Linda Hogan

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Val Morehouse (review date 1980)

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SOURCE: A review of Calling Myself Home, in Booklist, Vol. 76, No. 12, February 15, 1980, p. 818.

[In the following review of Calling Myself Home, Morehouse compliments the blending of Native and non-Native imagery in Hogan's poetry.]

Rooted in native American oral traditions, Oklahoman Hogan's excellent first chapbook of poems [Calling Myself Home] melds WASP geopoetics with native symbolism for bicultural impact. Crow, tobacco, coyote, oil, turtle, walnut, and the sheen of gunstock wood offer multiple connotations from two mythologies. Additionally, Hogan's is a matriarchal blood vision seen in clay, paint, feather, skin, organs, afterbirth, a womanly unity: “Their bones … holding up the earth.” Woman sees the sacredness in simple acts and small events: “We are here, the red earth / passes like light into us / and stays.” The bent knee of a mosquito, the passing of a culture assume equality in such ancient spiritual vision. It is a continuity and revelation violent and lovely: “The sky crackles like a gun / and shadows of thin trees / fall down to the ground.” Hogan is Chickasaw and white.


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Linda Hogan 1947-

(Born Linda Henderson) American poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, playwright, and editor.

Widely regarded as one of the most significant contemporary Native American women writers, Hogan is known for her skillful use of metaphors and her ability to transform words into vivid imagery. Her poetry focuses on twentieth-century Native American life, as well as issues concerning women, nature, the global environment, identity, family, and tribal history. In all of her work, Hogan attempts to reconcile traditional Native systems of knowledge with contemporary life and language.

Biographical Information

Hogan was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1947 to Charles Henderson, a Chickasaw Indian, and Cleona Bower Henderson, a descendant of Nebraska pioneers. Hogan spent her childhood living wherever her father's work took the family. Although she moved often, her father's Chickasaw ancestry and connection to Oklahoma provided her with a spiritual center and a home. While growing up, she continually struggled with her mixed-blood heritage and began writing in her early twenties as a way to reconcile the two parts of her identity. After her marriage to Paul Hogan (whom she later divorced) she moved to the East Coast, where she worked with physically challenged children. She continued to write poetry, and eventually moved back to Colorado, where she attended the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. In 1978, Hogan earned an M.A. in English and creative writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Hogan's first poetry collection, Calling Myself Home was published in 1978. In 1979 she adopted two daughters of Oglala Lakota heritage, Sandra Dawn Protector and Tanya Thunder Horse. Hogan has received several prestigious awards, including the D'Arcy McNickle Memorial Fellowship at the Newberry Library in 1980 and the Yaddo Artists Colony Residence Fellowship in 1982. She received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for fiction in 1986, a Guggenheim fellowship for fiction in 1990, and a Lannan Award in 1994. Hogan has taught at many colleges and universities over the years, and has been teaching at the American Indian Studies Program and the English department at the University of Colorado at Boulder since 1989. She has recently served on the National Endowment for the Arts poetry panel and gives lectures, readings, and workshops at both universities and Native American organizations. She has also worked as a volunteer in wildlife rehabilitation clinics in Minnesota and Colorado.

Major Works

Although she is half Chickasaw, Hogan was brought up in a mainly white society and her only experience with her Native American heritage came from visits to her father's family in Oklahoma. Her...

(This entire section contains 834 words.)

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earlier writing reflects her search for identity and the reclaiming of her Native American roots. Her first poetry collection,Calling Myself Home (1978), documents both her search for identity and the importance of restoring inner unity. In “Leaving,” Hogan asserts her unified self: “Good-bye, divisions of people: … All my people are weeping / when I step out of my old skin.” Hogan's next two poetry collections, Daughters, I Love You (1981) and Eclipse (1983) are influenced by her love for her two daughters. She writes with fear about the fragility of her children's bodies and with hope for their future, and at the same time discusses the fragility of the earth and the need to preserve it for the sake of her children's future. In Seeing through the Sun (1985) she again explores her dual identity and relates to other women and their experiences. In Savings: Poems (1988), Hogan's poetry becomes more thematically diverse and her political vision deepens dramatically. In “The New Apartment: Minneapolis” she confronts racism and poverty and shows how people cope under the onus of these conditions. The Book of Medicines, published in 1993, takes on the theme of healing, both the healing of self and the healing of the pain between people. Her poems are hopeful, as if through her journey to find her identity she is able to see past the strife in the world to reconcile and work toward a peaceful future. Through her words, the healing begins to take place.

Critical Reception

Hogan is highly praised for her ability to capture vivid images of nature in her poetry. Although her earlier poems were met with mixed reviews, on the whole critics are charmed by her imagery and captivated by the realism of her portrayal of nature. Joseph Perisi states, “She vividly brings to life the realities of the natural world, its seasons, and their effects, observed with precision and understood with uncanny sympathy; time and again, she hits the exact metaphor that conveys the feeling of being truly alive. …” Commentators find that she has matured in her poetry, starting out with her own inner struggles and then later expanding to write about the problems that other people and peoples undergo. Her poems are deeply introspective and reflect a great love of her heritage. Reviewers have also found many parallels between her use of maternal metaphors and the Native American ideology of women as caretakers of the earth. Hogan is able to give readers two different perspectives, and critics applaud her for her insight.

Publisher's Weekly (review date 1985)

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Publisher's Weekly (review date 1985)

SOURCE: A review of Seeing through the Sun, in Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 227, April 19, 1985, p. 80.

[In the following review, the critic finds that, although at times touching and mystical, Hogan's poems generally lack distinction and vision.]

The poems [Seeing through the Sun] of this Chickasaw Indian have an aboriginal, autochthonous quality. They are songs of the earth in which the personification of nature has as much a mystical as a metaphoric sense. Although they appear to come out of the poet's own experience, they nonetheless have a tendency to become abstract. The scenes and landscapes that Hogan describes are generalized and often amorphous, lacking in character and distinction. What is intended to be haunting and celebratory comes off as merely monotonous. Certain sharply etched images and certain poems in which the speaker is clearly integrated into her poem stand out, but on the whole Hogan's poetry lacks authority and vision. She is a teacher in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Minnesota and, as we learn from her touching sequence of poems on the subject of maternity, the mother of two daughters.

Principal Works

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Calling Myself Home 1978

Daughters, I Love You 1981

Eclipse 1983

Seeing through the Sun 1985

Savings: Poems 1988

Red Clay: Poems and Stories (poetry and short stories) 1991

The Book of Medicines 1993

A Piece of Moon (play) 1980

That Horse [with Charles Colbert Henderson] (short stories) 1985

The Stories We Hold Secret: Tales of Women's Spiritual Development [co-edited with Carol Bruchac and Judith McDaniel] (short stories and essays) 1986

Mean Spirit (novel) 1990

Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World (essays) 1995

Solar Storms (novel) 1995

Between Species: Women and Animals [co-edited with Brenda Peterson and Deena Metzger] (short stories and essays) 1997

Rhoda Yerburgh (review date 1985)

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SOURCE: A review of Seeing through the Sun, in Library Journal, Vol. 110, No. 9, May 15, 1985, p. 68.

[In the following review, Yerburgh applauds Hogan's use of simple language and recurring images in Seeing through the Sun.]

Chickasaw Indian poet Hogan's voice has a tough delicacy [in Seeing through the Sun]. Stripped-down language fired by a vigorous imagination creates spare poems that only just manage to contain their emotional intensity. “Desert” and other poems in a series for her daughters are loving and unsentimental: “She teaches them to turn the soil / one grain at a time. / They plant so carefully / seeds grow from their hands.” Hypnotic rhythms rising from evenly stressed lines transform “hearts the size of fists” to “fists disguised as hearts.” Recurring images—light, sun, teeth, stars, hands, keys, mirrors, trees, the four elements—interweave the ordinary with the surreal in this fine collection by a gifted poet.

Joseph Perisi (review date 1985)

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SOURCE: A review of Seeing through the Sun, in Booklist, Vol. 82, No. 7, December 1, 1985, p. 525.

[In the following review, Perisi commends Hogan's ability to use both ordinary language and heightened imagery to create vivid poetry.]

With remarkable freshness and clarity, Linda Hogan seems, in these poems [Seeing through the Sun], not only to have compressed the experiences of her personal life span, but also to have distilled the heritage of her people, the Chickasaw Indians. In direct, colloquial speech heightened by unexpected but exact images drawn effortlessly, inevitably from nature, she relates the daily events of being a woman, mother, sister, and member of her tribe, through days and nights filled with care, disappointment, love, injustice, injury, and, yes, a genuine sense of joy. She vividly brings to life the realities of the natural world, its seasons, and their effects, observed with precision and understood with uncanny sympathy; time and again, she hits the exact metaphor that conveys the feeling of being truly alive, intensely aware of natural surroundings, and willing to exist fully within their wonders—if one is but wise enough to recognize their sustaining strength. Many of the poems offer vignettes of friends, relatives, neighbors, which form a compassionate composite portrait of the many faces of Woman—masterful short stories that speak volumes about the mysteries and resilience of her sex. This is strong stuff, crafted by both mind and heart.

Further Reading

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Hogan, Linda. “A Different Yield.” Religion and Literature 26, No. 1 (Spring 1994): 71-80.

Hogan discusses her beliefs about the connection between the power of language and the power of nature.

Miller, Carol. “The Story is Brimming around: An Interview with Linda Hogan.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 2, No. 4 (Winter 1990): 1-9.

A discussion of Hogan's life, ideology, and her writing technique.

Smith, Patricia Clark. An interview with Linda Hogan. In This Is about Vision: Interviews with Southwestern Writers, edited by William Balassi, John F. Crawford, and Annie O. Eysturoy, pp. 140-55. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.

Hogan describes her strong family ties, family history, and how being an Indian and a woman has influenced her work.

Additional coverage of Hogan's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 120; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 45, 73; Contemporary Literature Criticism, Vol. 73; DISCovering Authors: Multicultural Module; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 175; Contemporary Women Poets; Native North American Literature, Vols. 334-343.

Robert Berner (review date 1986)

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SOURCE: A review of Seeing through the Sun, in World Literature Today, Vol. 60, Summer, 1986, p. 506.

[In the following review, Berner praises not only the themes of Hogan's poetry in Seeing through the Sun,but also its structure—the movement from anguish to wisdom.]

One of the difficulties in studying the work of the younger generation of American Indian poets is that too much of it is available only in small-press editions and poetry quarterlies. For this reason, the University of Massachusetts Press is to be commended for publishing [Seeing through the Sun], a collection by one of the best of these writers.

Linda Hogan is a poet who happens to be Indian, which may not be the same thing as being an “Indian poet.” In other words, she seems to be concerned less with expressing recognizably Indian themes than with producing poems which bridge the gap between her particular humanity as a Chickasaw of mixed ancestry and the universal condition of which all of us are a part. One of the early poems, “The Truth Is,” suggests the divisions and tensions inherent in the consciousness of a mixed Indian-white heritage: “I'd like to say / I am a tree, grafted branches / bearing two kinds of fruit … / It's not that way.” Although she wants to believe that “this is nonsense / about who loved who / and who killed who,” the knowledge of white guilt remains to haunt her. This poem should be compared with the final lines of the last poem in the book, “Wall Songs”: “May all walls be … bridges of flesh, / all singing, / all covering the wounded land / showing again, again / that boundaries are all lies.”

The book is notable not only for the quality of the individual poems, but also for its structure. The movement from the anguish with which the book begins to the wisdom with which it ends seems clear. It is a journey through what one poem calls the “territory of night,” to an identification with her children and the natural world, and finally to a recognition of the universality of everything that makes us human. Seeing through the Sun is a remarkable performance in what clearly ought to be a distinguished poetic career.

Paula Gunn Allen (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “There is Wilderness in My Blood: Spiritual Foundations of the Poetry of Five American Indian Women,” in The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, Beacon Press, 1986, pp. 168-72.

[In the following excerpt, Allen explores Hogan's views on spirituality and conservation as rooted in her Indian beliefs.]

