Flowing Home (1996) by itself belies such a description:

but I have salmon blood
from my mother and father
and always ignore barriers
and bridges, only follow
this simple and genetic map
that you have drawn
in my interior, this map
hat always leads back
to that exact place
where you are
        (from "Exact Drums")

Accessible, lyrical, heartfelt, these are the kind of poems that do what poetry's meant to do: evoke and recall emotion rather than simply play with the language. No, Alexie covers much, much richer terrain than just race relations; but it would be nearly impossible for readers to come away from most of his works without feeling more self-conscious about the color of their skin. Poems such as "Exact Drums" offer a moment of grace amidst the gravity of much of his subject matter -- they are welcomed like the release of a pent-up breath.

from Kelley Blewster, "Tribal Visions." Biblio 4.3 (March 1999): 22.


Review of Old Shirts and New Skins

Alexie . . . here emerges as a Native poet of the first order. He captures the full range of modern Native experience, writing both with anger and with great affection and humor. Detailing the continuing deprivation and colonialism, the poet pointedly asks, "Am I the garbageman of your dreams?" and defines Native "economics": "risk" is playing poker with cash and then passing out at powwow. Focusing on the Leonard Peltier case, Alexie exposes the ineffectualness of both white Indian-lovers and some Native leaders in "The Marion Brando Memorial Swimming Pool": "Peltier goes blind in Leavenworth. . . / and Brando sits, fat and naked, by the Pacific ocean. There was never / any water in the damn thing." General Custer is allowed to give an accounting of himself, as Alexie links genocide of America's indigenous peoples with Viemain, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and other acts of warfare and destruction. Alexie writes comfortably in a variety of styles. Many of the poems turn on grim irony, putting the author himself in the traditional role of the trickster. Adrian Louis provides a powerful foreword, and Elizabeth Woody's moody illustrations add to the volume's impact.

from Publishers Weekly 1 Feb. 1993: 87.

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