The American poet Layli Long Soldier’s debut collection Whereas was initially published in 2017 by Graywolf Press, Minneapolis. It was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award, and it was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Poetry. A year later, it received the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize.
Published in the UK by Picador, the collection is a response to the Congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans, which President Obama signed in obscurity in 2009. There were no Native Americans present to receive the apology, as most never knew an apology was made. In an introduction to the title poem, Long Soldier admits that the book was written as a ‘response directed to the apology’s delivery, as well as the language, crafting and arrangement of the written document’ (p.57).
Whereas is built on poetics which refuses the boundaries of reading a racial identity. At the same time, it challenges the making of a nation by transforming the page to withstand the tension of an occupied body, country and, more specifically, an occupied language. Indigenous languages are an integral part of the American lexicon though their systematic silencing continues today.
‘Rocking, in this country of so many languages where national surveys assert that Native languages are dying. Child-speakers and elder-teachers dwindle, this is public information. But her father and I don’t teach in statistics, in this dying I mean. Whereas speaking, itself, is defiance.’ [from ‘Whereas Statements’, p.75]
Whereas includes the acknowledgment of writing as a visual act in forms that take on physical boundaries like footnotes, brackets and stitching, disrupted prose blocks. The poems are shaped or fragmented like grass blades or hammer, or boxes.
Welch guides me
his angle a marginal
slope corner arrange
[from ‘Part I. These Being the Concerns’, p.17]
Long Soldier constantly reminds readers of their physical and linguistic bodies, whilst she builds the poems as fields, or people. This is an unsettling collection which questions English syntax and grammar, disrupting the language at its deepest levels of symbolic representations and meaning. What made me read the book over and over again is the sense of linguistic protest of an artist facing a weaponised American cultural system. As a result, Long Soldier turns the language into a weapon which unearths a deep sense of identity loss, subtly going on under our eyes but unnoticed and unspoken about.
‘WHEREAS I heard a noise I thought was a sneeze. At the breakfast table pushing eggs around my plate I wondered if he liked my cooking, thought about what to talk about. […] There at the breakfast table as an adult I looked up to see he hadn’t sneezed, he was crying. I’d never heard him cry, didn’t recognise the symptoms.’ [from ‘Whereas Statements’, p.65]
Long Soldier is usually referred to first as a Lakota or Oglala Sioux poet, then a concrete or experimental poet. However, her poetry navigates further ahead, excavating, as The New York Times acknowledges in 2017 ‘the language of occupation.’ It also defines a new concept of language created for our own personal narratives. A language which knows no boundaries and restrictions, as our own narratives or pains, know no boundaries and limits. Whereas is an exceptional example of poetry which brings one, face to face, with the possibility of courage in writing. I am now back to reading it. For the fifth time.
©Maria Stadnicka, 2019
Review published in Stride Magazine, 24 June 2019.