Like Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan (Chickasaw) directly integrates a spirit-based vision in her work. She is conscious of its vibrant spherical power to unify divergent events and conflicting views. Like all the American Indian women writing poetry and fiction, Hogan is conscious of the real nature of spirit presence in the world and so includes it as a basic assumption about reality in all of her work.

Hogan speaks of a phase she went through when she was first conscious, in an adult's way, of having visions. Because she had not been raised by traditional Indian people within a traditional tribal framework, she did not know that her experience was quite normal.

“It took years before I realized that there wasn't anything wrong with me,” she says. “It was just that I was set up my whole life to be that way. An Indian friend of mine made this clear to me. She was telling me about how she finally realised the same thing was true of her. She had been having visions of spirit people, or events that had taken place in the past, and one night she talked to her mother about it. Her mother was a full-blood, and understood these things. Later, when she was just lying in bed, she said she realized that she wasn't crazy, just an Indian. Anyway, she told me about it and said I should have known it years ago; that I was different from others around me because I am an Indian, and that was why I didn't fit into the white-dominated world I was living in. I try to turn that into strength now.”1

Hogan has used her spirit-centered consciousness to develop a growing feminist consciousness and activist orientation. Her recent work is consciously directed toward the politics of Indian survival, which she, like many Indian activists, believes includes the survival of the natural world. She is involved in these movements, she says, “because of the destruction I have feared all my life—the animals and all life, not because I love politics. I don't want that devastation. I've been this way all my life. People used to think I was a very strange person, because when I was a child, I was speaking out for the animals, and I always will. I was in a workshop once, and they said, oh, is this another animal poem that you're bringing in today?

“But I also grew up with these visions of destruction. I feel that what people are doing from the very beginning of the mining process all the way to the final explosion is that they're taking a power out of the earth that belongs to the earth. They're taking the heart and the soul of the earth.”2

Hogan's current poetry and fiction clearly reflect her concern with the presence of spirits in the land and among the people and her continuing concern with the political issues of our time. In her work she carefully fuses her vision to her tribal-based understanding, so that her work does not exhibit the awkwardnesses common to writers who are not so strongly aware of the spirit-based consciousness that necessarily must underlie the political involvements of an Indian. The fundamental tribal understanding that Hogan possesses also protects her from falling into the simplistic rhetoric of activist propaganda; her politics are deeply knitted to her vision, and her vision, as her friend observed, is a result of her being an Indian. Being an Indian enables her to resolve the conflict that presently divides the non-Indian feminist community; she does not have to choose between spirituality and political commitment, for each is the complement of the other. They are the two wings of one bird, and that bird is the knowledge of the interconnectedness of everything. That awareness gives rise to a deep confidence that we will survive because the consciousness possessed by tribal people is now spreading throughout the nontribal, post-Christian, postindustrial general populace.

“White people are waking up,” she says. “I have been traveling, and everywhere I go I see that people are really developing an older consciousness and they are paying attention to what's going on in the world, understanding what needs to be spoken and heard. And the people are starting to see the animals, the insects, the trees, as equal to themselves.”3

In her journals, Hogan has written powerfully and lyrically, articulating the connection that she so clearly perceives between the alienated vision of the technocracy she lives in and the living world of creatures, human and nonhuman, within which she also dwells.

In an entry dated January 4, 1979, she writes:

Sunday morning. More snow. This has been the coldest hardest winter I remember and the snow scares me when I think of the radiation plumes coming out of the plant in Pennsylvania. We will never be told the results of this accident but maybe now people will begin to think about the consequences of their actions and inactions.

There are so many things going on in the world, I feel guilty when I write about myself or my family. We are all small. A million people are nothing on this earth, not even as important as the plants, the water, the animals. Maybe it is this knowledge that gives us our need to destroy them all. There must be something like fear behind the minds of so many men, something that directs them toward a detached destruction.4

And two years later, while in Chicago on a Tribal Historian Fellowship, she wrote in an entry dated April 17, 1981:

I don't know why I grieve and mourn so much when other people don't. The story of Oppenheimer and the bomb was just on television here in Chicago and I wept through the entire show. I do not know how those men could smile, could say they did what was best. That they got used to the suffering after a few days in Hiroshima when they went to see what they had done.

A man in Alamogordo [New Mexico] smiled when he said the sides of cattle turned white and that a black cat turned white and its owner sold it to a tourist for five dollars. The men also told of machine-gunning the antelope to pass the time.5

She talks about her feelings of alienation while in the city, of how difficult it is for her to understand the thinking that city people engage in, and writes, “Yesterday a woman looked at the violets in the grass and said, ‘How lovely,’ and then she walked on them.” After making this observation, she continues her remarks on the Oppenheimer television show, which she concludes with a quote from one of the men who was interviewed for the program: “‘I never thought we would flatten all those people.’” Then, Hogan observes, “And he smiled. That is why I howled and cried.”6

The unity of Hogan's vision is vitalized by her determination to articulate that vision accurately. In a series of recent poems she gives voice to her deep, intensely personal sense of the exact measure of global destruction we all face. In one of the poems, “The Women Speaking,” she articulates her fear, rage, and celebration of love within the spectre of annihilating light. The women are speaking, for in her work women signify what is connected:

And the Russian women in blue towns
are speaking.
The flower-dressed women of Indian
women in orange tents,
dark women
of the Americas
who sit beside fires,
have studied the palms of their hands
and walk toward one another.
It's time to bless this ground.
Their hair is on fire
from the sun
and they walk narrow roads
toward one another.
Their pulses beat
against the neck's thick skin.
They grow closer.
Let us be gentle
with the fiery furnaces
smelling of hay and rum,
gentle with the veils of skin
that bind us
to the world.
Let us hold fierce
the soft lives of our children,
the light is inside them
and they are burning
in small beds of straw,
beds of scorched white sheets,
newspaper beds with words
wrapped against skin
the light burns through.
The women cross their hands
on their chests
and lie down to sleep a moment
along dust roads.
In the dark, Japanese women
light lanterns
the shape of children.
They blow gently
on the sides of hills,
the roads
illuminated by the bodies of children
that enter our eyes.
At night there are reflections of skin
filled with muscle, lung,
nerve, that flash of dark and light skin,
shadows we love
that belong to us all.
Daughters, the women are speaking.
They arrive
over the wise distances
on perfect feet.
Daughters, I love you.(7)


  1. Linda Hogan, interview with Paula Gunn Allen, Idledale, Col., June 1982.

  2. Hogan, interview, 1982.

  3. Hogan, interview, 1982.

  4. Hogan, journal excerpt, unpublished, 1979.

  5. Hogan, journal excerpt, unpublished, 1981.

  6. Hogan, journal excerpt, April 17, 1981.

  7. Linda Hogan, “The Women Speaking,” in Daughters, I Love You (Denver, Col.: Loretto Heights College, 1981), p. 15.

Linda Hogan with Joseph Bruchac (interview date 1987)

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SOURCE: “To Take Care of Life: An Interview with Linda Hogan,” in Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, Sun Tracks and the University of Arizona Press, 1987, pp. 119-33.

[In the following interview, Hogan and Bruchac discuss influences on Hogan's writing and spirituality.]

Although she often speaks softly in conversation, Linda Hogan's voice is both eloquent and strong in poems and stories which draw much of their power from the landscapes of southern Oklahoma and Colorado, where she grew up. Her connections to family and her commitments to speaking of her people and for the earth are constant threads running through the four volumes of her poetry published thus far, Calling Myself Home (1978), Daughters, I Love You (1981), Eclipse (1983) and Seeing through the Sun (1985).

This interview was done while Linda was at the Yaddo Artists' Colony on a residency fellowship.

[Bruchac:] What first influenced you to begin writing poetry, Linda?

[Hogan:] I wasn't a reader. I didn't have a very good education. I was working as a teacher's aide with orthopedically handicapped students when I began to write poems on my lunch hour. In those early poems I tried to integrate my background with how I was living at the time. I was living in Washington, D.C., a sort of suburban kind of life, and I had a great deal of difficulty just trying to put the early life of moving back and forth between rural Oklahoma and working-class Denver together with that one.

At the time, I wasn't around an Indian community. I was married and was only with working-class white people and two friends from Venezuela. The poetry writing was very important to me. It was a way of trying to define who I was in an environment that felt foreign. I realize now that writing had everything to do with my life and my survival.

Before I did Calling Myself Home, I had one poem, a long one, with an abundance of material in it. It finally became the whole book. But I didn't know how to write. I had never read a contemporary poem. I discovered Rexroth shortly after that and I was really excited about him. It was the first contemporary poetry I read, and it was alive for me. It became a kind of model for how I wanted to write. Finally, in 1975, I went back to school and took a creative writing class.

Who were your teachers?

My first writing teacher was Rod Jellema at the University of Maryland. He was kind enough to allow me to take a class from him even though I did not have an educational background appropriate to that level. It was an advanced creative writing class. I felt very lucky. He was a very gentle teacher. He didn't criticize me in the way other teachers sometimes do, nor did he laugh at the work as I've heard professors do.

I was working on what finally came to be in Calling Myself Home. As I said, it was basically a long poem. I didn't know how to separate it out or how to make connections. Later I went to school at the University of Colorado and then I quit writing on Calling Myself Home for a while because it was very uncomfortable writing about such subject matter in university classrooms. And people were not open to it. Because I was writing about Indians and I didn't “look” like their notion of an Indian, they reacted with hostility. I had always looked Indian to other Indians so this was confusing, but as I said, I was not intellectually prepared for a university life, nor was I as strong and resistant as I could have been. My intellect was still strong. I believed in fairness, equality, caring between fellow sharers in life—even students.

But when I began to be a writer, was when I decided those connections did not exist in academe, which is much like big business in that way. I began to look for my own ideas, for critical work in books, and rejected what I heard in class. I found my own teachers.

Looking for my own definitions saved me. It has in all areas of my life. I am going my own way and doing it, I find miraculously, with many others. Working writers. Minority writers. People who are writing because they have to. People were, as I said, very critical at the University of Colorado until Alan Dugan came along. Alan Dugan was very good. Later Ed Dorn came and he is wonderful. I like to count him among my friends now. Alan Dugan taught me that we must write about our real lives.

It has been said by a number of writers, including the German poet Rilke, that childhood and memory are of vital importance to a writer. Your first book, Calling Myself Home,has a great deal to do with memory and childhood. You first began writing those poems while in Washington, D.C. Why do you think you wrote those poems?

Well, I think the split between the two cultures in my life became a growing abyss and they were what I did to heal it; weave it back together. I think life would have been impossible for me psychologically had I not found some way to help myself return and see things. It's very difficult when you come from a family that has little privilege and when your people are used to horse-wagon life and have not had any luxury. Then suddenly you are a working-to-middle-class person driving around on freeways. And you are Indian and could pass for white. Go to powwows and to the opera with equal ease.

I think it is called dissonance. One life does not fit neatly into the other always. Creative work is a way to order it.

But there is a life deep inside me that always asserts itself. It is the dark and damp, the wet imagery of my beginnings. Return. A sort of deep structure to myself, the framework. It insists on being written and refuses to give me peace unless I follow its urges. Then the earth opens and a memory comes out and says Write this. Or an old person says, “Tell this: people need to know.” Or the creatures of the planet emerge beautiful and breathing—and who could omit them in all their grace?

I search for the words that will speak the feelings inside my body and hope they touch those feelings in others. At the same time it is a celebration and sacred song given back to those of whom I speak, especially the animals who are made stronger by our acknowledgment of them.

How did you make that leap in your life from the background of your childhood to that sudden middle-class existence?

There are several ways. I always wanted an “enriched” life. Not meaning money, but a life that held joys, ideas, activities that hadn't been available. I went alone to California when I was young, thinking that would open my world. It didn't. I worked two jobs, one as a nurse's aide in L.A., just to get by financially. The pay was low. But I went to adult education at night and later to Junior College. I still wasn't very realistic. So later I thought it would help when I married someone with a good education.

That is embarrassing now, but I remember when I got married, somebody said “Why don't you go to school and get a graduate degree?” I thought I don't need to do that because I was going to marry someone with a degree. Now, of course, I realize that was a very false way of thinking.

