In her poetry’s form and themes, Leslie Marmon Silko consciously reflects her mixed cultural heritage. Part Caucasian, part Mexican, part Laguna Pueblo, Silko attempts to break down boundaries of all kinds in her poetry—poetic, generic, racial, national, gender—to emphasize the universal interconnectedness and interdependence of all things.
Often in her poetry she depicts herself as a new breed of storyteller. As a poet and fiction writer who has dedicated her life to the written word, Silko acknowledges the influence of her Western, Europeanized education. She also, however, sees herself as another in a long line of Laguna Pueblo storytellers. In an oral culture such as that of the Laguna Pueblo, the storyteller is the repository of the communal history and the preserver of the communal identity. Thus, many of Silko’s poems represent her attempt to put the central Laguna Pueblo myths into verse, and into a verse form that in its stanza formations, indentations, and parenthetical asides retains as many of the characteristics of oral storytelling as possible. Even those of her poems that are not verse retellings of traditional stories often depend on figures and images drawn from these myths. The act of storytelling in Laguna culture is, however, communal and highly democratic; no one storyteller can know all the stories, or all the versions of each story. To re-create this sense of community, Silko often prefaces her poems by informing the reader about who first told her the story in the poem or by noting that other versions of the story exist within the oral tradition.
Another characteristic of Silko’s poetry is its emphasis on sense of place. The setting for almost all her poems is the Laguna reservation and its environs. Like Laguna mythology, her poems often incorporate very specific Laguna landmarks as a way of emphasizing the connection of the people to the land on which they live. Additionally, Silko’s poems reflect the Laguna people’s profound reverence for the natural environment as that on which they depend for their very survival. Not surprisingly, her poetry often carries an implicit environmental agenda and a criticism of what she sees as the destructive and proprietary attitude of white people toward the land.
Although well received on its initial publication, Silko’s first book of poetry, Laguna Woman, garnered relatively little critical attention, in part because many of the strongest poems in the collection were later republished in Storyteller. A slim volume containing only eighteen poems, Laguna Woman introduces many of the themes and motifs that lie at the heart of all of Silko’s works. The poems focus particularly on the interwoven themes of nature, time, and love. In “The Time We Climbed Snake Mountain,” for instance, the speaker warns her fellow climbers to “watch out” for “the spotted yellow snake,” not because the snake presents a threat but because “he lives here./ The mountain is his.” In Silko’s poems, the indifference of people toward nature poses the real threat, not poisonous snakes.
Like other Native American poets, Silko also emphasizes the cyclical nature of time. “Preparations” describes in graphic detail crows feeding on the carcass of a sheep. They “Pull wool from skin/ Pick meat from bone/ tendon from muscle.” The poem, however, is not a lament but the...
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