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From Barnes & NoblePoetry = Anger x Imagination
Sherman Alexie has been busy since 1992, when his first book, a collection of poems titled The Business of Fancydancing, was published. During that time, he has written seven other books and developed one of them (The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven) into a movie (Smoke Signals). The '90s were an impressive decade for Alexie, even more so when you realize he is only 33 years old and shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. This year he has published two books, the short story collection The Toughest Indian in the World and a new poetry collection, One Stick Song. Spend a few minutes with any of his books, and you'll understand this admirable production rate. Alexie writes ferociously, as if he must write simply to stay alive ("I have to run fast&I cannot run fast enough," he says in one poem). Yet in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, each of Alexie's books seems to have all the immediacy of his first, even when he is writing about being a famous writer. One Stick Song is no exception.
Alexie's general tone is one of casual lyricism; he is fond of the bathetic moment when the sacred takes a nose dive into the profane, when literary sophistication veers into reservation grit, and vice versa. Many of the poems deal with rage and frustration about the perception and treatment (though more about the perception) of American Indians in the United States. The poems are earnest; there is very little irony in Alexie's voice. There is, however, a great deal of irony scattered throughout the poems -- a reservation baseball team ("America's Favorite Pastime") called the Warriors, for starters -- but it is not employed as a literary effect. Rather, Alexie has a keen sense for all the ironies that make up modern Indian life, and he portrays them honestly, with a straight face. "You have to understand that white people invented irony," he writes in "The American Artificial Limb Company," a poem about a sister who died in a house fire in Seattle (I would say his sister, since her identifies her as such, but Alexie comes down hard on those readers who put literature to use as autobiography). Wracked with grief that "attaches itself to my legs with bolts and screws," Alexie says he once told a white woman that she looked like his sister, but he lied. The riff continues:
I also lied when I said
I only told one pretty white woman she looked
Exactly like my sister. I must have said that
To a dozen, to dozens. And, in truth yet again, I must
Admit that none of the pretty white women
Looked anything like my sister. I just wanted them
to rescue me. I was lonesome.
You see how Alexie can command the ironic moment in the midst of the sincere one? The idea of him telling all these "pretty white women" that they look like his sister is quite hilarious, since it's almost a parody of a pick-up line that even when delivered intraracially is a bit questionable (would you want to pick up a girl that looks exactly like your sister?). When delivered to these white women by Alexie, a dark-haired Spokane Indian, it is truly funny. One wonders if any of them bit. But although this element of humor is present in the scene, Alexie keeps it unclear how much of his tongue is in his cheek, or in fact, if there's any in there at all. The way he winds the strand back to the desolation of having lost a sister suddenly transforms the hapless, hilarious come-ons into something far more sad, serious, and alarming.
The centerpiece of the slim, 22-poem volume is "The Unauthorized Biography of Me," a 13-page prose romp that plays wonderfully with form -- there are lists and equations -- and ends up presenting what is a rather satisfying biography, in a way. Some of the book's best fun is offered in this poem, as when Alexie presents in mock-scientific solemnity his "discoveries" gleaned in looking at all the books by and about Indians:
Books about the Sioux sell more copies than all of the books written about other tribes combined.
If a book about Indians contains no dogs, then it was written by a non-Indian or mixed-blood writer.
If you are a non-Indian writing about Indians, it is almost guaranteed that something positive will be written about you by Tony Hillerman.
Most non-Indians who write about Indians are fiction writers. Fiction about Indians sells.
There are many more of these conclusions, each one providing that same edge of humor and distress, irony and sincerity.
The poem ends with a funny scene at a reading Alexie is giving in Spokane, Washington. He reads a story about an Indian father who abandons his family. At the end of the story, he notices a woman bawling in the front row.
"What's wrong?" I ask her.
"I'm so sorry about your father," she says.
"Thank you," I say, "But that's my father sitting right next to you."
The poem, like many others in this collection, manages to capture the frustration, the irony, the sadness, and the occasional humor of feeling constantly misunderstood, both as a person and as a people. But Alexie's abiding love and fascination for the world never allows his poetry to descend into pure, unapproachable rage. He is always on the lookout for what turns a moment of humiliation, or inequity, into a moment of poetry. As he writes in "Unauthorized Biography," "Poetry = Anger x Imagination." And in One Stick Song, Alexie raises that equation to the nth power.