In those days, it seemed a way for women to bridge the gap into middle class. What I realize now is that I married someone who was also working class, and we were not ever able to make a change, either of us. Now I am more politically aware and I think of class constantly and what it means to come from privilege or not to. But I seldom think about it in terms of “making it.” I see now that all people have their own routes of stagnation, and it doesn't matter if they have money or other opportunities. The U.S. is organized socially and politically and economically in ways to keep people without vibrance or energy. To keep them working hard, thinking they will “make it” if they work harder, all at the expense of their real lives.

I recall a statement you made in a radio interview. You said you used to think—I'm paraphrasing—that you felt crazy because you didn't see things the way other people saw them. Then one day you suddenly realized it was just that you were Indian.

Yes. Actually that's a real interesting quote because it's gotten around a lot and it's different every time. I was having a conversation with a woman, Carol Hunter, and we were both in Chicago at the same time on fellowships at the Newberry Library. We were talking about our earlier experiences, and she was talking about how she had thought she was crazy and one day was visiting with her mother out in the chicken coop and suddenly realized she was very sane, except that she was an Osage Indian and would never think like the others. Paula Gunn Allen put it in an interview. It turned out a little bit different. But I liked it anyway, so I left it. This goes back to what you asked earlier about making that leap. Another thing that I think really helped me to make that leap was that I just went unconscious for a long time. I think that might look very crazy. I was an unconscious person. I did not read. I went to work and did what I was supposed to do and I didn't think about anything. I could not think. That was a survival technique, I suppose. I was a very emotional person because people seemed strange to me, as in Diane Burns's poem “Gadoshkibos”—“The whites are crazy.” I had a lot of feeling but I did not have the language for putting anything into words. I could not put my feelings or emotions into any kind of words or context. I couldn't see what was happening to me or what had happened to my family culturally or politically because I did not have the language. When Carol said that I knew what she meant. My own particular circumstance guaranteed that I'd never feel normal or manage to fit into mainstream life. Until a person knows that, from the mind, they feel crazy. Now I see there's no need to fit. You know, it's not that Indians are different from the dominant culture. We are the same with the same needs and loves and heartaches. It's just that most Indians know time and space well enough from the heart to know that life is for living. Because we are short in our span here and we are not the most significant of lives on earth. We share the planet with plants and animals equal to ourselves, and we are small in the universe. So the daily strivings fall into place. I feel that poetry is a process of uncovering our real knowledge. To manipulate the language merely via the intellect takes away the strength of the poem.

There are certain consistent images or points of reference for you in that first book of yours. First of all, I notice the importance of old people, especially old women. Why is this so?

My grandmother was a big influence in my life; my father's mother. I loved her very much and she loved me very much. I felt comfortable with her when I was a child. She never criticized. I felt very close to all the old people around there. I still do. When I go home I always look up all the oldtimers. I'm very fond of old folks, people who've lived a long time and seen a lot, who wear their lives on their faces. I believe I can learn from them.

Your grandmother is the one who made that wonderful comment about the tobacco, isn't she? “Tobacco has more medicine than stones and knives / against your enemies.”

In the poem, yes. My grandmother's name was Lucy Bradford Young Henderson. She went to the Bloomfield Chickasaw Girls' School. She was trained there to be a lady—they taught violin there. It was like a finishing school for Indian girls. They had big plans about what they were going to do with all the Indians in that part of the country and they were “civilizing” everyone. No more “Indian problem.” So, she learned to play the violin and she could play classical music. She learned how to play the piano and she learned how to have good manners. Then she spent the rest of her life living in small rural places with outhouses and selling eggs in town. It was not because they didn't work hard, but because of policies that allowed for the removal of every single thing my grandparents created for themselves. It was very interesting the way that the white religious groups perceived what they were doing for the Indian people and what they actually were doing. Lucy Bradford Young Henderson. In reality they were breaking apart the culture and undermining the people's lives. It occurs to me that my grandmother and I had reverse experiences in our lives. Her father was Granville Walker Young, a métis who managed to get himself on the Chickasaw legislature. Her mother was a Chickasaw who descended from Winchester Colbert, a chief. My grandmother, a caretaker of the people, came from these people, these two worlds.

How do you feel about your grandmother's life, her having gone through that experience of westernization, then to go back and live in a very unwestern way?

There are probably some people who would think that was a horrible life for her. But she didn't ever think that. It was very comfortable for her. My grandparents lived in a very traditional Indian lifestyle in Oklahoma. I said that once before in an interview in Ardmore and one of my cousins said, “You make it sound like they live in a tipi.” Because of the stereotypes about what is traditional and so on, young people often face lives of denial. Maybe any life of resistance to mainstream culture is traditional Indian. At one point my Chickasaw grandfather, who was Charles Colbert Henderson, had homesteaded and they'd built up a large herd of cattle and horses. They were very well-to-do people then, but they lost it all and were very poor. I don't believe my grandmother ever complained when they had to move from one place to another. She had some kind of inner center that other people don't seem to have. She always knew that nothing material in the world would ever belong to her. That the government or other agencies could come in and take whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Our allotment land is now the Ardmore Airport. My father shows me where there was once a pond, where the blackland pasture was. It was land-swindled, I guess you'd say.

You know, you hear about white people who have their places condemned, like the families near bomb-test sites in White Sands, or about the demise of family farms. People believe they are secure and own their land, their houses. American history shows us that is never true. White people are shocked when their homes are taken away. It's unjust. But Indians have known that in their DNA. This government has broken over 300 treaties. Why believe them?

When I look back on it, I think my grandparents, as gentle as my grandmother was, were both very angry at the government. But they never let it out. One of the things that leads me to believe that is that on their tombstones they didn't acknowledge that they had been born in the state of Oklahoma. They were born and died in Indian territory. And they died in the 1960s.

What did you learn in your childhood from your Chickasaw father and grandmother and grandfather?

I could bring out specific incidents but I think basically I've learned “qualities.” Perhaps the answer to this question is “I learned everything,” because I saw that there is a better and alternative way to exist in the world, better ways to love, to take care of life. I'm not saying it's been easy or good, but it hasn't been impossible either. Maybe some of the things that are not very positive in my life I've learned from them. Unlike my grandmother, I have a lot of fear. I don't assume good things will eventually happen. When I went to New York City, it surprised me how, if you have some money there, you can have anything you want. I didn't even know what I wanted. That's one thing that has affected me a great deal, that I never had many choices. I never thought about what I wanted. I haven't learned how to want something.

And that may be because you've learned that you really cannot have anything material which might not be taken away from you, by government or by circumstances?

Or somebody else. That really is a hard question—what you learn. It is like asking what you learn from the experience of being an American Indian, which is a very big question because I don't know what I would learn if I weren't who I am.

Can you think of a story out of your childhood which taught you something you feel was of use to you?

A lot of our stories were anti-greed stories of people who were going after something, got messed over or lost it or got ridiculed or made fun of. I never heard Coyote stories but I think you could take this as a southern Indian equivalent of Coyote. People would go out in the world to get something and do something great, and they'd be bragging around, or after someone's money. Then someone or something would sneak up on them and ambush them, and they'd fall flat. A person who is Indian and considered stupid by whites outsmarts whites, and they don't even notice because they're so quick in their lives they're already on to something else. My uncle told me one of these. He was working at a grain and feed. Out of nowhere a rich white woman arrives, and she's in a chauffeur-driven car. She wants chicken feed. He says, “I'm all out,” and probably sits back chewing on a toothpick or a straw. So she wants hay. “I'm all out of hay too,” he says, putting his boots up. She's getting irritated. “Why don't you just close this place up?” He pulls his hat down over his eyes. “I'm fixin' to if you'll just leave.” I'm visiting and he tells the story at dinner and we all laugh because it is genuinely funny and it is a story of outsmarting the rich.

My father is a good storyteller and he will spend all of his time telling stories once he is given the opening. Any story. Army stories. Childhood ones. Historical. A lot of my poems come from family stories—“Stolen Trees,” for example, from Calling Myself Home. My father and grandmother had talked about the black walnut trees they had that were stolen. People would come in and take the trees and use the hard wood for gunstocks. Once my family returned home to find all their trees gone, my father told me.

Let me ask you about another of the themes in Calling Myself Home. There is a turtle which turns up a number of times. What is it about that turtle?

That turtle was the one I caught out in the tank close to my grandfather's house.

What do you mean by “the tank”?

It's like a little pond. It was a giant turtle. Of course, I was not very big so it was probably not a giant, but it was bigger than my arms could reach about. I caught it on a fish line. It scared me to death. I knew this monstrous thing would eat me. I'd heard all those stories about these turtles. The mythologies of those things grow, you know, like those whip snakes that will beat on you. I'd heard how once those turtles got you they would never let go. For your entire life you'd have to carry a turtle around or lose a limb. I was terrified of this giant turtle that lived in the water. But we are turtle people. I don't know why that is, not from clan or anything I can put a finger on. It just turns out to be that way. My grandmother would have big land turtles that would come around the yard. One in particular she would talk to and, when she told it to watch out for the dogs, it would turn and come back just like it knew her language. The poems in that book were about that tank. It was a place where I spent much of my time as a child, out behind my grandmother's. It's my own center, heartbeat, a kernel of life I carry with me. There's also a well down there where I got a blue racer one time. I thought it was a giant worm because I had never seen a blue racer. I took it in. I was going to go fishing and catch the biggest fish with the blue racer. I carried this giant snake in the house and said, “Look at my worm.” My mother screamed.

That's a terrific story.

I was a very isolated person when I look back on it. Most of the things that I did as a child and even as an older growing person were outdoors and were alone. Outside was my church, my place of vision and dreaming.

When you speak of being outside and being alone, the Oklahoma landscape comes to my mind.

It's like that here today. That kind of humidity. In Oklahoma the light makes the leaves extremely green and the soul is fire red. There is something very dense about it and at the same time very barren. It's a very old place.

In one of her poems Joy Harjo says “Oklahoma will be the last song I'll ever sing.” What does Oklahoma mean to you?

Well, it's the entire history of half of my life. It means a lot of violence, a lot of poverty, beauty, and good food—corn bread, beans. It means people who are related to me, the people I know in Oklahoma, my family and tribe. Oklahoma is a place of wet, heavy air, hawks on fenceposts, buckled linoleum, and oak and walnut forests that feel inhabited by ghosts that want to tell their history to mortals. Because I was born in Denver, when I was with my Oklahoma family that presence was obvious to me. It told me I would always be a part of the place and the people. I think my umbilical cord is buried there. Everything there, the land, is the oldest part of me and the wisest. The part that can survive. All of us Indian writers are historically a part of the whole body of our nations' histories and places, wherever we may do our writing, in New York City or at Rosebud.

I have heard it said by traditionalists—if I may use that term—that we human beings have three parts. We have a physical part, a mental part, and a spiritual part and it is important to keep them in balance. I have heard them say that they feel there is great imbalance in American life. It seems always to go in one direction or the other, but never to integrate all three. Would you agree?

I really feel very fortunate. Fortunate that I have a place to live where I am grounded—surrounded, really—by the earth, the circle of the mountains. It's like being inside a bowl. I have children so my life doesn't get flighty. I have a whole life separate from the writing life, though they meet and join. That balance you mentioned between the spiritual and the physical and the mental—a lot of people who become interested in the spiritual tradition become very silly. They go off so far there is no balance or no footing, and our feet are very important in spiritual life touching earth. We're here on earth with our bodies. We're not meant for outer space physically or spiritually. People who go into the mental can go off too far into the mental. I don't know many people who can go off too far into the physical (I don't mean athletically or sexually, I mean awareness of body), but the physical draws down the other two, the spiritual and the mental. I suppose physical labor is real good for that reason—chopping wood and doing whatever work you have to do in the world. It seems to me that is a very important aspect of tradition, to have that balance and keep and maintain it as much as you can. I think when people lose it is when they get caught up into the other things—when they lose that balance.

