Linda Hogan

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Linda Hogan American Literature Analysis

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In “Native American Women: Our Voice, the Air” (1981), Hogan wrote:The literature contemporary Indian women write is a necessity. It is existence and survival given shape in written language. It is more than poetry and prose. It is an expression of entire cultures and their perceptions of the world and universe.

Like many Native American authors, Hogan struggles with themes of history and oral tradition (and how the past affects daily life), themes of return (to the home or to the self), themes of identity or self-definition (often involving the reconciliation of two cultures or the continuation of tribal identity), and themes of metamorphosis or transformation. All these themes, however, are simply aspects of a preoccupation with genocide, a concern of critical importance to American Indian authors. As the noted Native American scholar Paula Gunn Allen has pointed out:The impact of genocide in the minds of American Indian poets and writers cannot be exaggerated. It is a pervasive feature of the consciousness of every American Indian in the United States, and the poets are never unaware of it. Even poems that are meant to be humorous derive much of their humor directly from this awareness. American Indians take the fact of probable extinction for granted in every thought, in every conversation.

This awareness is vibrantly present in Hogan’s poem “Blessing” (1978), in which she writes, “Blessed are they who listen when no one is left to speak.”

Hogan’s understanding of the issues of genocide forces her to deal with the politics of Indian survival, which she links with the survival of the natural world. In fact, one device used in many of her poems is an identification with nature or with animals; for example, “Evolution in Light and Water” (1985) proclaims,

Dark amphibianslive in my skin.I am their country.They swim in the old quiet seasof this woman.Salamander and toadwaiting to emerge and fall againfrom the radiant vault of myself,this full and broken continent of living.

The phrase “I am their country” proclaims the unity of the Native American people and the natural world. If the Native American ways or people become extinct, then the natural world will also be lost.

The themes of protecting the natural world and of awareness of human suffering are reflected in many of Hogan’s poems in Daughters, I Love You, in which the specter of nuclear accident or holocaust is present. This volume commemorates some of Hogan’s experiences with her family at a 1980 antinuclear protest in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Despite these overwhelming concerns, Hogan is by no means an elitist; she empathizes with all human suffering and cannot accept the apathy of modern society. In the poem “Workday” (1988), she describes going to work at the university, riding the bus, eating lunch, chatting, and going home at night, all the while conscious of hungry children, imprisoned women, torture victims, lost children—in short, all the horrors of modern society. As she leaves the bus, she sees women alone in their homes and men coming home, “the shoulders/ which bend forward and forward/ and forward/ to protect the heart from pain.” Thus, Hogan is aware of the walls people erect to protect themselves from other people and the natural world. These are exactly the barriers she wants to transform. In “Wall Songs” (1985), she wishes all walls will disappear under the growth of bridges between people, a process she compares with the disappearance of human-made roads under the natural force of animal-filled jungle growth. As she states, “boundaries are all lies.”

The poem “All...

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Winter” (1988) represents Hogan’s concern with the continuance of tribal identity and her sense of tribal history. In it, Hogan remembers how the winter snow absorbed her predecessors, whose voices have gone underground. She recalls a man named Fire whose ancestors “live in the woodstove/ and cry at night and are broken.” She speaks of her unity with every creature and knows “how long it takes/ to travel the sky,/ for buffalo are still living/ across the drifting face of the moon.” The poem ends with the spirits in the night air pointing out “the things that happen,/ the things we might forget.”

As Allen explains, transformation is the oldest tribal ceremonial theme and has existed in ancient Europe, Britain, and America. Some of Hogan’s poems (especially in Calling Myself Home) use transformation to celebrate the continuance of tribal identity, love, or the natural world. For example, she is like the changing subject of “Man in the Moon” (1978): Although yesterday poor and thin, tomorrow “his house/ will fill up with silver/ the white flesh will fatten on his frame.” In “Celebration: Birth of a Colt,” Hogan watches the transformation of potential life into its realization, “that slick wet colt/ like a black tadpole/ darts out/ beginning at once/ to sprout legs.” Hogan’s work also reflects the transformation of the ways of Native Americans to survive the modern world. She laughs at the white society’s stereotype of Indians; she wants portrayals of believable Indians who, for example, have bumper stickers on their cars.

