Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Leslie Marmon Silko is of mixed ancestry—American Indian, Mexican, and white—but she grew up in Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, and the title of Laguna Woman, her first book, announces not only her sense of her American Indian identity but also the persona and the cultural perspective of the voice that is heard throughout this collection of eighteen short poems. The poems can be appreciated for their unpretentious use of ordinary language to achieve striking and memorable scenic effects; for the conciseness of their form, which is firmly anchored in the free-verse and imagistic tradition of modernist verse; and for the precision of their images.

Because of Silko’s frequent mention of specific places and dependence on allusions to cultural assumptions and oral traditions of storytelling with which many readers may be unfamiliar, appreciation of the content of the poems is considerably less direct and immediate than appreciation of their form. Knowledge of the geography of the American Southwest and of its indigenous cultures, however, especially the Laguna and Navajo cultures from which the poems spring and to which they constantly refer, reveals layers and complexities of meaning that are belied by the simplicity of the poems’ form.

Among those features of Laguna culture that are most relevant to an understanding of Laguna Woman are its strong sense of continually being in the presence of spirits, its belief in the primacy of tribal rather than individual welfare and survival, its belief in the...

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Laguna Woman Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Laguna Woman went virtually unnoticed when it was first published, although Silko was gaining a measure of national recognition because of her short stories published at almost the same time. After the publication of her first novel, Ceremony, in 1977, Silko was recognized as the leading American Indian woman writer, and she began receiving considerable critical attention, but her reputation as a writer of fiction has continued to eclipse her reputation as a poet. Indeed, since Ceremony, she has largely devoted herself to fiction, her next work being the very long and complex novel Almanac of the Dead (1991).

Laguna Woman, although it is written from an explicitly female point of view, presents the female experience, perspective, and range of interests as being not very different from the male. Silko has commented that Laguna culture is very different from mainstream white, middle-class culture, which typically segregates the sexes. In Laguna culture, boys and girls range freely and are not exposed to the division of labor that prevails in white culture. Consequently, Silko grew up participating in activities shared by both sexes and is able to portray male experience as convincingly as female experience. Her close observation of the natural world and her interest in wild animals, which presuppose considerable time spent outdoors, are not as exclusively identified with male experience as they are in middle-class white culture, and the persona in Laguna Woman is able to climb mountains, go horseback riding, and hunt deer without losing her femininity. She is able to look directly at ugliness and cruelty—the dead sheep beside the road with its belly bursting open and its guts oozing out or the “green eyes wolf/ as she reaches the swollen belly elk”—which are as much a part of nature as its beauty, just as she is able to speak directly of the coyotes in the trickster tale who hung “down over the cliff/ holding each other’s tail in their mouth making a coyote chain/ until someone in the middle farted/ . . . and they/ all went tumbling down.”

Laguna Woman Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992. A good explanation of American Indian gynocracy is contained in the introduction and the first two essays, “Grandmother of the Sun: Ritual Gynocracy in Native America” and “When Women Throw Down Bundles: Strong Women Make Strong Nations.”

Seyersted, Per. Leslie Marmon Silko. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1980. A good introduction to Laguna culture and to Silko’s early work.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Yellow Woman. Edited by Melody Graulich. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993. Contains an excellent biographical introduction by Graulich and an important interview with Silko by Kim Barnes.

Silko, Leslie Marmon, and James Wright. The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright. Edited by Anne Wright. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1986. Contains considerable autobiographical information and important comments by Silko about her poetry.

Wiget, Andrew. Native American Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1985. This is the longest discussion (but only one page) of Silko’s poetry to date, with comments on “Toe’osh: A Laguna Coyote Story” and “Where Mountain Lion Laid Down with Deer.”