For me, the things that are very important, the spiritual and the political, are very united. You do not believe one way and act another. You see cruelty or injustice and you act. You do not sit and meditate and think you are making youself clean and pure by that. I know some tribal people I respect very much who do absolutely destructive things to themselves and would never consider sitting and meditating. They're too busy running around all the land speaking for tribes; yes, for the spiritual aspects of life: about federal policies or the destruction of energy development. American people need to revise their ideas about spirituality. Spirituality ends up being very much like capitalism. It ends up being a force to control other people or to make yourself look good—to give yourself a position of power and integrity.

This may be a little bit to the side, but I think one thing people in majority culture sometimes find it hard to deal with in relation to spiritual things is humor. Yet humor goes with a sense of the spiritual as much as with anything else, doesn't it?

Sometimes lechery goes with it, too. Like I said, we have bodies, we have voices. We are here to rejoice with our full selves. We didn't come here to deprive ourselves. We aren't made for deprivation. We came here with work to do—balancing the forces—and with great capacities for love and joy to fulfill with/in our full selves.

What is a traditional person?

It's not somebody who looks old and dresses a certain way and says certain things. I speak English. I did manage to survive a university education, I eat potato chips, and I have a T.V. I don't think that's very traditional. But what is? I guess one of the things I feel about tradition is that, in order to really understand what tradition is and to respect it and to fulfill what it means to be a traditional person, one first has to achieve a health and a kind of independence in a way that they can then return to that place within and do what needs to be done on the outside in any place and context, with any people. I don't see that happening with Indians. I see the “idea” of what's traditional, a concept only, and then people move into that idea of what's traditional without ever having a real sense of what it is. And being a traditionalist becomes like being a medicine person, like being a “priest” or the leader of people. It's simply not true. In tribal culture every person has their place and one who speaks more clearly with spirits than others is not a better person or is not in a higher position but simply performs one of many functions for the people. You and I have friends who do this daily and they make nothing of it. The woman who builds the fire is as important as the woman who guides the soul.

Also, we don't have to do anything special to have contact with the spirit world. It's just natural if you stop and listen. Just there, always. Like your own heartbeat. You don't have to run three miles to know it's there or use a stethoscope or get an X-ray. Really, being “traditional” means you have a great deal of responsibility. Rather than people cutting themselves off from white communities to be traditional, the more I think about it in my life the more I have thought that breaking down those barriers is much more important than building them up. Any kind of racism at this point is not good for any people. And to become anti-white is a mistake. It's self-destructive for those who do. Talk about a balance of things—talk about head and heart or head and soul—somehow I think that merging the two cultures in a really healthy way, not as done in the past, might be an integration in the way that we were talking about earlier. Indians have already begun that process. Years ago. Now I see white people integrating in that way. Mostly women at this point.

Your second book of poetry, Daughters, I Love You, seems to me to be an even more spiritually oriented book than Calling Myself Home. It seems committed to issues which are spiritual and political at the same time. In the introduction to the book Elizabeth Jamieson says, “Women's relationships to the land itself, the struggle to preserve and nourish life in a poisoned and poisoning landscape form part of Hogan's poetic voice.” The book appears to turn on that idea, preserving life. How did you happen to write this second book?

All of my life I really have been thinking about these issues, about any kind of destruction to the land. I have never really thought that hunting was a particularly appropriate thing because most people who hunt do not need to. It becomes a death sport, a very different thing than it once was. It's not for survival. All cruelty is needless. All fighting. Now do we need to build real estate in the Everglades or on migration lands or drill the earth? We have everything available to us for full, good lives, for peace. We must just simply step into it. Anyway, I just started thinking that being silent was in some way not being honest and that I did not want to be silent about the things that were very important and that our survival is very important. We've gone on—this progression is a very straight line progression into total destruction (Meridel LeSueur says this also), and we're just on the border now. Like the earth is square again and we stand on her edge. I guess I feel, if I'm going to be killed and if my family is going to be killed, at least I don't want to go quietly. I want to feel as if I have done something and not just passively accepted it.

Linda Hogan with Bo Schöler (interview date 1988)

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SOURCE: “‘A Heart Made out of Crickets’: An Interview with Linda Hogan,” in Journal of Ethnic Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 107-17.

[In the following interview, Hogan and Schöler discuss Hogan's technique and the meaning of her poetry.]

Born in 1947, Linda Hogan (Chickasaw) did not start to write creative literature until she was in her late twenties. But since the publication in 1980 of her first book, Calling Myself Home, she has been prolific. Four collections of poetry have appeared, and a fifth will be forthcoming in early 1988. In addition, one collection of short stories, That Horse, appeared in 1985, and a novel is in progress. Hogan's work has been included in a number of anthologies since 1975.

Hogan's poetry is earth-centered and organic, and it vibrates with a deep sense of tribal history and spirit of place. As such, her poems are intensely political. While written in the syllables of the conquerors' language, the poems reinvest this language with new meaning, or rather, a meaning which is as old as the hills and the sun and the moon and the stars. This meaning grows out of her respect and celebration of the mystery of creation—a mystery as powerful and necessary today as it was in the Beginning. A champion of small existences, Hogan wants to shatter the barriers that separate men from men and from nature, and many of her poems are chants and incantations toward that end. Witness the last stanza in “Wall Songs,”

May all the walls be like those of the jungle,
filled with animals
singing into the ears of night
Let them be
made of the mysteries further in
in the heart, joined with the lives of all,
all bridges of flesh
all singing,
all covering the wounded land
showing again, again
that boundaries are all lies.

[Schöler:] I would like to ask you about the poem “The Sand Roses.” I like it for its rhythm and its very uncompromising drive. It's an incredibly moving and haunting poem, but it also carries the seed of life in it. You've said that it's the hardest poem you have ever written. Why is that?

[Hogan:] Trying to bring Crazy Horse and Nijinski together in one poem is an uneasy task. What drew me to those two people was that both of them wanted peace and insisted on working toward peace. Both of them believed in life. Nijinski believed that his body was god, and it was. Crazy Horse knew that god was in everything, and it was. They had a knowledge we all need to have. Placing them together in a poem that has to do with creation, with peace and with physical life was difficult. I'm still not sure it works.

Could you tell me when you started to write and what you wrote in the beginning?

In my late twenties. I worked with orthopedically handicapped kids. I had never read contemporary poetry. I thought all poetry was written by dead people, and, that it all had to do with ravens that say “Never more.” I was never interested in books. But on my lunch hours I wanted to get away from the school. There was a little place out in the woods where I could sit. I sat there and I was very quiet. One day I started writing. Then I got a hold of the collected works of Rexroth. I read this poem about a cow and I thought, “Wow, I could write like that; you don't have to rhyme or anything,” and I started writing on my lunch hours. I wrote about the woods and I wrote about the stump I sat on. I tried to write about the children I worked with, and what it was like to be beautiful souls inside bodies that didn't work the way our bodies are supposed to work according to the standard norm. I ended up writing my first book, Calling Myself Home. Something about the process of doing that writing tapped into my own life in a way I wouldn't have done without the writing.

Would you say that you were very aware of the demands of literature—structure, form, and so on—when you started to write?

I had never read any literature. Maybe some magazines. When I was thirteen or fourteen, I liked those true stories and true romance magazines that are still popular with working class girls and women. But, no! I was never interested in anything that had to do with literature or scholarly work.

I did go to public school, and they did try to make me learn what a verb was, and I formed an idea about poetry that was unrelated to the reality expressed in contemporary literature. I wanted to drop out of school, but creative writing was interesting. I wrote a poem when I was in high school. What I did was I looked up words in the dictionary, using words like “cherubim” and “seraphim.” It must have been good because I was a poor student, and I was accused of plagiarism by the teacher. I was sent to the office, and my mother went in and testified that she'd seen me do the work using a dictionary.

So you never actually tried your hand at very formal poetry with rhymes, a set meter, and so on?

Just that once, but “never more!” It's interesting now to look back over what some of the older, traditional poets have done. But I have so much I want to say—I'm always wanting to put things into language—that I don't have time to go back and experiment with form. I have to keep going forward; that's what I'm doing.

Your poetry has its own drive and rhythm and, in a sense, it is so dependable in the way in which it moves forward. Does this come about as a result of hard work and revisions, or does it just pour out of you?

It's usually a result of hard work and revisions, but every once in a while a poem comes more easily. I work at my writing. It is important to me to get it to work right. It is important to get the feel right. When my body responds to it, I know it's right. It takes some effort to reach that point in a poem. Usually, when the poems flow easily, I know I have exhausted another stage in my own development. I've worn it out. It's too easy, and now I have to search out what I'm trying to do next, where I am next as a human being. A Japanese writer was interviewed on television. He said that for a writer one's own work is a series of betrayals. I've thought a lot about that—that as you grow and develop, you betray your readers and you betray your own self. At each step, you're a different person with the new work, and that old person, while still there like the foundation I mentioned, is pushed further into the background. You can't remain true to your past and true to your readers and keep growing. Hopefully they will grow along with you.

My next question has to do with what makes a poem “click,” what makes it work? You have sort of explained that: that it's a continuous development. But you also mentioned that it has to affect your body, that it has to be tied down to you as a physical being.

I write because the poems speak what I can't say in my normal language. There's a kind of magic, an intuitive thing I feel when a poem or a story really works for me. It works on the deepest levels, all the levels of myself. Certainly, it works physically, and it also works psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually, and then the last priority for me is how it works intellectually. What I like about Calling Myself Home is that if I give a reading to ranchers and farmers and people in small communities, it is popular there. The scholars who want to do more than just love a poem can find other things in the lines. Sometimes, poems are like a math puzzle. You have to work out a formula to find the missing X, but I like everything to be easily accessible too. I don't want my work to be something you can only read if you have gone to a university.

So you're saying that writing poetry or just creative writing is a heuristic device that brings about a different kind of understanding?

It makes me change; it makes other people change. When you read something that is really put together well, something unresolved in the heart or psyche moves toward resolution and wholeness. It's magic.

Would you elaborate a little, please.

I was thinking of Bertolt Brecht. He thought that when people leave the theater, they shouldn't feel soothed. They shouldn't go home and feel, “Well, that's all solved and taken care of.” He wanted to excite their energy to do something else, to go another step with their own life or to make things change. I don't self-consciously think about these things in a poem, but I intuit that somehow, under the surface, there is something that needs to be moved around. There is something that needs to change. It's like this pyramid of life or foundation of a house, you take some stones from one place and you let the whole structure shift. When I'm writing well, that happens. Hopefully, when a person reads it, it will happen for them too.

In the introduction to That Horseyou make some remarks about fact, history, fiction and truth. Would you please explain how you perceive the interrelationship of these elements?

I don't know if there really are any facts. Most of what we know is based on misperceptions, or on how we're trained to see things. It's a life-long job to peel the layers back and see what's really underneath our trained conditioning and emotional responses. So I don't know what fact is. Fiction, however, well, I think of Simon Ortiz who once said, “It's fiction, and you better believe it.” There must be historical fact, although it seldom exists in history books. I think That Horse deals with the historical fact of fiction and what's happened with Chickasaw people and what's happened in my own family particularly. I think that in some ways maybe we've come to think of fiction as a lie. It's like the word “myth,” which means “lie” for many people; yet, myth is the highest form of truth. It is about the inner journey, about others before us who have gone that way and civilizations. It is about our life's task of becoming. In some ways I think fiction is like myth, but also fiction takes a fact or an event, even an imagined one, and it makes truth out of it. Prose is a process of uncovering, of getting to the bare, unstated facts of living. Maybe they are inner facts, maybe they are not historical, but they tell the highest truths.

So it is sort of the interface between imaginative storytelling and ideology that you are talking about. I mean, the relationship between fact and truth is a relationship that takes into consideration ideology and the way in which an individual processes life?

That's true, and I think it's more than that too. We all have many places we view life from. Since I moved to the city near people who are politically active, I've noticed that they have one place from which they say they view life and still another place from which they really view life. So which is the ideology here? Nothing is without conflict, but fiction is, at least, a way to integrate these things, to bring idea and reality together into what you call “interface.” But it is also a way of learning to live with great paradoxes. Fiction may be a dance along the razor's edge of paradox!

Many of your poems deal with the destruction of the natural cycle, for example, “Oil.” Do you use poetry somewhat as a warning to all humankind that we've got to reevaluate our priorities?

