Asylum in the Grasslands

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1437

Literary opinion-makers in the English-speaking world seem to prefer writers who can be comfortably slotted in this or that genre. John Updike is indulgently permitted to publish volumes of his book reviews and an occasional slim volume of poetry, but he is a writer of fiction. X is a poet, Y a playwright, Z a critic. Writers who move indiscriminately between poetry and fiction, not occasionally but habitually, who mix poetry and prose in a single book and then proceed to write plays: these shape-shifters do not fit the familiar categories.

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Diane Glancy is just such a writer. The daughter of a Cherokee father and a mother of European descent, she has published more than thirty books: poetry, fiction, drama, essays, and unclassifiable combinations thereof. She is a shape-shifter and a boundary-crosser. Many though not all of her books meditate in some way or another on the tragedy of the American Indian experience. She unsettles readers who would prefer to romanticize that history with patriotic clichés or simply to forget about it. She unsettles readers who sentimentalize the Christian “errand to the wilderness.” However, unlike many of her peers in Native American literature, who regard Christianity as an alien religion, symbolic of imperialism and exploitation and cultural genocide, Glancy sees the core claims of Christianity as good news for American Indians. She unsettles readers who are allergic to Jesus even in the confines of a poem.

In a famous letter, the English Romantic poet John Keats extolled the quality of “Negative Capability, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Glancy possesses a quality something like that. She is a witness to contradictions, never neatly resolved, but she does not rotate these facets of the Real with a serene or playful detachment. Whatever she is writing, in whatever form, there is a restlessness, an edge, a yearning, sometimes laced with anger, sometimes with sardonic wit.

Glancy’s own version of negative capability is exemplified in “They Came with a Bible,” a poem from an earlier volume, (Ado)ration (1999). The first line of the poem continues the sentence begun with the title:

saying it was all right to take.Did not Jacob steal Esau’s birthright?Did not Israel enter Canaan?Who was this God who allowed it?We sat at the campground and talked.We were supposed to say Jesus and know their God.They baptized us as a signwe’d been washed in the blood of the lamb.We looked at the wagons going by,wings folded over the wagon bedssaying, holy, holy, to our death.Their sacred ground was a building.Didn’t they know it was the grass under our feetand the clouds above?All the earth was holy.A man could worship anywhere.He could talk to the ancestors and spirits.The animalsthe grass eatersAnd those four-leggeds who first tore the flesh, drank the blood.

The hypocrisy of the Christian settlers and their self-serving piety are unmistakable, but there is also a hint, made explicit elsewhere, that the message they bore transcended their twisting of it, and a suggestion that the Indians who heard it, if they listened, could correct some of the distortions, for their own sense of the world was in some respects much closer to the strange world of the Bible than to the outlook of the European invaders.

The title poem of Asylum in the Grasslands can be read as a companion to “They Came with a Bible.” The poem opens with an epigraph from the Gospel of Mark (“He commanded them to sit down on the grass”) and begins with a generalized account of an existential situation:

When some adjustment occursnot in the actual circumstancesno they seem to stay the samebut in one’s attitudeor way of viewing those circumstancesthat other way into acceptanceor at least liveabilityso one is not assumed to be in a lockthat can’t be stepped beyondit’s a fragile gatethe opening of faiththe letting of anotherness into your shadow-box

From here, as happens often in Glancy’s writing, there is a shift to the insistent particularity of the Native American experience, yet with a resonance that is universal:

you meet someone in the prairie grasshis face so full of light he’s milk-eyedyou let his ideas roll over youyou even forget the bitterness you learnedall your lifethough you know there’s a lovelinessin sufferingbut you let go of it a littleyou assume the airwalk over what was supposed to be your graveyou even feel it’s the way it’s supposed to bethis Savior who sucks you into himselfthis man with his eyes in backwards.

Boundaries are permeable in Glancy’s poems: between humans and animals, flesh and spirit, present and past. There is a simple physicality alwaysdirt and dust and mud, grass and sun, wind and fire and rainand always a rustling of spirits, ancestors, voices. Asylum in the Grasslands, like many of her books of poems, includes short interludes in prose, often with a dreamlike aspect. One called “The Great Divide” begins thus: “The spirits of the ancestors migrate. They drink the last lick of yellow light from the creek. I hear them like wind in the cornstalks. One ancestor always shakes his knee with restlessness.” She speaks to him: “I have the hollowness of this air. I have to live this life I don’t like. I have to go where he doesn’t count.” She reproaches the ancestors“you only call me back”but she looks forward to a reunion: “In the squeak of brakes I hear your ceremonial whistle. In the blink of neon I hear your fires. Wait for me in the back booth at the all-night café.”

There are poems about Glancy’s father and mother, about last illnesses and death. These are not isolated episodes. They are personal but not narcissistic. The ancestors are present on the roads she drives“the back roads of Kansas from Oklahoma to Missouri”during three years in which her mother is slowly dying from cancer: “I drive the road sometimes in sleep over and over, remembering how you taught me to fold my will like a quilt and stuff it in the hall closet.”

Everything human is mixed. “Do not cry,” concludes a prose interlude titled “I Hear a Medicine Man”: “We are another wave migrating to the grasslands of the next world.” This hopefulness is not kitschy. The final poem of Asylum in the Grasslands, “Last of the Man Dog,” begins with a jaunty air:

Man Dog reliableMan Dog heapMan Dog boogles w/ big chiefYou hear him at night,his firelights so mixedyou hold a magnifying glass.

What is one to make of this shape-shifter? The “pilgrimswas it settlers/ trying to figure/ still split beyond repair”: They do not have a clue:

It was saidto be a ghostor wholly in this world.A lot going on.What you choose as you intermixWhew, this hard,this riveted box,the buckboard.Whoa, horse.

Without blurring the distinctions of being Indian, Glancy expresses how everyone is in the same boat (or buckboard). To be Native American is often to be in the most obvious sense “intermixed,” of mixed blood, as is true of Glancy herself, Louise Erdrich, and many other Native American writers. Ultimately, however, all people are of mixed blood. Without making a cheap attempt to co-opt the suffering of American Indians, one must equally resist the notion of an unbridgeable gulf between “ourselves”whoever “we” may beand an exotic Other.

“Indian Summer” is one of the finest poems from Asylum in the Grasslands, and it reminds people that they are all in this in-between season:

There’s a farm auction up the road.Wind has its bid in for the leaves.Already bugs flurry the headlightsbetween cornfields at night.If this world were permanent,I could dance full as the squaw dresson the clothesline.I would not see winterin the square of white yard-light on the wall.But something tugs at me.The world is at a loss and I am part of itmigrating daily.Everything is up for grabslike a box of farm tools broken open.I hear the spirits often in the gardenand along the shore of corn.I know this place is not mine.I hear them up the road again.This world is a horizon, an open sea.Behind the house, the white iceberg of the barn.

The effect of the last two lines is haiku-like, the image of the barn loaded by all that has come beforesadness, loss, yearning, and hopefulness, intermixed.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6

North American Review 291, no. 6 (November/December, 2006): 49.

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