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 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...
(The entire section is 2558 words.)