Isn't it amazing that we haven't done that reevaluation? And that the only priority is the one where money is the issue. Having a money economy leads to the exploitation of people and land. You have to have labor, you have to have resources, and you have to have people who have false needs. But before I was conscious of that, before I had politicized myself and begun to understand this, I knew that when we poison the planet, it is wrong. There isn't any place in our life to refine the process of death as we do; there is no reason to do vivisection; there is no way to heal by maiming. At the vet school here, they train veterinarians to heal animals by having them break the legs of animals and then resetting them. They aren't learning “medicine,” but a profession, one where they work for the human owners and possessors of animals, for those who have money to pay. Many “doctors” won't help those who can't pay. It's a cycle that goes round and round. From the time I was a child, I knew that some things are always wrong, and some things are always right. If you caretake life, and pay close attention to your duty to take care of the planet and of one another, it's always right. If you kill animals, are cruel, injure others, or create bombs, it's always wrong. There are very few things that are clear-cut in life, but those things have no crazy edges.

Yes, animals, horses, birds, and small insects are prominent carriers of your poetic images. Could you explain a little more why?

These are who I am. Some people have a heart made out of muscle. I happen to have a heart made out of crickets. These are life-forms. These are the people that formed me. In my whole life I have been a spokesperson for the animals. In my own sense of things I feel that our whole life depends on other creatures on the planet, and I love them, pay them respect, and try to help them.

I don't understand why people rush to kill a spider that's just there, not doing any harm, except that we have a false sense of how things ought to be. Our houses “ought to be” web-free. We should not have low-life forms around us, meaning we shouldn't have insects, etc. We are supposed to live within four sterile walls and have automobiles, gas and oil that come from the deepest earth in order to run our lives in the way people expect. It's such a sense of control, and it is total illusion, so that when we see the real life, we think it's not real. It's a mystery, it's spiritual, it's another life.

There are many concerns over race, class, and gender in our work, and it is, I think, cropping up with increasing frequency. Does this have to do with a new stage in your life? Are you becoming more aware of this?

It's becoming easier for me to say things and take certain risks. I'm becoming more verbal. I'm becoming more capable of using language. Being a person who didn't read, writing has opened new possibilities for me. And, as a writer, my language has changed. I write differently here, in this environment, than I did in a quiet environment. The book Eclipse is a book that's written in silence and in the natural world. Seeing through the Sun and the book I'm working on now are books that are written in places where buses pass by. There's a difference in the language. I'm speeded up here.

In terms of storytelling, it seems to me that what you're trying to do is recreate ethnic history in your book That Horse. And it's something that you do much more in your fiction than in your poetry. Are you trying to recreate ethnic history?

In That Horse, my father's story and my story are about the same horse, but they're very different stories. I wanted to show the history of the time. I don't know if it's ethnic history, or if it's the history of that particular place and the people in that place. My father's story was personal. I wanted to expand his story to show the historical circumstances, but I also wanted my grandfather in there. He was a bronc-rider, and that interests me. But the other stories in That Horse are a straightforward telling of stories. I think “Amen” has a lot to do with Christianity and the influence it has and doesn't have over people in that area. A friend of mine was talking about how she thinks the last vestiges of older tradition are found in the Christian churches. When you sing “Amazing Grace” in Chickasaw, that's everything we've ever been that still exists. But while Christianity has been destructive for the tribes, it still holds people together. In “Amen” I wanted to write about the lake that my father worked on. “Crow” is a straightforward, contemporary story. I'm tired of reading stories about Indian people that don't seem to me to be true: no bumperstickers, no events going on.

It's not just any story that you're telling though. You're telling it from a specific perspective.

I'm telling it from an Indian perspective that happens to be Chickasaw, Southern. No matter what I do with it it's got me in it. Just like the girl in “Crow” who has figured all the stuff out about money and who has it and who doesn't. She's me. In that way it's ethnic history, but we are all our history. We are history taking place right now.

Yes. “The Truth Is” is a poem in your latest collection of poetry and, along with other poems such as “Heritage,” it deals with the painful and also inescapable reality and knowledge of being mixed. Do you see being mixed blood as a burden, or is it an advantage?

It depends on the day you ask me! It's a very difficult position to be in, but, on the other hand, it allows for a great amount of freedom. If you live on the boundaries between cultures, you are both of those cultures and neither of those cultures, and you can move with great mobility in any direction you want. I'm comfortable in both cultures and I'm comfortable with people of many different tribes. I've experienced many different communities. But ultimately—and I can't speak for other mixed blood people—this placement has allowed me to develop my own energy, my own direction in life. It's allowed me to develop my human being from inside, to listen to my inner voices and not fear that I'm going to be judged by one group or by another group. In my life I have felt myself to be judged by both groups, and I've had to struggle for a balance that's beyond that judgment. It makes for strength and for character. Or characters, I should say.

Do you feel that you have to be accepted by the Indian community? Or by your own Chickasaw community?

In my own community, I'm fine. I don't feel that I have to be accepted. We just accept each other, we're family. Some of us are white sheep, some of us are black sheep, some of us are red sheep. We just do whatever we do, and are what we are. “That's her way,” is how it's summed up.

And you don't think that some of the things that you've written may jeopardize that?

What has basically happened is that Chickasaw people have been very proud of the fact that there are Chickasaw writers out here. I feel I've made some roads, some clearings, and that other people have been following over them. I gave a reading in Muskogee, Oklahoma, at the Civilized Tribes Museum, when I won the playwriting award there. The most wonderful thing for me was that my father and I went to Oklahoma together with my two daughters. There were other Indian people there. I gave a poetry reading and a lot of people brought out their white handkerchiefs and wept. That was a time in my work when I felt a great energy, saw the importance of what I was doing, not for myself but for a whole people. It compelled me to keep going, to keep offering the gift.

I'm careful about what I write. I don't want to hurt or alienate anyone, but I feel there are some things that have to be said. When Gertrude Bonnin Simmons wrote about the young Indian men who went to college, returned and sold out their own people, cheated elderly people off the land, I'm sure she was unpopular for speaking it, but she told the truth. I want to write about young men here who get their grandmas' welfare checks and use it all up and leave their grandmas in the city without any money. That's also the truth. Those things need to be said. There's a Brazilian woman who kept journals—Carolina Maria de Jesus—and she began to publish them. She told people she was going to tell on them, she was going to write about them if they beat up their wives. And so they didn't.

Does feedback influence the way you write?

Sometimes I think, “Why do I write? Why don't I just go … be?” I often think I'm the kind of person that would like to live out in the middle of nowhere, and just take care of whatever needs to be taken care of, to live and sit around and stare at the hills, and explore the land and the stars. And I do that from time to time. For long periods of time I'm a person who loves to sit. But when I go to a conference for Indian women and I'm sitting in the audience and one of the speakers says, “There's Linda Hogan, the poet, and we're so proud that Indian women are doing these things,” it keeps me going. I realize then, that when we get to see our real life written down in words, it feeds us.

There is a poem in Seeing through the Sun called “Spontaneous Combustion.” I wonder if you would explain what this poem is about?

My Mom and Dad liked to read the National Inquirer, and I always say that it's a terrible publication but I love it, and I read it from cover to cover. There were stories in it about people who spontaneously combusted. They caught on fire somehow from the inside and disappeared. Then, this year I was reading a book on enlightened women in Buddhist tradition, and some of them had vanished that way. But this image of spontaneous combustion, of burning from the inside, has been on my mind for years. The way images work for me I don't fully understand how things play into each other. I was driving and saw a train going by. Through the cars of the train, the land shuffled like a deck of cards in a pro's hands, and all the land was moving. The heat from the tracks rose up, and, along with the shuffling picture, there's a sense of burning, of heat from the train. All I know is that there was a sense I had of how life burns. There are things we need to say, things we need to do, an inner fire, and there's still this peace around us all the time. There is that plant that's just sitting there, listening to us, and it's completely undisturbed by any of our own burdens. The world goes on around us, no matter what. There are other dimensions to that poem. I can tell by images I used. The workers and their newspapers, the News of the World, there are a lot of layers to this poem, but I don't really exactly know what it's about yet.

There's another poem, “Heartland,” also from the same collection, which talks about hearing the pulse of the land through concrete, which is a nice image. Now you've moved to this busy place where there's a lot of noise and concrete. Do you think there is hope for city life? And I'm also thinking of other poems, like “Planting a Cedar,” where you talk about a white lie which, the way I read it, is also city life. Is there hope for city life, do you think? Can we still hear nature pulsing through the concrete?

I'd like to think that city life offers up the sense of neighborhood and community for people, but I haven't seen evidence of that. Then, too, I think if you could tear out some parking lots and plant some gardens, it would be beautiful and feed people but then, if you live in a city like this one, where would people park? They'd park on the tomatoes, and it would cost $4.50 a day! The earth is still there. There's hope. The earth is down there. All that concrete is just a thin little layer on this huge planet. It's nothing. It is a white lie. It's like another illusion. The things we believe, the things that we think are real, are nothing, because our visions can't encompass how big it all is. I think of Paula [Gunn Allen], one time when we read together in New York, saying, “Well, there's got to be more spirits in the city, because there's more need for them.”

In a number of poems you are talking to your daughters and you express concern over their lives and their beginnings. Those are beautiful and intense poems that speak of new life. In my view, this is where poetry begins, it's where a new life begins. And in some of your poems you stress the point that someone has to be out there to protect this new life. In a roundabout way that's what you do in your poetry—you protect life. Could you talk a little about this?

I'd like to pass along some of what I've learned about what preserves and protects life. My intention is to create an energy, a life protection energy. That's everybody's job. Everybody that's living now has to work to protect life. What other options do we have? We protect life, or we're indifferent and allow it to be destroyed. We're in a position now to stop life altogether. Our energy and our living have to move towards protecting life. I feel that with my daughters. In some ways my situation as a mother is very different from that of other people; I did not bring my children into the world. I bring the world into them. I did not bring them to life, I'm bringing life to them.

Laura Kennelly (review date 1989)

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SOURCE: “Four Poets, Four Voices,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 4, No. 2, Winter, 1989, p. 8.

[In the following excerpt, Kennelly shares her mixed feelings about Savings: Poems. While she finds that Hogan captures the images of wild animals superbly, she believes that Hogan's poems, at times, sound forced.]

Linda Hogan (Savings) is aware of what she is doing, but sometimes I just do not care. You might. She is a deeply meditative poet, and I suspect that Savings would endure well if one dipped into it over the years. Her images are firm; her poetic structures are competent. There is little in these poems to disgust and nothing slovenly; but many poems seem heartless, cold, even forced. Take, for example, these lines from “The Lost Girls.”

We go on
or we don't,
knowing about our inner women
and when they left us
like we were bad mothers or lovers
who wronged ourselves.

What is that really saying? Do we go on or do we not? And who is this “we”? What is an “inner woman”? She never really explains but concludes that she will go on “loving all the girls and women / I have always been.” That is nice for her, but I feel as if I have been lectured by a condescending aunt.

Hogan's pattern of I am this, no I am that appears repeatedly, most objectionably in the final stanza of an otherwise fine and disciplined poem, “Two of Hearts.”

and I am their blood,
no matter what,
and I am not their blood
no matter,
but, oh, this world,
this cut and cutting world.

That smacks too much of Shelley at his most self-indulgent, as for example in “Ode to the West Wind” when he cries “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”

But enough negative. Many poems sing. “Savings” (“Night unravels / the calcium from bones”), “What Has Happened to These Working Hands?”, “Geraniums” (“Life is burning / in everything, in red flowers”), “Morning with Broken Window” and “The Legal System” are all thoughtful, fresh explorations, almost prayers.

And Hogan catches certain images superbly well, especially those of the wild creatures she often incorporates into her poems. To be surprised by her keen eye is a joy. In “The History of Fire,” for example, she says “and I am smoke with gray hair, / ash with black fingers and palms.” My favorite metaphor appears in “Rain” where she sees falling rain as “birth waters” that “are breaking down / the sturdy legs of sky.” She speaks of poignant little “skeletons of mice left between beams” (“The House”) that we also see in “Pillow” with “the mice within our poisoned walls.”

