History and Poetry as Unending Things: ‘Whereas’ by Layli Long Soldier

WhereasWhereas (120 pages; Graywolf) is Layli Long Soldier’s first book of poetry, and what an exquisite book it is. Gathered in one volume, Long Soldier’s poems clearly expose the ways language—either English or Lakota/Lakȟótiyapi—is used to create and destroy opposing politics. She does not shy away from political speech in Whereas, and indeed, she can’t—not as long as Native people continue to suffer under continued settler colonialism, or as the various languages and traditions of the thousands of indigenous ethnic groups are continually stomped out yet revitalized in specific Native spaces.

Divided into two parts, the book begins with “These Being the Concerns,” a section comprised of seventeen poems, some previously published and some new. The last section, “Whereas,” consists of three poems titled “Whereas Statements,” “Resolutions,” and “Disclaimer.” “Whereas” considers many different scenarios where Long Soldier examines her relationships with other poets, with “emptiness” in American Indian poetry, with religion, with history (cultural, state-approved, or otherwise). Each poem also considers physical posture: bodies curled in fetal positions, crouching, teetering down a hall, kicking at another person out of anger. Like a number of poems in “These Being the Concerns,” “Whereas” unfurls across several pages, filling the spaces on each page, connected only by the telltale semicolon at the end of each line on every page.

“Resolutions” is especially notable in the way Long Soldier forces us to confront the concept of apology Considered in the context of the “apology” the United States government offered to Native peoples of North America, the poem is chilling, especially for anybody who has the luxury of forgetting the fact the U.S. has been built on stolen land. Indeed, this apology rings even more hollow as construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline continues, and as poverty and suicide plague reservations.

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Perhaps her most striking poem (and, indeed, one that has been published a few times) is “38,” which retells the story of the Dakota 38. The poem is a historical retelling of “the largest ‘legal’ mass execution in US history,” but as Long Soldier cautions us, “Keep in mind, I am not a historian.” The poem goes on to describe the forceful displacement of Dakota people from their land in Minnesota/Mnisota, and their resistance in the Sioux Uprising. “38” is a striking and sobering poem, and seems to best represent Long Soldier’s approach toward poetry. At one point she relates how during the Uprising grass was stuffed into the mouth of a slain trader who had no compunction about letting the Dakota starve, saying, “If they’re hungry, let them eat grass.”:

“I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem.

There’s irony in their poem.

There was no text.

‘Real’ poems do not ‘really’ require words.

I have italicized the previous sentence to indicate inner dialogue; a revealing moment.”

“38,” which closes the book’s first section, highlights how Long Soldier writes poetry that treats history and poetry as living, unstructured, and unending things. Rules and requirements for poetry and for historiography do not apply here. The result is both a poem and a volume of poetry that pushes readers to reconsider how we understand written words and expression.

Notably, Long Soldier is also a visual artist, and her sensitivity to the way words present themselves on the page is notable throughout. However, this means providing excerpts of her poetry—written in such an unconventional way that the dimensions of the book itself mediate one’s reception and understanding of the poem—is nearly impossible. However, the appeal doesn’t lie just with Long Soldier’s ability to play with words and syntax. The spaces between words and stanzas, for example, can’t be called caesuras, because the gap between each line or word asks for a longer than usual pause. Poems are printed in columns, in boxes, filling the page and playing with negative space among stanzas, lines, and individual words. In fact, some poems stretch over multiple pages, implying perhaps that they are separate poems. This can be a little confusing, but the content does not suffer because of it.

This focus on pauses, breaths, and beats is echoed in the title of the collection. “Whereas” is not a question or a statement, but an invitation to an alternative—the possibility of something better within and outside our national and colonial borders. As a volume of poetry, Whereas offers something, especially in our current climate, that is alternately hopeful and depressing, depending on how radical your vision is. Though Long Soldier’s work should not be considered an easy stand-in for the processes of decolonization or undoing the U.S. government’s colonial violence, she pushes us, through formal experimentation and her refusal to be silent in the face of history and oppression, to consider that, at the very least, work like hers can play a role. As she reminds us, “Everything is in the language we use.”

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