Asylum in the Grasslands

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

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.

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 eaters

(The entire section is 1437 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

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