There’s a staggering number of Native American poets whose work embodies a can’t-talk-it-down excellence. To mention only the most obvious, Paula Gunn Allen, Joy Harjo, Carter Revard, Louise Erdrich, N. Scott Momaday, Simon Ortiz, Leslie Marmon Silko and Maurice Kenny. Of these poets, it’s perhaps Carter Revard’s work that reveals tribal patterns of memory with greatest ease to uninitiated readers.
Revard, a member of the Osage Nation that once dominated the prairie plains between the Red Rivers and Missouri, is a professor emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis. Osage tribal rhythms are not so much encoded in his lines as gently pressed into an exquisitely subtle range of sounds detectable only if you slow down and take the time to listen. Some of the titles of Revard’s poems hint at the point of this poetry: “Coyote Tells Why He Sings,” “Making a Name,” “A Song that We Still Sing,” “Getting Across,” “Spirituality 101: Snakeroot.” An abundance of sound in Revard’s lines strikes one as being as miraculous as the fact of Beethoven’s musical compositions, and for a similar reason: Revard has been deaf for most of his poetic career. Read “Coyote Tells Why He Sings” out loud:
There was a little rill of water, near the den,
That showed a trickle, all the dry summer
When I born. One night in late August, it rained –
The Thunder waked us. Drops came crashing down
In dust, on stiff blackjack leaves, on lichened rocks
And the rain came in a pelting rush down over the hill,
Wind blew wet into our cave as I heard the sounds
Of leaf-drip, rustling of soggy branches in gusts of wind.
And then the rill’s tune changed – I heard a rock drop
That set new ripples gurgling, in a lower key.
Where the new ripples were, I drank, next morning,
Fresh muddy water that set my teeth on edge.
I thought how delicate that rock’s poise was and how
The storm made music, when it changed my world.
Revard’s analysis of how natural sound patterns give birth to a Coyote’s song stubbornly refuses to sacrifice perception for cultural sustenance – within Native American consciousness, perception and culture are one and the same.
What makes contemporary Native American poetry like Revard’s so vital to our survival in this millennium (in contrast to the exhaustion of much contemporary Euro-American verse) is not only the lucidity and accessibility of its language and style and the authenticity of its forms, but also its practitioner’s steadfast commitment to the belief that poetry is about something external to poetic language. For many Native American poets, poetry serves as a living means of resisting the genocide of the mind that Euro-American culture has been perpetrating on American Indians since before the U.S. government banned the Ghost Dance, an institution that provided defeated Plains Indians a final means of remembering and enacting the sacred rhythms of their scattered tribes.
Native poetry is a form of memory. Indeed, this poetry promises, to the sensitive reader, to reveal essential and enduring forms of tribal memory, not as a replacement but as an extension of ways of remembering. To enter into the forms of Native American poetry is to participate in rhythms once demonized and outlawed and now forgotten or ignored, which alone should make Native poetry compelling to North American radicals.