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On "Dust World"

Scott A. Campbell

Section I of Adrian Louis’s “Dust World” (1992) opens with the speaker standing in “a whirlwind of hot autumn dust” (line 1) and screaming “for the wind to abate” (4). The speaker is standing against the wind to save the poor surrounding him, presumably Indians of the Sioux reservation he seems to be on. The poor only surround him metaphorically, however, and he stands and speaks alone, exposed to the harsh weather. The solitude suggests his being ignored by or withdrawn from the community, as there is no indication of his being supported by some unseen group or any others’ awareness of his speech act. The power he speaks or acts against here, the wind, moves from an unseen and unknowable point, swarms around him, and moves on to some other point in the American West, linking together the lands ceded to whites by the Sioux and others. The overwhelming force of the wind proves itself in its triumph over the speaker at the end of the section: “I have no sylvan glades of dreams,/ just dust words/ for my people dying.” The words he shouts become lost in the “death wind” (7) and so he loses his only source of real power. The poem’s title indicates how the wind in its evacuative fury has become the ‘real’ of the entire world in the impoverished rural American West. The speaker has taken on an act of real bravery, one that evokes medicinal powers of certain pre-colonization Indian cultures in the West, and has done so without the support of those for whom he risks himself. But, his words are denied their power and are made into the same blowing dust that erodes the community from which he has separated himself.

In Section II the speaker moves into that community but fails to form any real connections to the people there and to uncover any meaningful, purposeful groups or acts to connect with. Those he does encounter depend on a markedly passive relationship with American culture for the behavior and subjectivity they express. The teenage mothers who lounge with their children on the hood of a very old car and the high school dropouts working at the video store both give the speaker quasi-sexual greetings. Neither group seems to hold much interest for him, however, and neither certainly has any of the usual indications of enticing sexuality in American culture. The girls’ waving “as if they know me” (15) mimics the behavior of high school students as they cruise and flirt, and the car itself has long been a sexually charged and sexualized object in America. The video store clerks mimic violence from an action movie, presumably one playing on a store monitor, and violence has been another medium for sexual arousal in America. The narrator believes, much as he does of the girls, that the boys are “are almost courting me … almost flirting” (26-27) because of his pronounced masculinity in the form of enormous biceps. He walks past both the girls and the boys, though, without speaking to them or making any sort of positive comments about them. He does note that the whiskey has taken over his voice at the end of the stanza, and he rewrites the ending of section I into another moment of powerless or impotent speech. The connotation of sexual impotence cannot be missed here, given the subject matter of the stanza and especially the line “ever so softly” (30), with its whiskey-fueled, whispered seductions and hint of the concomitant failure to act on those seductions. The girls and boys are the community that he has tried to save from the power of the post-colonization West but he cannot form any relationship to them, even of the most basic type. They lack the power of the adult world to identify on and act in their own best interests and to confront the power moving over the reservation as the speaker has in the poem’s opening. He wants to act as a father to the community, to become an authority figure, but cannot because of his own subjugation by an addiction to alcohol and his isolation. The isolation that ends this section deprives his speech of its power over those in the community he wants to help. His trip into town could change the grown children he meets into adults, but his words have been rendered “dust” by the effects of a colonizing American culture: Hollywood movies and Detroit cars that violently appropriate Indian cultures, alcohol that leaves him physically and socially impotent, and economic despair that makes teenage girls into solitary mothers and teenage boys into dropouts without prospects beyond being clerks.