A few stanzas from “Elk Song” show how magically Hogan blends animals and humans in her best poems.

We give thanks
to deer, otter,
the great fish
and birds that fly over
and are our bones and skin.
Even the yelping dog at our heels
is a hungry crow
picking bones wolf left behind.
And thanks to the corn and trees.
The earth
is a rich table
and a slaughterhouse
for humans as well.
Some nights in town's cold winter,
earth shakes.
People say it's a train full of danger
or the plane-broken barriers of sound,
but out there
behind the dark trunks of trees
the gone elk have pulled the hide of earth
tight and they are drumming
back the woodland,
tall grass and days we were equal
and strong.

These books illustrate the ways we can draw from our own experience to create a voice uniquely our own. To paraphase another writer, not to do so is a kind of suicide. Each poet writes from her experience in life; each woman's life is unique not only from the lives of men but also from the lives of other women.

H. Jaskoski (review date 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of Savings: Poems in Choice, Vol. 26, No. 8, April, 1989, p. 1328.

[In the following review, Jaskoski finds the poetry in Savings: Poems to be trite and undisciplined.]

In her first collection, Calling Myself Home (1978), Hogan's poetry showed great promise: taut, deeply felt images and acerbic insights. Unfortunately, later collections do not show that promise being fulfilled. Although her area of concern has expanded beyond self and family to global issues and insights of peace and social justice, her craft does not show commensurate flexibility or rigor of discipline; she relies entirely on first-person free-verse lyrics of one or two pages, and in the present collection the writing is generally attenuated and sometimes reaches banality. The spark of promise is still present, but ever harder to find. Savings will be of interest mainly to undergraduate and graduate libraries aiming at complete collections in contemporary poetry and/or American Indian literatures.

Louis McKee (review date 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of Red Clay: Poems and Stories, in Library Journal, Vol. 117, No. 4, March 1, 1992, p. 91.

[In the following review, McKee highly recommends Red Clay: Poems and Stories, praising both its prose and poetry.]

“I'm dreaming the old turtle back.” So begins Hogan's journey. For Native Americans, the journey home is what tells them of their history, the mystery of their very lives, and leads them toward fullness and strength. According to Hogan, these poems and tales [in Red Clay] were part of her return, helping her identify with her tribe and the Oklahoma earth, the powers of ancestors and clay: “We are plodding creatures / like the turtle.” The story of Native Americans is about more than ancestry and land; it is as much about the politics and betrayals that led them into the Red Hills. Half this collection is prose, woven together with history both personal and tribal. Like the poems, these stories burn with emotion and a great sense of truth, but they concern themselves as much with narrative. Set in the world of the Chickasaws, “with a veneer of Christianity that shone across the old ways,” the tales provide a rare and memorable picture of this rich and noble culture. This book will be appreciated beyond the usual small number of poetry/essay readers. Highly recommended.

Craig Womack (review date 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Red Clay: Poems and Stories, in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 103-4.

[In the following excerpt, Womack examines Red Clay: Poems and Stories and describes the recurring images in Hogan's poetry, giving special attention to Hogan's use of the turtle.]

Linda Hogan uses primordial images in her poems in Calling Myself Home: red clay, insects, turtles, light, water, organs. These images, like the dancing light of fireflies on a humid summer eveiling, flicker and flit in and out of the poetry and stories, appearing throughout the book. Hogan is concerned with the home one physically inhabits and the home one holds in the imagination, and home is shown to be a spiritual process of growing connection to place rather than a static location. As in Naranjo-Morse's work, the clay forms the poet: “These first poems were part of that return for me, an identification with my tribe and the Oklahoma earth, a deep knowing and telling how I was formed of these two powers called ancestors and clay. … In these poems live red land and light” (p. 1).

Turtles are dominant in Hogan' poetry, appropriately enough since these animals are central to the lives of traditional Southeastern tribeswomen. Women fashion shell-shakers from turtles and wear them on their legs during stomp dances. Anyone who has heard the shuguta shuguta sound of pebbles shaking in the shells on the legs of women dancing counter-clockwise around the fire cannot forget these women moving over the earth, shaking out their rhythms. Turtle inhabits dual worlds: he goes into the water and emerges again on land, making him especially powerful. The turtle, in spite of his hard ossified covering, internally, is soft with the “small yellow bones of animals inside” (p.5). Women shell shakers pull apart these hard shells and expose the soft parts, clearing them out before making their rattles. Hogan calls for a similar exposure:

We should open his soft parts,
pull his shells apart
and wear them on our backs
like old women who can see the years
back through his eyes.
Something is breathing in there.
Wake up, we are women.
The shells are on our backs.
We are amber, the small animals
are gold inside us.

(p. 5)

The suggestion that the past can be seen through the eyes of the turtle and the contrast between inside and outside is Hogan's exhortation to women who have the potential to carry within themselves the entirety of their cultures through their power to imagine and speak the past. Like turtle who moves between land and water, they can creatively move between past and present, using those who have come before as guides for contemporary experience.

One of the older poems in the collection “Celebration: Birth of a Colt” is perhaps one of the most ecstatic poems in the English language. The poem ends with an accumulation of generative forces and connects the birth of the colt to the landscape which gives life to all things: “land that will always own us, / everywhere it is red” (p. 16). The pervasive redness surrounds and bathes the speaker in the poem (and the reader), but, most importantly, Hogan's poetry shows the possibility of the landscape being internalized. As stated in another poem, “Red Clay,”

We are here, the red earth
passes like light into us
and stays.

(p. 7)

The poetry in the collection is more memorable than the prose selections. The prose, however, is introduced with background essays that contain interesting anecdotes about the evolution of the stories and some pithy wisdom. For instance, in the introduction to “The Black Horse,” Hogan says, “Fiction clarifies the world without muddling life with the bias of fact” (p. 41). The author is a talented essayist, and it is unfortunate that some of her creative nonfiction is not included in another section of the book. One of the singular prose stories, “Amen,” features a one-eyed character named Jack; i.e., a one-eyed Jack, who, like turtle, enters the water and later emerges from it, in an act that becomes embedded in the people's memories and stories. The story has a mythical quality; Jack's swim occurs on the “night of the big fish” when the men of the community catch a large one-eyed fish, so big that one of them hollers “I could put my hands in that gill slit” (p. 67). An observer of these events who enters the water with Jack and later comes back out, traversing worlds like turtle also, is the young woman Sullie. She, and the rest of the community, are renewed through partaking of the flesh of the fish which is closely associated with Jack. The story, with is poetic connections, is haunting and stays with the reader for a long time. Some of the other stories lack the same amount of development.

Robert L. Berner (review date 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of The Book of Medicines, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 407-08.

[In the following review, Berner commends Hogan's poetic talents in The Book of Medicines.]

Linda Hogan, who is of mixed Chickasaw and European ancestry, is one of a handful of the most important poets of American Indian background among the many writing today. In her previous collections she has demonstrated an ability to relate Indian realities to the universality of what makes us human, and though some of the poems in Savings (1988; see World Literature Today 63:4, p. 723) may have seemed somewhat political, they avoided ideological pitfalls and their images were drawn from the most basic elements of the natural world. It is the latter concern which is most apparent in her preoccupation with nature's most primordial elements in The Book of Medicines.

Many of the poems are populated with animals, seen in startling images that capture the naked power of the natural world: a mountain lion frightened by the wild human animal it confronts, a fetal whale floating on a block of ice, a crow and wolf scavenging the body of a fallen moose. Images of this kind often give us the sense of being present at the creation of the world—“I remember / … when whales lived on land / and we stepped out of water / to enter our lives in air” (“Crossings”)—or at least at the beginning of human culture, as in a poem about a hibernating bear killed in its den by starving hunters and by dogs which are themselves still almost wolves (“Bear Fat”).

The Book of Medicines includes so many fine things that a choice of examples is not easy. Three seem to me to be characteristic. In “The Alchemists” the ancient effort to transmute lead into gold becomes a metaphor for the act of the physician attempting to change sickness into health: “A man … willing [iron] to be gold. / If it had worked / we would kneel down before it / and live forever, / all base metals / in ceremonial fire.” “The Fallen” combines images of a meteorite fallen to earth and a starving pregnant wolf caught in a trap to produce a terrifying vision. The traditional (presumably Chickasaw) myth of the Great Wolf as a constellation that was “the mother of all women” is contrasted with the sterility of modern science, defined in relation to the myth of Lucifer, the light-bringer and devil, and the narrator's inability to throw the fallen stone back into the sky produces a final frightening vision of science and technology as a trapper/wolf destroying the natural world. And in “Tear” the traditional “tear” dresses of Chickasaw women and a racial memory of the sad march of the Chickasaws to Oklahoma are combined to produce a powerful affirmation of the poet's own identity both as descendant and ancestor: “I am why they survived. / The world behind them did not close. / The world before them is still open. / All around me are my ancestors, / my unborn children.”

The Book of Medicines is a significant step, indeed a giant stride, in the development of a major American poet.

Linda Hogan with The Missouri Review (interview date 1994)

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Linda Hogan with The Missouri Review (interview date 1994)

SOURCE: An interview with Linda Hogan in The Missouri Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1994, pp. 109-34.

[In the following interview, Hogan discusses her childhood, her personal beliefs, and the inspiration for her works.]

Linda Hogan is a prize-winning Native American poet, short story writer and novelist living in Colorado. Her books include Seeing through the Sun, which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation; the highly acclaimed novel, Mean Spirit; and most recently The Book of Medicines. She has a forthcoming novel, Solar Storm, a chapter from which originally appeared in The Missouri Review and will be reprinted in the upcoming Pushcart Prizes.

This interview was conducted in January of 1992 in Columbia, Missouri, by the staff of The Missouri Review.

[Interviewer:] Can we begin by talking about your background—where you grew up and the things that you did?

[Hogan:] My family is from Oklahoma, near Ardmore. My father had a job driving a woman to Denver and he ended up staying there. He met my mother and they got married and I was born in Denver. At that time my father was a carpenter. He later went into the military to feed us, so we did some travelling around.

When you were growing up, did you think of yourself as Native American?

I really did. There are so many Indian military people that having a military family did not in any way diminish that. I'd forgotten how many minority people were in the military until my father was in the Army hospital last year. Among others, an Aztec woman was working there: In some very strange way the military became an equal opportunity employer. The only way that many people could buy a pair of shoes or eat was to go into the Army.

Did you grow up in a tribal community?

I was part of diverse communities. Most of my family still lives in Oklahoma. I try to maintain my connection with my relatives there, but we did spend much of our time travelling. My Uncle Wesley had moved to Denver before my father, and was working in the Indian community there. The community in Denver was mixed—there were some Navajo, but it was predominantly Lakota. During the 1950s Relocation Act a lot of Indians were moved into Denver and other urban areas like San Francisco, Chicago and L.A. In fact, Willa ManKiller grew up in San Francisco. She's the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. During relocation her family had been moved out of Oklahoma to San Francisco. They moved people to the strangest places; the logic was really beyond me. There's a Choctaw community in Chicago for that reason—they were moved there in the fifties. It seemed that the intent was to break connections of the native people to their homelands and communities.

So we're still living with the various relocation acts of the thirties and fifties. Any thoughts on the connections among them?

What the United States thinks about tribal nations is a problem, a conflict. I'm not a historian, so I couldn't really talk about the connections. I'm sure they are different in the case of each community. It's a complicated, large thing. Any attempt I would make to speak about it would be to minimize it, I'm sure. There is still an ongoing clash; now it's even come down to Bingo, which is, interestingly enough, one of the few ways tribes have to make a living. Even where tribes are oil-rich or rich in other kinds of resources, like the Navajo people, the land and the coal mining has been leased out for pennies a year by crooked people. This is an ongoing problem that is still with us, in every aspect.

I know you've had quite a varied work experience. What are some of the things that you've done?

I began working full time when I was fifteen. I've been a nurse's aid, a cocktail waitress—I've done just about anything I had to do to earn a living. I worked my way through school, part of the time. I worked on weekends as a cocktail waitress and I worked during the week at various odd jobs, until I had work study. I went to night school for a while and worked as a dental assistant. I worked at a credit bureau in Leadville, Colorado.