Allen has pointed out that American Indian writers often have trouble finding readers who can appreciate the meaning of their work, because the experience and vision of Indians and other Americans are so different. Hogan, though, can understand broader concerns, as she demonstrated in “Workday.” One example of the difference between Indian and mainstream American perceptions is the fundamental assumption about the existence of spirits in the world. As her worldview was developing, Hogan became conscious of having visions (of spirit people, past events, or the destruction of the earth). With the help of a mixed-blood Indian friend who had similar experiences, she finally realized that these visions formed part of her heritage as an American Indian. Hogan views the world through this spirit-centered consciousness, which creates the tone and the substance of her poems. This vision shows her the importance of the survival of both the tribal and the natural worlds, underscoring her belief that political commitment is the complement of her natural spirituality.

“Planting a Cedar”

First published: 1985 (collected in Seeing Through the Sun, 1985)

Type of work: Poem

The poet mediates on nature’s society, white society, their similarities, and her position in both.

“Planting a Cedar” was written while Hogan was living in a large city, Minneapolis. This represents a change in her working style; her earlier work was composed in a quiet environment rather than in a noisy urban one. As a result, the poem exhibits what Hogan calls “faster language” in comparison to her earlier work. This phrase, she explained, means that the flow of her words is faster, at a “clipped pace,” and that she uses more jargon and humor. The form of her poems changed as well; she explained that she will use a cliché and then “use it against itself.”

“Planting a Cedar” begins with the image of black ants, “the old dark ones/ fierce as slaves,” hurrying from underneath a stone to protect the “new white larvae/ from danger or sun.” The young larvae are “surrounded by white swaddling” through which they must eat their way to the outside world. Hogan compares these young insects pushing at walls to human children, who are “covered in so many words/ there is nothing left for them to know.” With this image, Hogan seems to be describing modern American urban culture, in which children must find their own ways through a wordy barrage of information.

The poem’s narrator then says that she “did not mean to disturb plain life/ or sit this long/ beside the stone’s country. It is late.” After being lost in the natural world, she has become aware of the passage of time and the presence of city life: men with rattling lunch pails returning to their homes, where women have taken in laundry “blowing from the lines.” Hogan did not intend to remain so long by the stone, but at the same time, she never intended to find herself living in the city, “wrapped around the little finger of this town/ I wear like a white lie.”

For Hogan, the “white lie” is both city life and its concrete skin. Her nature-centered consciousness never lets her forget that the earth is still present under the concrete, which means that there is still hope for the world. As she stated in one interview, “All that concrete is just a thin little layer on this huge planet. It is nothing. It is a white lie.” The use of the word “white” in this phrase is an example of Hogan’s clever use of a cliché against itself. The phrase “white lie” usually means a lie concerning something trivial; Hogan says that the concrete and the cities are trivial when compared to the enormous bulk of the earth. This phrase, however, also reflects Hogan’s view that white society tries to deny the existence of nature and Native Americans. Thus, the cities with their cars and concrete are “white” lies perpetrated by white society to enforce this denial.

“Bees in Transit: Osage County”

First published: 1983 (collected in Seeing Through the Sun, 1985)

Type of work: Poem

Hogan expresses sorrow for the losses of the Osage people, who have been driven away from their lands by the greed and ruthlessness of whites.

“Bees in Transit: Osage County” reflects Hogan’s interest in the so-called Osage murders, which were researched by the Osage scholar Carol Hunter. Hogan based her first novel, Mean Spirit (1990), on this work. The novel is set in Oklahoma during the 1920’s, soon after the discovery of oil on the allotment lands of the Osage people, and provides a fictionalized account of the lives of Osage landowners who were murdered, most probably for their oil rights. By the novel’s end, the Osage people were abandoning their former town life and the white world, leaving behind the luxuries they had purchased with their oil money. A major theme of the novel is the suffering of the Osage women, some of whom were courted by white men interested only in their land rights and some of whom were murdered outright.

