The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Leslie Marmon Silko’s “The Storyteller’s Escape” is one of the story-poems included in Storyteller, Silko’s somewhat autobiographical compilation of stories, photographs, and poems. The work is set in the southwestern United States, specifically in the Laguna area near Albuquerque, New Mexico. In “The Storyteller’s Escape,” the storyteller is a Native American woman who explains why stories are important. Her statements are alternated with third-person comments and bare descriptions of episodes in the storyteller’s life. The free-form stanzas move, more or less, visually in a righthand direction across the page.

The poem begins with the storyteller’s assertion that “With these stories of ours/ we can escape almost anything/ with these stories we will survive.” This woman—acknowledged by her people to be their storyteller—knows all her people’s stories of escape and keeps them both to help the living and to remember the dead.

The people consider her best story to be the one of her own escape from an unnamed enemy. As usual during an enemy attack, the people leave their homes to hide. This time, the enemy is so close that there are no possibilities for rest stops. The old woman muses that in earlier escapes, she had been healthy and fast, leaving the slower villagers behind. However, this time, she is the one who slows under the heat of the sun and who must sit down in the shade to rest. Her main concern is not the enemy, but herself and her story: She fears that no one will know what happened to her or be able to tell her story; thus, no one will remember and grieve for her.

Making the best of her situation, she tries to think of a story to distract herself. She creates a story in which a child looks back, remembers her, and creates a story for her. The child’s story explains that the old woman plans to outfox the enemy—by dying before she can be caught. When finally the sun moves away from the old woman, she imagines it beating down on the enemy. She waits through the night until dawn and, knowing she might encounter the enemy yet, returns to the village. She believes this is truly her best escape story. Yet it is the child who must ultimately tell this story, since the old woman died that day.

The Storyteller's Escape Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The form of this poem rejects traditional Western ideas of page formatting and of poetic formats that use rhyme scheme, standardized line length, and regular stanzas of lines neatly tucked underneath one another on the page. Instead, the lines of the stanzas of this poem stretch from left to right across the page in nonsymmetrical stanzas. A stanza might—or might not—start at the left margin, indent the next line, then have the next line start on the left margin again. Some stanzas do not ever touch the left margin.

This antitextual representation represents the oral nature of the storytelling that this poem mimics. Laguna storytellers do not speak in iambic pentameter or rhyme; instead, they speak in phrases and sentences of varying length, the length chosen to represent the characters in the narrative and to create the appropriate emotion—tension, laughter, surprise—in the listeners. The offset stanzas allow space for the reader to imagine the storyteller changing voices between the third-person sections and the first-person dialogue.

The poem is unified by the simplicity of its diction (mostly one-syllable, everyday words) and repetition of words, phrases, and situations. For example, the repetition of “always before,” as the old woman remembers earlier flights from the enemy, serves to increase the nostalgia and heartbreak of the situation. She describes the ones who had faltered and been left—the sick, the pregnant, the...

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The Storyteller's Escape Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Aithal, S. K. “American Ethnic Fiction in the Universal Context.” American Studies International 21 (October, 1983): 61-66.

Antell, J. A. “Momaday, Welch, and Silko: Expressing the Feminine Principle Through Male Alienation.” American Indian Quarterly 12 (Summer, 1988): 213-220.

Chavkin, Allan, ed. Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony”: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Danielson, Linda. “The Storytellers in Storyteller.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 5, no. 1 (1989): 21-31.

Dunsmore, Roger. “No Boundaries: On Silko’s Ceremony.” In Earth’s Mind: Essays in Native Literature. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.

Garcia, Reyes. “Senses of Place in Ceremony.” MELUS 10 (Winter, 1983): 37-48.

Hirsh, B. A. “The Telling Which Continues: Oral Tradition and the Written Word in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller.” American Indian Quarterly 12 (Winter, 1988): 1-26.

Jahner, Elaine. “Leslie Marmon Silko.” In Handbook of Native American Literature, edited by Andrew Wiget. New York: Garland, 1996.

Lincoln, Kenneth. “Grandmother Storyteller: Leslie Silko.” In Native American Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Nelson, Robert M. “Rewriting Ethnography: The Embedded Texts in Leslie Silko’s Ceremony.” In Telling the Stories: Essays on American Indian Literatures and Cultures. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.

Sax, Richard. “One World, Many Tribes: Crosscultural Influences in Silko’s Almanac of the Dead.” In Celebration of Indigenous Thought and Expression. Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.: Lake Superior State University Press, 1996.