The third section begins in much the same way. The eroticism of the Sioux girls has become blatant and even flaunted for all to see, as they “court friction” and rub their butts over the hood of the “hideous car” (34-35). They have begun marketing their sexuality as they use it to attract this father figure, and he responds by sucking in his stomach and peeling out the tires of his T-bird. In the sequence both sides act out stereotypical aspects of courtship in America, as prescribed by Hollywood-produced clichés and consumer culture. That culture enters their lives also in its appropriation of the Thunder Bird for the name of the speaker’s car. He and the girls signify their sexual identities by interacting with this dominant culture rather than with each other. The problem continues for the narrator at the end of the poem, in which he returns to the video store for the X-rated films he has forgotten in his alcoholic stupor. He rents the pornography from the exoticized, fighting clerks and ends the poem alone in a “wild-night redskin parade.” One meaning of “redskin” here is masturbation in the form of a literal self-abuse, something that damages him in its furor and, again, his solitude. His encounter with the town has left him isolated and replicating the exploitative system, in the form of watching pornography, that has objectified Indians for so long. Even the Sioux reservation in South Dakota, on which they live and which the speaker tries to defend against the plains dust storm, is a product of the same motivation. The desire for gold that opened up the Dakotas to whites produced violence similar to that of his desire for the women of the films—both involve a desire based on illusion and fetish rather than real, personal relationships, and both produce great wealth for people in distant cities too. After his failed attempt at resistance to the constant storm of white power there is no escape from its effects in his home, and he lacks the cultural agency, available to others in such things as attitudes of racial supremacy or the power of money, to form a life separate from the storm and its manifestations in his VCR. His isolation at the end only intensifies his vulnerability to intrusion by forces of the dominant culture.

Although the speaker is acted upon by the impersonal force of the storm, he lacks a sense of victimization. In section III he “cruise(s) through a small whirlwind/ of lascivious regrets” (43-44) after he has performed his masculinity by peeling out for the teenage girls. His whirlwind resembles the dust and wind of the opening but has come under his control here, and by extension it brings those regrets under control as well. Encased in this private, isolated dust storm he “happily” cruises the streets of this “welfare world” (45-46) without the purpose of the opening stanza; the ending of the poem clearly indicates a sense of loss. His solitude at the end only reaffirms that at the beginning, though, and so in this respect nothing has changed in his condition in the world. From his solitude he continues to act upon his social context, cruising through the town and evaluating its citizens’ status much as he went out to meet the windstorm. Throughout the poem he maintains a commitment to them and a simultaneous awareness of their problems and his own. The racist meaning of “redskin” from the last line signifies his self-awareness with regard to his being like the stereotypical Indian. He acknowledges his complicity in his occupying this stereotype and the masturbatory impulses sometimes involved in self-pity, and he moves beyond both of those with his shouting what he knows to be mere “dust words” into the wind. The self-control denied him by his racial and class identities he grants to himself with the act of speaking into the storm. Part of the poem’s poignancy comes from its awareness of the necessity of that stance, of shouting into the void, and its obstinate depiction of both the conditions of the people he would help and his inability to relate to them even in the act of protecting them.

Copyright 2004 by Scott A. Campbell

Phillip Ernstmeyer

Set in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Adrian C. Louis’s “Dust World” unfolds against a devastated background. In the poem, teenage mothers with dilated pupils and “rotten teeth” loiter on the street, cradling their children and holding beer, soliciting sex. High school drop-outs who work at the local video rental store—“products of Pine Ridge High”—clownishly dance “like two cats in mid-air, snarling, clawless / and spitting,” shadowing in their practice “karate kicks” a casual attitude toward violence that resonates throughout the whole absurd landscape. Nothing remains untouched by ruin. Tormented by virulent gusts “from the Badlands,” the poem depicts an environment gritty and grimy with “hot autumn dust,” evoking the imagery of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Forsaken, alienated, traumatized, it is a world bereft of hope, overwhelmed by feelings of irrevocable loss, permanent futility, and the impossibility of escape. All “lines to God” have been broken. The people are “dying people.”

Scott A. Campbell (MAPS) implies that the speaker in the poem saves “Dust World” from absolute cynicism. Without neglecting the speaker’s “impotence,” he argues that the Sioux man who ostensibly speaks “dust words / for my dying people” in section 1 and then recognizes his own interpellation in section 3 is the poem’s hero. He writes: “[the speaker] wants to act as a father to the community, to become an authority figure, but cannot because of his own subjugation by an addiction to alcohol and his isolation. [ . . . ] His trip to town could change the grown children he meets into adults, but his words have been rendered ‘dust’ by the effects of a colonizing American culture [ . . . ].” Later, he concludes: “throughout the poem [the speaker] maintains a commitment to [Pine Ridge citizens] and a simultaneous awareness of their problems and his own.” Campbell’s distinction is surgical. Though the speaker ultimately considers himself “like a stereotypical Indian,” he would transcend the imperialistic boundaries imposed upon him and other Pine Ridge Sioux by achieving a lucidity that acknowledges his words as “dust words” and his actions as swallowed by “the void.” In other words, for Campbell, though “Dust World” fails to induce a transformation, its speaker’s “dust words” still constitute “a real act of bravery” in their transparency.

