Laguna Woman Analysis
by Leslie Marmon Silko

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Laguna Woman Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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The thematic organization of the collection is announced in the first poem, which provides an example of the way the poems center on female experience and concerns and which also serves as a thematic map illustrating mixed cultural influences and the conjunction of story, place, and time—both present and past. It is titled “Poem for Myself and Mei: Concerning Abortion” and is headed by a note that reads “Chinle to Fort Defiance April, 1973.” Although Silko does not say so, Mei refers to her friend Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, who is also a poet and who is treated here as an alter ego in the phrase “Myself and Mei.” Chinle and Fort Defiance are towns on the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona. The poem grows out of an automobile journey that the two women took, and like several other poems in the collection, it is divided into four sections: Four is the sacred number in Laguna culture and in most American Indian cultures. The first two sections present images of conception (the sun comes “unstuffed with the yellow light of butterflies” [butterflies are commonly associated with children in pueblo culture]) and images of gestation (the winter “snowed mustard grass/ and the springtime rained it”).

The third section presents a seemingly irrelevant image of horses seen from the highway, and the reader is told that the white horse was “scratching his ass on a tree.” The allusion here is to the poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1939) by the English poet W. H. Auden, in which Auden in turn alludes to two paintings, Icarus and The Massacre of the Innocents, by the sixteenth century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, both of which deal with the deaths of children. Auden observes that old masters such as Bruegel understood the nature of suffering, understood that tragedies of even mythic proportions work themselves out while “the torturer’s horse/ Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” Silko’s allusion to Auden connects her with the mainstream European American literary tradition for the moment, signifying that the “myself” of the poem’s title (who is also the Laguna Woman of the book’s title) is a person of mixed cultural heritage who of necessity must operate in both American Indian and European American cultural spheres, although the center of her being is firmly rooted in the former.

The fourth section of the poem presents an image of tragedy comparable to that of the death of Icarus; the butterflies “die softly/ against the windshield” of the car, where their “iridescent wings/ flutter and cling/ all the way home.” When one remembers that Icarus died when he ventured too close to the sun, melting the wings of wax his father Daedalus had made for him, the wings of the butterflies become especially significant, connecting Icarus’ abortive and fatal flight with the abortive and fatal flights of the butterfly children. Furthermore, the biblical slaughter of the innocents has its modern counterpart in the practice of abortion. Thus, Silko opens vistas of suggestivity and complexity through the effective use of allusions, and at the same time she emphasizes the continuing relevance of the stories of the past to the circumstances of the present and the interrelatedness of the natural world and man and animals.

Among the poems that depend most clearly on American Indian motifs is the second in the collection, “Toe’osh: A Laguna Coyote Story,” which is dedicated to the Acoma poet Simon Ortiz and is dated July, 1973. “Toe’osh” is the Laguna name for coyote, the preeminent trickster figure in American Indian traditional literature. Coyote not only tricks others but also is the victim of tricks to which others subject him. Coyote stories are favorites among the Indians, and Silko begins by remembering how on winter nights her family would sit by the stove drinking Spañada, a cheap wine, and tell traditional stories about how coyote lost his original fine coat in a poker game and...

(The entire section is 1,189 words.)