Life Is a Fatal Disease

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404

LIFE IS A FATAL DISEASE: COLLECTED POEMS 1962-1995 brings together the poetry of Paula Gunn Allen published over thirty years, along with a few new poems. Of Lebanese American and Laguna Pueblo/Sioux heritage, Allen grew up in the village of Cubero, New Mexico, adjacent to the Laguna Pueblo. Her heritage...

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LIFE IS A FATAL DISEASE: COLLECTED POEMS 1962-1995 brings together the poetry of Paula Gunn Allen published over thirty years, along with a few new poems. Of Lebanese American and Laguna Pueblo/Sioux heritage, Allen grew up in the village of Cubero, New Mexico, adjacent to the Laguna Pueblo. Her heritage and inhabitance of two worlds—the pueblo and the cities of New Mexico and California—inform her poetry.

Grouped thematically, the poems first explore the deadly condition that is American life—in its cities, on Indian reservations, in a mother’s grief at the loss of her son, in the violence committed in the name of love—between men and women, between political enemies. The second part of the collection testifies to the toxicity of human existence: “we live in a browning season/ the heavy air blocking our breath.” She records the “despair rising/ brown and stinking” in her students’ eyes as they sit in her high school classroom, daring not to dream because “There is no future they can bear.” The third part takes the words of the Bhagavadgita quoted by Robert Oppenheimer, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” as an ironic affirmation. Only in claiming the union of both life and death, spirit and flesh, present and past, traditional Laguna and contemporary urban American life can meaning be achieved.

Allen states, “to me a poem is a recording of an event of the mind.” Critic Kenneth Lincoln says of Allen’s poetry, “impression leads toward thought.” A child’s death, the victims of the war in Vietnam and on the streets, a grandmother’s photograph, a hoop dancer at a powwow, a trendy Los Angeles street, and strong Indian women of history are events of the mind leading to thoughts on the nature of evil, the wholeness of the universe, the strength of will that survival demands.

LIFE IS A FATAL DISEASE, despite its title, expresses the hope of those who live thoughtfully and spiritually. In the wonderful poem “The Text Is Flesh,” Allen draws together aspects of her culture and identity as Lebanese, Laguna Pueblo/Sioux, and poet when she remarks that in the coffeehouses of Beirut and on “the res,” people know “What there is is text and earth./ What there is is flesh./ And chanting flesh into death and life.” This collection is such a chanting, unifying the disparate elements of her life, all of our lives.

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