When did you begin to write?

I was not interested in writing until I was an older person. I went back to school in my late twenties. At the time I was in Maryland. I was married, and working as a teacher's aide with orthopedically handicapped students. I started writing poetry on my lunch hour and decided to take a class from Rod Jellema, who just retired last year. That was my first class in poetry, my first introduction to contemporary poetry.

Which school in Maryland did you go to?

The University of Maryland-College Park. I worked as a secretary there before I got the job as a teacher's aide at Montgomery County Public Schools. I just stayed at Maryland for one semester, then ended up in the writing program at the University of Colorado-Boulder and graduated from there eventually. I had to catch up by taking classes in literature. I took an American Lit class at Maryland where we read Faulkner—Go Down Moses—and there were Chickasaws in it. I got so excited, I mailed it to my Dad; he didn't have the advantage of having a teacher around. Faulkner wrote about the later removal period, about one of the women leaving with a horse and wagon. In the story she's dressed up in purple, and she's just finished selling some of her land. I don't know if he imagined that or really was a child witness to something like it. But it was important to me that at last in my life I saw something about us reflected—something true that had been denied in every other place and every other thing I'd been, done, read or seen.

What led you to write poetry in the first place?

I think one of the reasons that I started writing was because of the split in my life—the dissonance between my background and the dominant culture in the United States. When I was young, there were no cars in our area. We still had horses and wagons. My grandparents didn't have water, electricity or plumbing. Finding myself in Maryland, in the suburbs of Washington D.C., it seemed like my life had already spanned a century because of the changes I'd experienced. Poetry became the place where I somehow managed to come to terms with that, and put it in order.

Had you read a lot of poetry before you began to write it?

The poet, Kenneth Rexroth, was the first contemporary author I ever read. Before that I really didn't know what poetry was or what it did. It was a mystery to me and I wasn't interested. But I found this book by Kenneth Rexroth. There was a poem about a cow, and I thought, “Wow, that's great. Somebody's writing about a cow. I could do that!” I started writing during my lunch hours. I think probably the next poem that really affected me was James Wright's “Blessing.” When I discovered poetry I fell in love with it. I thought it was the most incredible thing in the world. It was not only a language, it was an emotion. It was something that moved me, and that I believed could affect change.

Were your parents readers?

No, we had one book. It was a huge leather Bible that had belonged to my maternal grandmother. I liked that book; it had these terrific gold edges. You could feel the texture of them and smear them with your finger.

You also wrote a play rather early in your career. Was the shift to prose a major change?

For several years I didn't write prose. I did a play before I started writing stories. I wrote the play because I had material I wanted to work on that I couldn't use in poetry. For years I'd been trying to write a poem about a birthday party when I was a child, but I could never bring it into a poem. When I tried to do it as fiction it came together quickly and easily because I'd been working with it so long. So I began to branch out into different forms, depending on what I needed to do with whatever it was I was working on. A Piece of Moon won The Five Civilized Tribes Museum Playwright Award in 1980, and was produced in '81. They did a really good job, but it was a terrible experience for me because as a poet I'd had control over all my work and, suddenly, with the play, I didn't. Here was someone who did not look like the main character, playing that role. People were saying things that were supposed to be tragic as if they were funny, and funny things as if they were tragic. It was a hard experience.

Why did you make the movement into playwriting?

A Piece of Moon was written as a play because the subject seemed to lend itself to drama. It's about the occupation at Wounded Knee in the early seventies, among other things. A young woman who lost her children because she had personal problems is trying to have them returned to her. It wasn't something that I could find a way to put into a poem.

And now you've moved on to an even longer prose form with your novel, Mean Spirit. It's based on events that you had heard about originally through your family and later researched. How did these historical events come together for you as fiction?

It's set in Oklahoma during a time when the oil rights were being grabbed from the people in the Indian Nations. In some way, when you hear something from your family it becomes a part of your cell structure. I knew about oil, I knew about things that happened in the Depression. I grew up with the Depression even though I was born ten years later, because every time my family was together the stories came up in conversation. I didn't know about the murder of the Indian women in Oklahoma, and I hadn't read the history. I found the letter included in the novel in a book by Terry Wilson, The Underground Reservation, and when Carol Hunter, friend and Osage, talked about the murders, I began to see it. It became the center, about which everything started to whirl and revolve.

At what point did it become a novel for you?

When I started making up the characters. I realized that I had to do something stronger than history to reach the emotions of readers. It had to be more than just a record of the facts; it had to get larger. That's when it became a novel—when it stopped being history. I taught a class in nature writing, environmental essay, in Minnesota at Split Rock. Another woman was teaching fiction there, and she talked about how she always had the structure and then embellished it to create and put the imagery to work. That made me think then that I could actually do it, too.

It's almost like this case becomes a force compelling you to say all the other things that you really want to say. Not to minimize the importance of the murder mystery in the novel, but there's a lot more going on than just solving it. You're solving a deeper mystery.

And there are also the events that are historical, like the man being murdered in the hospital. I think a lot of people would not pay attention to those events, were they not in a kind of gripping story. It would be “only” history, without the power to deeply affect.

How did you come upon those facts?

Some of the interesting things were actually written by the FBI. One of the agents wrote a chapter in another book about these incidents. Some of them I just happened upon.

Why did the FBI center so much of their energy on that particular time and place?

You know, that's a very good question. It's a really good question. I don't know that. I don't know. But I can speculate that their interest had to do with oil. There are gaps in the information, and questions. Were confessions forced, for example. It is possible the conspiracy, like the Teapot Dome case, went all the way to the White House. Wars are still waged over oil today.

Do you have any opinion about the Dawes Act? Most modern commentaries about the Dawes Act see it as a flip-flop. First they give Native Americans reservations, and then they decide in the 1870s or '80s to give everyone an acreage, make them a citizen, destroy the tribal governments and give the authority to individuals. A vast majority of the people in many of the tribes agreed at the time that it was a good idea. Tribal governments tended not to agree, of course.

The more traditional people did not agree because it was a move toward breaking up tribal sovereignty as well as land holdings. It also opened up more land for whites. Indian people ended up with less land. I think some people agreed because they had to, like Alexander Posey, the Creek poet. He has a book out that's a really interesting mix between what he learned in Indian school, which was a lot of Greek mythology and European literature, and his own traditions as a Creek person. He also published a magazine, Indian Baptist. He ended up trying to convince people to sign for their allotment because the traditional people didn't want to sign or live like that. He realized that if they did not claim an allotment, they would end up with absolutely nothing.

The Indians were made an offer they couldn't refuse. It's hard to resist when somebody offers you a quick $200 and 160 acres that you can call your own—even though not all of the Five Civilized Tribes were living in poverty. The Choctaws, for example, had a prosperous class living down on the Red River—planters and slaveholders in some cases.

The inability to refuse the Dawes Commission offer was about threat and having no alternative, not about money, although money became a necessity when the people were starving. It is true, I think that slaveholding was pretty common among southern tribes at that time, prior to removal. Chickasaws, too, “kept blacks” in those days. Even when the Civil War came, tribes were split; some people were anti-slavery and some people fought for the South. Some were told that if they didn't fight for the South they would be sent to Kansas. A whole group of Chickasaws were moved up into Kansas at that time from Oklahoma. They didn't have shoes. There was a blizzard; it was in November, terrible circumstances. One man who was freezing to death had only a handkerchief between him and the elements. He held it up trying to shield himself. This vision occupies me. It is an image of the loss, the desperate need.

The characters in Mean Spirit also undergo great pain, yet despite the almost relentless tragedy, the book contains humor and laughter and joy. That seems remarkable given the strong feelings that you have. Yet, the writer in you was able to set those feelings aside and tell the story. When you're writing, do you ever consciously try to lighten things up? Do you ever find yourself laughing with your characters?

Well, yes, in a way. I think if I hadn't been able to do that, writing the book would have been unbearable. I was never depressed while I was working on it, even though I never got away from knowing the tragedy of the story. The humor was always there also, because even in desperate situations people are human. They still do funny things, and they still have their obsessions and habits. It bothers me when I read a book where everything is clear-cut and there isn't anything human about or in it. One of the things that often happens between cultures is the denial of common humanity.

Is it true that Mean Spirit started out as a poem?

Actually, it was a screenplay. An Osage woman who wanted to become an actress was looking for a part. She asked me to create a role for her. Letty was originally a role that I created for this woman and I named the character after one of the woman's great aunts.

She's a very interesting character because of the changes she undergoes. She has a unique dynamic about her; she seems to straddle the two worlds in ways that the other characters don't.

I was trying to work with all the characters on character change. I knew so little about what I was doing that it never would have occurred to me on my own to think about how a character changes when I was working on this novel. But I like to take classes on different things. I took a weekend screenwriting class in Denver, and we talked about character development—how you show it. The class gave me clues to what I could do with the characters in my book. Another one I like, whose change I think is really significant, is Martha. She evolves from being an Eastern non-Indian sort of society woman in the beginning, to going Indian by the end. Floyd is another one of those. In our community there are a lot of people like that, who are not Indians, but for some reason or other want to be. They're fringe dwellers. In fact, a few years ago, a lot of the young men did not want to be part of traditional ceremonies anymore because the older men were allowing white men to participate so often. Characters like Floyd and Martha interest me, as do the contemporary people who want to exist in an older culture. Why does anybody coming from a middle-class American background feel such an emptiness that they want to take up another culture? What are they missing?

In a sense, it's completely understandable, though. After all, the Indian culture seems to offer a number of things that our culture doesn't.

It offers suffering, misery and the results of prejudice and colonizing forces.

That's why I say “seems.” In the novel something similar happens. The hill people finally have to conceal the pathway to where they live because so many people are finding their way up there. They're not going up to make trouble or cause problems, but the hill people are disturbed that so many outsiders have learned where they are. I don't see this laid out as some kind of dichotomy, or as a political document. Yet, I suspect you had strong political feelings about the issue. How do you adapt that—what you believe and feel and think about—to the demands of the novel and your characters?

One of the things that's really wonderful about creating a character is that you have a place to say things that you yourself could never say without being totally offensive to other people. You have a place to be opinionated. Characters are like mediums, in some ways. Or maybe I'm like a medium for them. Sometimes I think that I'm possessed by the characters and by the story, but I also see that there's a bit of myself in every character—you know, the negative and the positive. The things that are like my highest self and like my lowest self: the poems I'm working on, for instance, about hunger and greed. People who write about wilderness and the environment are going away from themselves to do it. They don't look at the inner wilderness and what motivates people to be destructive. I think everything is connected, that I'm a part of the destruction; we all are. Investigating why we're sometimes apathetic is probably the best work we could do.

Yet at the same time the novel presents a highly political situation about which I am sure you have a side to express or illuminate. The trick is to do it without seeming didactic or dogmatic. I know you said once before that what Native American writers are doing is telling the story instead of telling astory. Can you talk about what you mean by that?

Angie Debo was interviewed on television on her 100th birthday, and she said, “I violated history by telling the truth.” She was an Oklahoma historian who was threatened with murder because she named names and spoke about what happened to the tribes there during this same historical period I was writing about. There are all kinds of restraints that you have as a writer from a particular community. You can't just assume that you know another community. Right now I'm trying to work on a book that's set in the North, but it has to be from a Chickasaw point of view because I would never pretend to presume to understand tribes up in the North, or to speak for a person of another tribe. So I'm creating a totally fictional community, and yet the story is really about the truth. It's about the history of the fur trade, and events taking place at James Bay, between the tribal governments and the Quebec government, which wants to build a dam there. It's also about the bias, and difficulties that tribes in Wisconsin are facing about spear fishing issues. Those are part of the story; they're not made up, they're not a story. It's a form of truth, not a story. It's in some ways a retelling of history. It's like Angie Debo saying, “I violated history to tell the truth.” It's the story that's been repressed. In the case of Mean Spirit, a lot of the story will always be repressed because the FBI reports themselves are so thoroughly blacked out in order to protect national secrets. Some of it's just not there. But the content of the story is truth, fictionalized. Reimagined, I've created many characters that don't, in fact, exist. But the events are real, and some of the characters are real. Some of the characters retain their real names in the book.

