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About Adrian C. Louis' Poetry

Joe Napora
Off the Reservation

Source: Bullhead: A Journal of New Poetry

Curiously, Adrian C. Louis' poetry from deep within the world of the Oglala Lakota reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota signals that his poetry is a leap out of the confines of any literary ghetto that might limit praise for what he has accomplished by labelling it Indian. It is Indian, but it is more. Leslie Silko's Ceremony, with its formal integrity and the demands of reader-response tied to Native American myth and ritual, forced critics to acknowledge it, without limiting it by calling it an Indian novel, as one of the finest novels of recent years. Among the Dog Eaters does the same thing for Indian poetry. This is one of the finest books of poems of recent years.  

This second book by Louis (his first won the Book Award from the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University) is, in the best sense of the word, Language poetry. His poetry strains against the fake, the imposed, the colonizing language of the dominant culture as it struggles to control the authentic, free, or striving-to-be-free, language of the body. The first poem, "Notes From Indian Country," juxtaposes the disembodied language of the oppressor at "An adjectival all-staff meetin  at the Indian college" where he is "forced to listen to a professional / storyteller" against the response of his friend "Verdell / who let a silent onion fart."  

"Red Blues in a White Town the Day We Bomb Iraqi Women and Children" is one of the most appropriate poems written in response to that particular atrocity. The poem ends: "Long distance killers with college degrees / swooped down from heaven / on high tech wings. / They pushed painless buttons / and a sand tribe's blood splashed up / to white clouds / to blue sky / to God/s face." And, finally, Louis has written one of the most memorable poems I've ever read: "Christmas Carol For The Severed Head of Mangus Coloradas." There's plenty left to say, but anyone reading this review should read this book as a prolegomena to some straight talk about contemporary poetry. 

from a review of Louis' Among the Dog Eaters, poems by Adrian Louis.

Leslie Ullman
Review of Adrian Louis's Among the Dog Eaters

Source: The Adrian C. Louis Website from Hanksville

This is an extract from a review of five books of poetry, published in the Kenyon Review, XV, #3. The other books reviewed were South America Mi Hija by Sharon Doubiago, The Business of Fancy Dancing by Sherman Alexie, At The Helm of Twilight by Anita Endrezze, and The Ice Lizard by Judith Johnson.

Adrian Louis, too, writes of a "people beyond definition" ("notes from Indian Country" 3), but his characters are more
dead-ended, without the resilience and bemused detachment that give Alexie's characters the color and dimension of folk
heros. Louis himself is a thorny, passionate presence, at once angry at his people, angry on their behalf, and very much a part of them. In other words, he speaks as both an observer and a prime example of a condition, as both the accuser and the accused. His voice rings through this collection as it did in his previous one, Fire Water World, with perverse vitality: "I am the untrainable dog that bites / all he sees and stains all the rugs of the world," he says in "Degrees of Hydrophobia" (64). In this
collection Louis makes a little more peace with his people and his origins, if peace can be understood as an acknowledgement
of a ragged sort of love, and of the immutability of his own difficult "fire-water" self.

Whereas Alexie's book has metaphysical overtones, Louis's has elegiac ones as it relentlessly depicts the bleak landscapes,
both inner and outer, that characterize life in and around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, near the Nebraska
border. He describes the reservation itself as "the land that time forgot . . .," a "sad, welfare world . . .," where "wind from the
Badlands brings / a chorus of chaos and makes everything dirty" ("Dust World" 17). What lies outside it offers no salvation:

each outskirt
without fail gives the illusion
of white high-rise towers
always transforming
into the constant disappointment
of dirt-hand grain elevators
surrounded by squat lack of vision
and skewed midwestern boredom.
This is the real world of rednecks.
("A Funeral Procession of One" 60)

Against this backdrop, the inhabitants of Pine Ridge simply grow in on themselves, giving themselves over to liquor and
doggedly surviving as their own worst enemies. Although several poems in this collection mourn specific wrongs committed
against Native Americans in the nineteehth century, the majority ring out as Louis's indictments against himself and his tribe[1],
simply telling it like it is in the present-day scheme of things:

                We struggle against
                        no oppression.
    We live in a world of denial
    We live in a world of denial
Our race is puffy, uneducated
          and waiting to die,
            I tell my old lady
        as we drive the three miles
        to White Clay, Nebraska
            to buy the medicine
        of tolerance and bravery.