However, while the speaker’s self-recognition in section 3 does introduce hope into a world where all else has withered up and blown away, Campbell’s reading oversimplifies how Louis’s poem diminishes that speaker’s “bravery.” It is true that the speaker fashions himself as a kind of hero. Yet, before his concluding self-recognition, his self-representations prove incongruous with the descriptions of a subject “aware” of himself and others. Focalizing his brawn and swaggering machismo, the speaker accentuates his “biceps as thick as [the video store clerks’] thighs,” which he suggests both intimidate and command respect, since the store clerks are “aware that I could dust / their wise asses individually or collectively.” Likewise, he draws attention to his sexual virility. Wherever he appears, whether in a parking lot or a video rental store, he perceives himself to be providing a tantalizing erotic spectacle for the “teenaged mothers,” “court[ing] frication” on the hoods of their ‘70 Chevy, who “wave at me like they know me,” as well as for the “two young attendants,” who are “almost courting me, / in a weird macho way almost flirting.” Though these images provide no specific information, such as the speaker’s age or actual physical appearance, and he calls himself “fatherly,” indicating an older man, these descriptions imply that he is muscular and handsome. Later, these implications are reinforced by his “new T-Bird.” Emblematizing masculinity par excellence, the speaker’s “hotrod” contrasts with the derelict Pine Ridge backdrop, signaling his superhuman status amidst a world of “dying people.” Supporting Campbell’s reading, these images demonstrate that the speaker is a parody of white American masculinity: a man comparable to Hollywood fictions such as “Dirty” Harry Callahan or Frank Bullitt, whose rugged appearances make them irresistible sexual icons as well as intimidating, intrepid, lion-hearted heroes.

Yet, throughout “Dust World,” excluding the conclusion, no signs indicate that the speaker recognizes his interpellation. Quite the contrary, in sections 2 and 3, he seems oblivious to his caricatured impersonations. While the speaker perceives himself to be the champion of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Louis’s irony burlesques that self-aggrandizing posture. For example, when the speaker approaches the video store attendants, he claims that he could “dust their wise asses,” yet the narration of the encounter, albeit without focalizing the slight, reveals that the boys do not check him out; they ignore him. Claiming that “this is the whiskey talking now,” the speaker attempts to attract their attention, saying “Heyyyy . . . ever so softly,” only to be greeted by silence. These two details do not quite square. If the speaker genuinely posed a threat to or commanded the respect of the clerks, it seems that they would be more attentive, even if only out of fear. If he were a macho-man, he would not say “heyyyy”; he would snap his fingers, bang the counter with his fists, or deliver a witty wisecrack, if he needed to do anything at all. What these incongruities suggest is that the speaker is neither a macho nor commanding presence. He performs his masculinity according to the scripts of Hollywood cinema, but unbeknownst to himself he performs it unconvincingly. Though he attempts to portray himself favorably, every image of the speaker’s cartoonish masculinity obliquely refers to a powerlessness repressed by that portrayal. 

This irony permeates section 3. Narrating his departure from the video store parking lot, the speaker travels a circular detour that takes him “past [his] house” and then back to the parking lot, where he “re-enter[s] the store.” Campbell suggests that he has merely “forgotten [the videos] in his alcoholic stupor,” but the previous omissions of his narrative urge another perspective. There, where the clerks are still behaving like “clowns,” the speaker arrives at his concluding flash of self-recognition. He says:

I stare them down and place two cassettes,
both rated X, on the counter.
It’s Friday night and I’m forty years old
and the wild-night redskin
parade is beginning.

