The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

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The setting for this poem is the Black Hills of South Dakota, specifically at the places where enormous holes drilled into the earth house missile silos. The sites contain nuclear warheads that are capable of traveling thousands of miles and destroying large cities. The occasion is an encampment of people protesting the existence and potential use of these weapons; the poem describes an early morning scene, as the people awaken and begin the day’s activities.

In the first stanza, the reader sees Buddhist monks, familiar at peace and antinuclear demonstrations, in their orange-colored, togalike robes, outlined against the rising sun. The next two stanzas depict other people beginning to awaken, as bombers fly overhead. While the encampment stirs and comes to life, more people arrive on the dusty roads.

The speaker then turns, in the fourth stanza, from the panoramic view of the whole camp to speak of her family: her husband and two daughters, who are participating in the event with her. She describes her husband bathing their small daughter in a pail of water, then in the next stanza turns to the other daughter combing her hair. The speaker says that she makes coffee, and while doing so tells her daughter that they are camped in the land of the daughter’s ancestors. She wonders about her daughter’s reaction to this knowledge. The sixth stanza turns again to a slightly more distanced view, as the speaker places her family with respect to the sun and the hills and reflects on the names in her family: Thunder Horse and Dawn Protector for the daughters, and her husband’s name, Hogan, which means “home” in Navajo.

In the last two stanzas, the speaker begins to speak first for all of her family, then for all of the people in the encampment. “We” stand, she says, at ground zero, the center of the bombs’ target. Enormous power for destruction exists overhead and beneath the earth, in the flying bombers and buried missiles, and this sense is juxtaposed with the description of the people awakening and looking. The increasing light as the sun rises makes the earth almost seem to be on fire, and the speaker sees a mare standing on a distant ridge looking as if she might have been at Hiroshima. The speaker describes the veins within the people carrying life, sees her children’s vibrant hair, and begins to hear and feel the monks mentioned at the beginning of the poem as they start to sing to the rhythm of their drums. The poem ends with a single word, “heartbeat.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

Like almost all Linda Hogan’s poems, “Black Hills Survival Gathering, 1980” is written in first-person free verse. The poet alludes directly and deliberately to her family, referring to her husband and daughters by name, and she reinforces the identification between the author of the poem and the voice or speaker within it. The poem proceeds by way of direct description, with very few examples of rhetorical devices such as simile or extended metaphor. One exception is the comparison of the mare seen on a distant hill, which looks like “one burned/ over Hiroshima.” This practice of using plain language and straightforward description is in keeping with Hogan’s philosophy of writing, which stresses the accessibility of her poetry to ordinary people; as she stated in an interview with Bo Scholer, which was published in The Journal of Ethnic Studies (1988), “I don’t want my work to be something you can only read if you have gone to a university.”

While the description in “Black Hills Survival Gathering, 1980” is unadorned by rhetorical figures, it is highly impressionistic. That is, the reader is constantly drawn to the appearance of things, to the way in which things strike the speaker’s eye, and things are often described as if the way they appear is the way they are. In the opening of the poem, for example, the sight of the monks looking as if they are touched by the sun’s fire is described in words that state that their bodies actually are “on fire.” Later in the poem, the shining of her daughter’s hair as it is being combed is portrayed in words that state that the “warm sun” itself is being combed across the hair. The effect of the device, which blurs the distinction between what appears to be and what is, is to suggest metamorphosis and transformation.

Colors play an important part in the description of the process of awakening in the encampment. The monks’ orange robes correlate with other images of light and fire in the “fractures of light” (a metaphor for lightning) in the distance, the sulfur-colored grass, and the “burning hills” which appear to be on fire as the sun’s light catches them. Close to the light/orange configuration is the red of the horse and the red veins the speaker imagines under the fragile skin of her children. The red of blood and flame contrasts in turn with the sky and the blue of veins. Within this pattern of color is the metaphor of the people’s veins as “tunnels”—red and blue—carrying the pulsing life within the body, contrasted with the death-dealing tunnels containing warheads and destruction.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 276

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