(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Dear World” is an agonizing eulogy for the living and the dead who have experienced the internal isolation of nonbelonging. Undercurrents of rage and grief score the poem’s essence. In her foreword to Jane Caputi’s Gossips, Gorgons, and Crones: The Fates of the Earth (1993), Allen explains the context of the poem, which concerns illnesses and death.

Allen once worked for the New Mexico Cancer Control Project, which dismissed discussion of such issues as radiation poisoning and toxic waste in favor of a more publicly acceptable antismoking campaign. Yet in 1976, Allen claimed, her home was using water in which “the level of lethal radiation-associated toxins” was life-threatening. Allen’s mother contracted not only lupus and diverticulitis but also lung and heart diseases. Furthermore, Allen questioned whether her mother died of the diseases or the treatments of radiation and chemical therapy. Experiencing the poem with this knowledge adds an ironic dimension to the title “Dear World.”

In the poem’s first stanza, Allen presents her mother’s point of view. Her mother sees lupus as a “self-attack”; she says that the disease is like calling the police when a mugger breaks into her home and then seeing the police attack the victim instead of the mugger. In the second and the third stanzas, Allen acknowledges the truth of her mother’s perception before continuing in an ironic tone. Historical precedents, she writes, prove that Indians and Westerners cannot coexist harmoniously. Therefore, she sees it as logical that the different genetic compositions in her mother’s blood—“its conflicting stains”—would obliterate each other.

The concluding fourteen lines of “Dear World” employ graphic sensory images to detail the disease’s progression until “the crucible and its contents vaporize.” The sadness, the devastating powerlessness, of watching a mother dying in incurable pain is exacerbated for the poet by her mother’s inability to breathe. Breath to breath is how sacred energy flows in the poet’s universe, and even that, in the end, is denied.

Self-alienation, the poet concludes, is an internalized battle between seemingly irreconcilable facets of a single sacred existence. Often, self-alienation is accompanied by other-alienation and isolation. The process, Allen says, is progressive and all-devouring unless a healing connection is reestablished and the imbalance is corrected.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ballinger, Franchot, and Brian Swann. “A MELUS Interview: Paula Gunn Allen.” MELUS 10 (Summer, 1983): 3-25.

Bruchac, Joseph. Survival This Way: Interviews with Native American Poets. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987.

Cook, Barbara. “The Feminist Journey in Paula Gunn Allen’s The Woman Who Owned the Shadows.” Southwestern American Literature 22 (Spring, 1997): 69-74.

Cotelli, Laura, ed. Winged Words: Native American Writers Speak. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Ferrell, Tracy J. Prince. “Transformation, Myth, and Ritual in Paula Gunn Allen’s Grandmothers of the Light.” North Dakota Quarterly 63 (Winter, 1996): 77-88.

Hanson, Elizabeth I. Forever There: Race and Gender in Contemporary Native American Fiction. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.

Jahner, Elaine. “A Laddered Rain-Bearing Rug: The Poetry of Paula Gunn Allen.” In Women and Western American Literature, edited by Helen Winter Stauffer and Susan J. Rosowski. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson Press, 1982.

Jahner, Elaine. “The Style of the Times in Paula Allen Gunn’s Poetry.” In Speak to Me Words: Essays on Contemporary American Indian Poetry, edited by Dean Rader and Janice Gould. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003.

McDaniel, Cynthia. “Paula Gunn Allen: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Sources.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 11 (Summer, 1999): 29-49.

Perry, Donna. “Paula Gunn Allen.” In Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out, edited by Donna Perry. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Purdy, John.“’And Then, Twenty Years Later . . . ’: A Conversation with Paula Gunn Allen.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 9 (Fall, 1997): 5-16.

Swann, Brian, and Arnold Krupat, eds. I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

Toohey, Michelle Campbell. “Paula Allen Gunn’s Grandmothers of the Light: Falling Through the Void.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 12 (Fall, 2000): 35-51.