("Friday Night at White Clay" 48)

Louis seems always to be running a finger across a hot blade in these poems, turning his pain and anger into a vitalizing force
that bears witness to, and protests against, the devitalized world of his people. It is a world where liquor is a constant adversary
and salvation, where even the most beautiful Indian girls have rotten teeth, and the neighbor's yards are filled "with the flotsam /
of American advertising: used Pampers, dead cars, punctured tires, and empty beer cans . . ." (Notes from Indian Country" 3).
The Sioux Nation Shopping Center sells "greasy green hamburger" (2), and the Indian college where he finds himself in the
absurd profession of teaching sentence and paragraph structure is "run by white UFO's who pull strings / of visionless Indian
administrators" (4). The whites who have infiltrated this world range from naive do-gooders and "wannabees" to deadly "long
distance killers with college degrees" who drop "`smart bombs' on dumb women and children . . ." ("Red Blues in a White
Town the Day We Bomb Iraqi Women and Children" 83). The real bite of Louis's bitterness, however, settles on the red man
for his complicity in his own demise:

These white men strut into our lives
with invisible robes.
Their imaginary halos encircle our throats
until we look like those African women
in National Geographic
with stretched necks.

We like their credo of dominion.
We gratefully accept the results: knives
into our wives, children
dumped along the highway and refrigerators
lined with government cheese.
Yes, we know what is best and stage the old ways
unaware of our blasphemy
unaware of our Grandfather snickering.
("Sometimes a Warrior Comes Tired" 35)

Liquor is a recurring emblem in these poems - as it is in Alexie's - of the impulse toward dream and self-destruction, and also of
the craziness that gives Louis his ambivalent sense of identity. In a series of poems at the end of the collection, he writes of
moving out of the reservation, a move which in the white world would be applauded as progress toward sobriety and
self-improvement. And indeed Louis has sought self-improvement on terms of his own, as he refers in several poems to his
efforts and resolve as a recovering alcoholic. Yet his move from the reservation and all it represents is a numbing respite from
strong feeling, from a wildness which, like the liquor he constantly longs for, both nourishes and depletes him. From a white
house in a redneck Nebraska town he writes, "I have murdered an inner conflict. / I have no anger, no remorse / and the white
world / can just sit on my face / if it wants to" ("Breakfast at Big Bat's Conoco Convenience Store in Pine Ridge" 81). But we
know this is only a tired warrior talking, and that his exhaustion is only one side of the balance. In the final poem he vows,
"We're moving back to the reservation / soon when we grow weary of sanity" ("Small Town Noise" 84).

Finally it is a kind of insanity that Louis embraces as necessary to a maintenance of vital boundaries within himself - thorny
barbed-wire boundaries hold him intact even as they tear at the skin. He never pays the homage to his tribe[1] that Alexie pays to his beautiful cousin, but he does pay homage to his condition as a Native American, showing his strength as witness and
survivor in poem after poem, but especially in this image from "Burning Trash One Sober Night:

driving the reservation . . .
I saw the white man's green
winter wheat slice up through remnant snows.
An arrogant and sex-starved skunk
driven by early spring weather
danced into the gaping jaws of my T-Bird.
Well-perfumed, I drove in balance,
on the red road toward
the rest of my life. (38)

[1] Though he lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Adrian Louis is not Lakota. He is Lovelock Paiute from Nevada.

Source: 1993 Leslie Ullman

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