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On Wendy Rose's Poetry


John Roche

Wendy Rose has, for the past quarter century, been one of the leading voices of a resurgent Native American poetry. A writer who is also a professional artist, a "spy" in the camp of the anthropologists, and a chronicler of the sufferings of displaced peoples and biracial outcasts worldwide, she lives in many worlds at once. Included in virtually every major anthology of Indian writers, and many contemporary poetry anthologies and journals, her poems are scars that talk and songs that heal.

Rose has been called "an alchemical Indian poet [who] has incarnated her words with native integrity" by Kenneth Lincoln in Parnassus. Yet her creativity finds expression in the visual arts, as well. She notes the "tremendous number" of Indian writers who also illustrate books, and links this to Native American rejection of rigid categories. Her pen & ink drawings and watercolors grace a number of her books, as well as those of other writers. In a powerfully evocative, spare style, she depicts Indian women merging with mountains, growing from rocks, emerging from earth. These are the kachinas, spirits of nature, and the ancestors that feature so prominently in Hopi mythology. These are also the phantoms that haunt her poetry: the dishonored corpses of Wounded Knee, the singing bones of numberless victims of conquistadors and missionaries, cavalrymen and cowboys, anthropologists and bureaucrats.

"The bones are alive," she said in an interview with Joseph Bruchac, and she sees in her task as "storykeeper" and healer the necessity of invoking ghosts so as to give them voice, to invite them to "live in my tongue / and forget / your hunger," as she wrote in Hopi Roadrunner Dancing. Her role as anthropologist is to be what critic Karen Tongson-McCall labels, the "invisible insider." As Rose confessed to Bruchac: "I'm not in the Ivory Tower. I'm a spy." Forced into an anthropology career by the refusal in the early 1970s of the English and comparative literature departments at the University of California-Berkeley to place value on American Indian literature, Rose in 1978 satirized the university in Academic Squaw: Reports to the World from the Ivory Tower. Since earning a graduate degree in 1978, she has become a prominent figure among those attempting to reconfigure the field of Native American anthropology. Her poems often recall the appalling history of "bones auctioned," sacred objects sold, and bodies stuffed, all for museum display. In one poem, "The Three Thousand Dollar Death Song," she imagines using her insider status to liberate Indian artifacts, "Watch them touch each other, measure reality, / march out the museum door."

If Rose's work is rooted in ethnography and in the living myths of Indian peoples, it is also largely based on her own experience. She has said, "Everything I write is fundamentally autobiographical, no matter what the style or topic." Born a "half breed," she was rejected by both societies, doubly so because having a white mother meant she could not claim membership in the matrilineal Hopi tribe. Estranged from both parents for much of her life, she endured a wretched adolescence involving drug abuse, street life, a brief but violent marriage, and, at age 18, shock treatments and institutionalization. In her autobiographical essay "Neon Scars," she cautions us not to dismiss her work as purely metaphorical, "When I speak of the bruises that rise on my flesh like blue marbles, do you understand that these are real bruises that have appeared on my flesh?" It is one of the tasks of her poetry to expose such bruises to the healing air, yet unlike many white "confessional poets," her work transcends self-analysis to focus on others who, like herself, were born, "between the eyes of two worlds that / never match." So she recounts stories of victims of colonialism, the Holocaust, and the atom bomb. She tells the stories of people degraded while alive and exhibited in museums or sideshows after death: Truganniny, the last of the native Tasmanians, and Julia Pastrana, a Mexican Indian.

Since Rose grew up apart from tribal lands, she realizes, "my community is urban Indian and pan tribal." So she draws on numerous Indian societies, and cultures as remote as Tasmania, for historical and mythological sources.

Excerpted from a longer entry in Contemporary Women Poets. Ed. Pamela L. Shelton. Detroit: St. James Press, 1998. Copyright 1998 by St. James Press.


Robin Riley Fast

Rose demonstrates how powerful anger can orient the poem toward revision and redefinition, in works like "I expected my skin and my blood to ripen" (Lost Copper 14-15), "Three Thousand Dollar Death Song" (Lost Copper 26-27), and "Notes on a Conspiracy" (Going to War with All My Relations 11-13). Each begins with an epigraph from the written records of the long assault on Native peoples; in the body of each poem a Native- identified voice speaks of the physical and emotional realities denied by the epigraphs, which come from the world of anthropological collecting—auction catalogs and museum invoices. Rose's anger hits home as each poem shocks us into recognizing that its two voices refer to the same events or facts, which are veiled and marginalized by the objectifying prose of the epigraph but which the body of the poem brings to the center of attention: rape, massacre, robbery, grief. Any reader who has, in museums or galleries, casually or studiously observed Native " artifacts" must be drawn into complicity by the juxtaposition of epigraph and poem: we have on some level benefited from some of the practices implied, for our aesthetics, or "appreciation," have been "enriched" by the collecting and cataloging of the objects on which we gaze. But each poem's body forces a recognition of the bodies and lives of Native peoples, and the horrors that made some of these artifacts " available" to collectors. 

from The Heart as a Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry. Copyright 1999 by the University of Michigan.


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