The suffering of the Osage women is also depicted in Hogan’s poem “Bees in Transit: Osage County,” first published in the volume Seeing Through the Sun. This poem begins with the image of “a hundred white bedroom chests/ being driven to the county dump,” a reminder of the possessions that the Osage left behind. Like these white chests, beehives draped in white sheets are transported by truck away from their home and abandoned. “The air is filled with workers/ on strike,” and the cold air meets the smoke of a brush fire. Green Osage oranges fall, “hitting earth/ where dark women, murdered for oil/ under the ground/ still walk in numbers/ through smoky dusk.” As the author Helen Jaskoski has noted, this work displays Hogan’s feeling for history in the light of her spiritual awareness: Prompted by the spirits she sees, she is unwilling to let past evils be forgotten, even as she watches the current bewilderment of the bees. The bees form “a lost constellation,” seeing Hogan again and again through “compound eyes” and “in the confusion of a hundred earths/ and rising moons.”

Hogan says of the bees, “Desertion’s sorrow has not yet touched them,” but, like the Osage people, the bees feel the air “growing death cold.” Meanwhile, “there is no place to go at dark/ when the air fills up with sirens and suicides” and all the bewildering trappings of modern civilization. This new world is unaware of the spirits, “gray women wavering above the amber heat/ of brushfires/ and a thousand porchlights.”

The poem ends with Hogan’s wish that she could tell the “noisy bees/ there is a way back home.” She adds that “there is nothing more than air between us all,” expressing her sorrow and empathy for the landless Osage people. This final line ties the poem in with another of her interests: namely, the existence of boundaries between people or between people and nature, something against which Hogan has struggled all of her life. The presence of this theme is heightened when the poem is read in the context of Seeing Through the Sun, where “Bees in Transit: Osage County” appears in a section titled “Wall Songs.”

“The New Apartment: Minneapolis”

First published: 1988 (collected in Savings, 1988)

Type of work: Poem

Hogan describes the features of her new apartment, dwells upon thoughts of the people around her and those who came before her, and returns to her true home.

In “The New Apartment: Minneapolis,” Hogan’s dislike of the city dominates. The poem begins with Hogan describing her new apartment’s unpleasant features: creaking, burn-scarred floorboards, no view of the moon, the way in which the building “wants to fall down/ the universe when earth turns,” and the way it “still holds the coughs of old men.”

Hogan meditates upon the Indian people who lived in the building before she moved in and recalls “how last spring white merchants hung an elder/ on a meathook and beat him.” This beating of an elderly Indian man who was accused of stealing a bottle of disinfectant from a local store makes her feel at war. In one interview, Hogan claimed that Minneapolis was an extremely racist city; she pointed out that the beating became public only because one of the police who investigated it was an Indian.

As the poem continues, Hogan remembers earlier wars “and relocation like putting the moon in prison/ with no food and that moon already a crescent,” identifying the Indian peoples with the crescent-thin moon at the time of their forced relocation to inhospitable lands. Hogan, though, warns that they will grow large and strong again, as the moon grows full.

Despite this warning and her anger over the treatment of Native Americans, Hogan does not forget that city society, like all other societies, is made up of individuals, seemingly suspended in air “through the walls of houses”: people baking, sleeping, or getting drunk, businessmen hitting their wives, fathers being tender with their children, women crying and joking, children laughing, girls talking on the telephone all night. She talks about the teeming life “inside the walls” where “world changes are planned, bosses overthrown.” All this city life, however, cannot hold Hogan, for “beyond walls are lakes and plains,/ canyons and the universe.” She compares the features of her city home with her true home: “the stars are the key/ turning in the lock of night./Turn the deadbolt and I am home.” Hogan has “opened a door to nights where there are no apartments/ just drumming and singing.” In the natural world, the city is forgotten, and no one there “has ever lost the will to go on.” With this comment, Hogan points out how city life drains people of their lives and spirits.

“The New Apartment: Minneapolis” ends with Hogan’s greeting: “Hello aunt, hello brothers, hello trees/ and deer walking quietly on the soft red earth.” Although in the poem Hogan was able to retreat to the natural world, she wrote it in the midst of the city, which lends her final greeting a wistfulness, as if she wanted really to be home.


Linda Hogan Poetry: American Poets Analysis