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On "Petroglyphs of Serena"


Heather Zadra

I felt quite compelled to write about this poem because I grew up connected (in a paradoxically disconnected sort of way) to
the images Louis presents so starkly and realistically. In fact, through much of his work I could match his bleak, yet intensely powerful, depictions with scenes I've witnessed since I was a child in White River, South Dakota (just north of the Rosebud Indian Reservation and a couple of hours east of Pine Ridge), where my grandmother and father were raised and where I spent every summer growing up. "Yellowbird's Store" becomes the local Wig-Wam, where milk costs $3.50 a gallon and *is* "powdered with Great Plains dust"; I can see the "broken-down '72 Olds" (or maybe it's a Plymouth) rusting in a front yard; and, as in "Dust World," everybody knows that, even if young people do escape this town (and many, many don't), they still "have...two strikes/ against them even if they did graduate." A close friend of my father's, a white man who's now a dentist in Chicago, can rattle off the names of the dead, names that composed most of his graduating class--high school classmates who, over the years or early on, were killed in tragic, split-second accidents, who died of alcoholism, or who are barely hanging on and have forsaken the title of "living." He is white, like my father, and that "helped"--for whatever that's worth. They didn't have the history or the precedents to deal with that their Native American friends did, even as they recognized their own race's blame in shaping that history. But sometimes they talk about it and sound amazed that even they got out, and that once they did, they actually succeeded in what they tried to do "out there." We still visit, but Dad pretty much stays around the house, which lies just outside of town a mile or so.

It's eerie, almost, seeing this world through Louis from the inside, in a way that, even as my grandmother and her mother always welcomed the many poor Lakota Indians who appeared shyly at their home (as they ate together, my relatives always promised to pick them up in a beaten-up old van on Sunday morning for church), I never had access to in my own experience. That I am white, despite the deeply-held sympathies that I learned and felt growing up, and that I can honestly feel as I write this post, rightfully excludes me from any notion or understanding of what this dispossessed, displaced people has undergone, or continues to undergo. A naive realization, and one that I've implicity understood for some time now, but one, I think, that describes exactly what Louis intends for his white readers.

"Petroglyphs of Serena" gives us "snapshots," so to speak, of a dying world, a world in which even the Native American speaker cannot find a way out. Its language is distinctly personal and individualized, at the same time that the poem's description of one small reservation town and its inhabitants suggests hundreds of other, similar towns and people stretched across the region. And yet it is not for the white people that Louis presents this picture, or if it is, he does so in a way that includes them only as figures complicit in the Native American destruction that is simultaneously the Indians' own "self-destruction." As the biographical sketch indicates, even as Louis dreams of "that simple urge to scalp a white man," he also refuses to gloss over his own, and his people's, part in damning themselves: "Our children have no respect / because their parents cannot connect / the values of the ancient chiefs / to the deadly grief that welfare brings." Still, it is ultimately the white race that has brought Native Americans into the conditions that urge on a people's self-ruin. The poem is thus inevitably dependent on whites' involvement in its construction, at the same time that it stands as a sort of infirm monument to a once self-reliant people.

The yearning for a return to a simple, communal past that can no longer be reclaimed except in memory, through those who remember for the people as "the grandmother[s] of us all", echoes throughout the poem. The speaker understands the impossibility of going back to "the old days" and can find no viable way to redeem the future, to save generations that must otherwise be subjected to the same conditions that he, and numerous others before him, have been. Thus, he can only question, rather than provide answers to, those who, likewise, cannot respond to such unanswerable concerns:

The question is, can the children be saved?
And if so, then why? Will they ever be whole
or do we just add them to the dark days
of casualties from Sand Creek
to Ira Hayes?

The speaker's only "solutions," or perhaps we might call them escapes, are to move away from reality by imagining redemption through revenge ("the sweet, sweet squeak / of blade hitting headbone. / The snapdance of sinew / yanked awry"), or through escapist sexual pleasure which, even as it invests him with the sense that he is "safe and guilt-free," is only fleeting and ultimately defeating: "I love to graze on the sparse, black / cornsilk in the valleys of the Sioux / and it will be my downfall." The speaker's descriptions of his sexual impulses fill the beginning of the poem, and are cut off abruptly by Serena's death; they are then replaced by vengeful imaginings revolving around white men, white traders, and their abuses of Native Americans; finally, by the end of the poem, sexual acts once again become the focus, this time, perhaps, with Serena's sister. All of these shifts unsuccessfully attempt to elide the enormity of what has happened to a culture, an entire tradition, and turn into a twisted cycle that mimics the seasonal changes recurrent throughout the poem. Much of the vitality of Native American traditions have revolved around the importance of continuous change, often epitomized in nature, and here Louis puts such forms to a darker purpose. The freezing Indians in their poorly insulated homes, for instance, perform a deeply ironic ritual, once ceremonial but here desperate, as they "shiver-danced around woodstoves / and howled the most wondrous songs / of brilliant poverty."

There's so much more to do with this poem, and I've only touched the surface (e.g., what *about* Serena's death?), but it might suffice to close in noting that the poem's speaker, though still angry, is exhausted, tired, perhaps a bit like Hughes in his later poetry. It is 1997, and still he paints the same pictures he's been trying to sell for thirty years.

Copyright 2001 by Heather Zadra


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