Palpable is his determination. Both his stare and the certainty with which he drops the cassettes on the counter—a gesture dramatized by the meticulously end-stopped lines—suggest a man resolved in his purpose. The implication is that the speaker returns to the video store not because he “forgot” the cassettes but because, embarrassed to be renting pornography, he lost his nerve and skulked away without them. In this sense, his softly uttered “heyyyy” betrays him; less than “the whiskey talking,”  “heyyyy” reveals the speaker abashed, choked with shame, and almost speechless with timidity. His “stare,” rather than confrontation, signals sheer fortitude to complete the task. He is not being ignored by the clerks out of fear; to them, he is just inconsequential.

Glimpsing the speaker at this moment is shattering. In section 3, when the teenage mothers wave at him, he already intimated his true physical appearance, and the concluding revelation pulls that peripheral detail into the center: rather than the muscular and chiseled features of a Hollywood actor, he has a “gut” that he must self-consciously “suck in.” Then, in the last lines, it is revealed that the speaker is not youthful; he is “forty years old.” Though he does consider himself “fatherly,” the number “forty” connotes being “over-the-hill,” past one’s prime, and the speaker’s age symbolically inflects his fatherliness with infirmity and disintegration. Moreover, the image of a grown man renting X-rated videos undercuts his sexual virility. Rather than a mouthwatering sex-machine, desired by everybody, the speaker has no genuine romantic prospects subtract pornography and masturbation; he is an isolated, lonely, unloved man, confined to a world of narcissistic fantasy, and too impotent to forge meaningful interpersonal connections. He is not the figure performed by Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen. He is a coward, not only too embarrassed to rent adult videos, but too pusillanimous to command the clerks’ attention beyond his effete “heyyyy.”

This is the detail that Campbell oversimplifies. While the speaker does recognize his interpellation and impotence in the poem’s concluding lines, that self-recognition simultaneously calls to mind the fact that he has not maintained “throughout the poem [ . . . ] awareness of [Pine Ridge citizens’] problems and his own.” Until the end, in the second and third sections, his problems are dissembled for him by his over-compensatory swashbucklery and braggadocio. Furthermore, after the concluding self-recognition, the reader may be inclined to reread “young attendants” and “teenaged mothers” not as “clowns” or “court[ing] frication” but as symbolic extensions of the speaker’s own misrecognized feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. In this sense, not only is he unaware of himself; the Sioux man’s own self-awareness forbids him from recognizing his “dying people” as well.

Perhaps his self-recognition is heroic, but “Dust World” insists that the poem’s speaker is a tragic effect of American colonialism. Campbell may be correct that his limits are imposed by “his own subjugation [ . . . ] to alcohol and his isolation,” but the ironic exposure of his immaturity renders the thwarted possibility that he “could change the grown children he meets into adults” a non sequitur. This is not to say that Campbell (whose biceps are as thick as my thighs) is wrong. There is bravery in “Dust World.” However, more than the courage of self-recognition and speech, it is Louis’s irony that asserts its prominence, and what that irony suggests about bravery is unforgiving. Juxtaposing the speaker’s avowal of his interpellation and racial self-hatred in the concluding lines with the return to the video store, Louis insinuates that the conditions of “Dust World” can only produce acts of bravery equal in their audacity to renting pornographic film. The action may be daunting, accompanied by anxiety and shame, but the intensity of that intimidation is darkly humorous and maladroit in comparison to the task of recovering from genocide.

If there is heroism in “Dust World,” it is located in Louis’s irony. While the poem does not dissimulate the traces of colonialism in the Pine Ridge Reservation, Louis’s irony tends to subordinate white American imperialism. As does the work of Sherman Alexie—to whom Louis dedicated “Dust World”—Louis’s poem primarily examines the difficulties of Native Americans’ hegemonic relations to themselves and one another. (Even the line “Here is the Hell the white God gave us,” while meriting serious consideration in isolation, cannot be regarded with the same gravity in a poem that labors to place its speaker so far into question.) Louis’s indictment is dark, but in the very least his irony extends to every Charles Bronson in the Pine Ridge Reservation the opportunity to see themselves ironically. Indeed, perhaps Louis’s sardonic words are “dust words”—almost nothing, but sufficient to provoke major transformation. In these words, every Pine Ridge Sioux would see both their interpellated identity and the shame disguised by that interpellation, but they would also see that shame and scripted subjectivity exposed to ridicule, critique, and change.

Copyright 2012 by Phillip Ernstmeyer

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