In Red Clayyou're very meticulous in making the separation between fact and fiction—what's history and what's yours. Would it be accurate to say that in that book you're trying to strike a balance between the notions of story and history, of fact and creative impulse?

I was a lot younger when I wrote those poems and stories. I really didn't think that you could put something in a poem that wasn't absolute truth; I felt like you had to stick to the the facts, somehow. Not that fact and truth are always the same.

One of the points you make in Red Clay is that when you were a child your father gave you permission to see the story in your own way.

I think it's a different way of raising children than a lot of Americans have. It has something to do with the difference between objectivity and subjectivity. My father instilled in me the idea that a person is more worthwhile and valuable than objective knowledge is. One of the problems I have working in the university is that the commodity is knowledge, and not the human value underneath it. People are evaluated on what they hold in their minds. When I was growing up my dad didn't want to rock the foundation by correcting me all the time. I do the same thing now with my daughter, Tanya. If she sees the dog out there with the coyote, when the dog is actually dead, what's to be gained by saying, “No, you know this isn't true,” by putting her in a position of being not right? There are different ways of raising children, and I prefer the one that is not as damaging a lot of times to the integrity of the person.

I see that same process at work in your fiction. In Mean Spirit no matter what the fact, no matter what the actual event, the needs of these characters as people are in the foreground; that's where the story is driven. The Nola in the novel has a real-life counterpart. But the Nola in the novel lives in a different place.

She does, and she responds differently, and she survives, too.

We seem to be talking about the impulse to write fiction in order to get closer to the truth. You're not moved to write a political treatise, for example. You're moved to create a living thing.

Simon Ortiz says, “It's fiction and you'd better believe it.” I always loved that line. Another way to say it is that fiction is a vertical descent; it's a drop into an event or into history or into the depths of some kind of meaning in order to understand humans, and to somehow decipher what history speaks, the story beneath the story.

In Red Clayyou give us the story as your father told it. And then you tell it again, making it your own story.

Well, actually that was my father telling it; that was his story. He wrote the whole thing; I didn't change one sentence, one period. Then I also wrote the story according to what I've heard from everybody else.

So there really are two. There's your father's story and then there's your own.

Which really came from other people's story about the same Horse.

In the introduction to that section you said that that was an illustration of how the oral becomes written, how life becomes the story. Can you talk about that a little bit with respect to what Horse does? He writes down the event, spends his whole life keeping a record, and finally comes down to the small, concise thing he wanted to say. What happens to the oral when it becomes fixed in a written form? What is the dynamic between the two?

When I was writing that, I thought things were easier than they are; but I'm never really sure what is meant by oral tradition. It seems to me that it's such a multi-faceted concept because it takes into consideration ceremonial language, prayer, stories, gossip and all the other components—mythology. In this particular case I thought what was really important was what my father had left out of the story in the way he told it. It was also interesting to me to think about how the oral story translates into fiction. One of the problems is that a lot of oral tradition won't translate into contemporary ideas of what fiction's supposed to be.

You were showing us the mirror of how you come to the idea, where and how you reveal the truth and fact, the art of the story.

Well, it's also about my hearing. For instance, the part about the people coming by on horseback and my grandfather going outside with the guns. When I was a child and people talked about that, told me history that was really significant to me, it stayed with me and grew very large. A few years before I was born, customs changed so much. People who had some kind of contact with something in my family, with my grandfather, would come through and stay, and it sounded very strange and mysterious. I heard the story of the horse trader when I was growing up. It was a language and a way that stayed with me.

You've said that as a child you were blessed with the freedom to think of the stories you were told and suit them to your own needs at the time. If you changed them, then your father was not there to correct you and say that that's not the truth. That's a part of the oral tradition: the story changes with the listener. But when you've written it down, does it stop changing?

It's kind of funny that we're talking about this because my father, who never corrected me when I was younger, did when I started writing things down. I wrote a story about a man-fish because it came directly from the people. And my dad read it and said, “There isn't a fish called that, but there's a buffalo fish …”

The poems in Red Claystruck me as being almost an extended farewell to something. In “Heritage,” you say, “from my family I have learned the secrets of never having a home.” Do you still feel that way?

No, I don't, though I still have a sense of reciprocal going out and going in that is reflected in the title poem, which is not just to a place, but to the center inside yourself. But I was younger when I wrote that book, and I hadn't thought things through very well. I believed that stories were vanishing, which isn't at all true. I used to think when my dad died he would be the last real Chickasaw, and there wouldn't be any more stories. That made it even more important to write them down.

Despite a nomadic childhood, or maybe because of it, place seems to be a crucial element in everything you write. It anchors the story in Mean Spirit, for example.

Maybe this doesn't have to do with your question, which is about place in the book, but I've lived in the house that I'm in now since 1978, and I know the place intimately. I know where every kind of insect is, where one thing lives on the hill and where I'm likely to see a coyote. I walk every day, out around there, but I don't have the same connection to it that I do to the land in Oklahoma. I always say it's as if Oklahoma was my home before I was born. I feel a profound sense of connection to that place. The land that I resonate with is there.

Do you have to make any special efforts to know it? Do you have to look things up, or do you know it in a deeper way?

I know it in a deeper way. And I know the stories. I know what happened there. Though it's not as it is with the Navajo people, who have lived longer in some of the areas in Arizona than Chickasaws have in Oklahoma. Their connection goes back longer and exists on a deeper bodily and spiritual level than ours does. When the stories of your people center around the name of one stone, one place, the whole land around you becomes a part of everything that you know: your religion, your mythology, your family history.

You say you know the stories of the land. Are those stories that have been passed on through your family?

They are. A lot of the people in my family were and are terrific storytellers. What I used to do was I'd be sitting around with my family, listening, and run to the bathroom and write down all these great things, because members of my family had such a good way with words. My father could just tell what happened and where, and the event would be there in front of me, a real, living thing.

You mentioned that one of the things you liked about the novel was that the animals could participate as characters, and that even the landscape takes on a dynamic, a personality of its own. Some people would say that's a definition of magic realism. I'm wondering if you find historical artistic antecedents or compatriots among Spanish-American writers?

I really liked Isabelle Allende's House of the Spirits. I read Marquez when I was a student and One Hundred Years of Solitude is kind of the bible that I used to try to figure out stories and how to tell them. But I also think that their sense of indigenous people and the land is very limited. It has been pointed out that Allende uses this sort of mythos, the Indian people, as part of the novel, but they don't really appear in her work as people, as full beings.

In your work the land becomes a character because you are so specific about it. It's not the land in an abstract sense; it's not “nature.” It's a particular physiognomy. You take the time to know it so that it becomes magical.

Some people don't pay attention, so when you make them aware it's like magic. For example, in the book there's a cricket epidemic where the crickets invade for apparently no reason. Suddenly they're everywhere. That is a real incident, although it's more recent. The cricket epidemic that I know about took place in the 1980s in Martha, Oklahoma. And when my father talks about the locusts coming through, it could be magical realism if I wrote it in a book because it's so astounding. But they did come through and eat everything; he said that they even ate the shovel handle. That's how many there were.

You still have the compulsion to save his stories. What about your own? Do you keep a journal?

I have two of them. When I'm mad about something at work or I'm not getting along with my daughter, I have a place for that. I like to write problems out of myself. But once I established myself as a writer I developed a fear that people might some day read my diary, that I couldn't write anything really personal. I also keep a diary of important historical information for Indians because this is a time when Indian people are undergoing yet another kind of change, confronting other kinds of difficulties. I keep files. I see my everyday life in a historical context. We are living in the midst of history; it's important that somebody keeps records. I keep track of all my correspondence for the same reason. Imagine what it would have been like if somebody had handed me a box of material from my grandfather, letters, records.

Do you write from a need to pass those old stories on, so they don't pass out of history?

The older I get, the more I feel that way. Yes.

Is that the inspiration, or the compulsion of your writing?

It has been until recently. Now I'm working on a very different kind of material than my own past or my family's past or things I feel are urgent to be told so they won't be lost. Right now I'm writing about tribal people's conflicts with social services, for instance. Conflicts within a tribal community. More contemporary kinds of issues.

Do you see yourself moving more toward making your own story, rather than saving others? Can you tell us about the novel you're working on now?

It's a complicated project. In 1978 the American Indian Religious Freedoms Act was passed because tribal people had gone to law school. Suddenly there were enough Indians to work on some of the legislation. In the same year the American Indian Child Welfare Act was also passed. It was important because in 1967, for instance, nearly every child born in the Indian Health Service Hospital in Pine Ridge was taken away from its family. Some of the Navajo children have been taken in by Mormon families—adoption is a very big issue for us. I had my own troubles with Social Services and I began to think that it was really important to write the story of what happens to children when they go home and try to search out their families, or when they are taken away from family and brought into another culture. I know a number of people who grew up without any contact with other Indians.

When you're thinking about novel projects, do you think in terms of those ideas that you want to work with, or do you think in terms of the plot and structure of the novel?

I think about the events or incidents I want to include, and I think about place. In the last couple of years I've done a lot of programs on traditional hunting, fishing and treaty rights, things like that. I don't know if you know who Ada Deer is. Now she's an assistant to Bruce Babbit. She's been very active. She went to the spear fishing struggle in Wisconsin two years ago with a video camera and taped what happened to native people trying to do traditional spear fishing. There were bumper stickers, for instance, that said, “Save the wildlife, Kill a squaw,” or “Kill a pregnant squaw and save two fish.” The traditional people were singing and drumming and there were a bunch of white men in the background. Every time the Indians would say something, they'd scream out, “Bullshit!” Eventually to make peace, the tribe stocked fish for the white fishermen who felt like the Indian people were competing with them for fish that really belonged to the tribe. I felt like it was important to put that in the book.

So you think about those episodes in terms of scenes within the book. Do you know from the outset how those scenes will fit together?

In Mean Spirit, I knew the end before I knew the beginning, and I do in the new one, too. But some of the events—for instance the spear fishing—may not be in the book when I'm done. I can never predict how the story will evolve.

You've talked to us about writing the novel, and at the same time talked about your new poems. Do you work on poetry and fiction simultaneously?

I always did until this last year. Then I found it difficult, for some reason. I know that the two genres are very connected in some way, because they're both doing the same thing. It's a descent into something older, deeper and more powerful than our everyday being or reality. But as far as the technical aspects of writing go, I've always been able to work both simultaneously and I even take notes for essays at the same time. Something will pop into my head when I'm working on one genre that doesn't belong there, so I write it down to use later in another. But in the last year—I don't know if it's something about being older or if it's about being in an academic environment—I'm less capable of doing that. I have to have things more neat and mechanical, and in their place mentally as well as physically. I think part of it is just being in the head so much. When you go into your mind you get cut off from the part where the creativity comes from. Being in a university keeps me in my head a lot.

If often seems as though fiction writers and poets are two separate species, yet you and several other Native American writers aren't so genre bound.

Maybe when you're committing to a form instead of to the material, that becomes a problem. Certainly this goes back to the original question we started with, which is, “Are you telling a story or the story?” If you feel like the material you're working with really has to be told, that people's survival and wholeness somehow depends on it, then you're committed to getting the material out in whatever form it will be. If you're committed to being a “poet,” whatever that is, or a “fiction writer,” then you're trying to find material that you can pull into your category. I would rather teach general creative writing than a workshop in poetry or in fiction because I think for some people to try to force material into a form is not the best way to work.

You just finished a series of poems called Hunger. Why hunger?

Hunger and the Book of Medicines is the title, and the connection is that the medicines are somehow like a cure for the hunger, or a way to heal what our hunger and greed has done to us, and to the land and to the other species as well. I don't really know what started these poems, or even how I came to that name or to the idea of the book of medicines. I was merely thinking that the evidence of healing is all around us. A scar, for instance, is evidence that a wound has healed. But the poems are also about wilderness; they're about animals that live in the wilderness and humans who go into the human wilderness, and who also fear the wilderness outside them. In some ways the poems are an investigation of the depths of people, the history of land. John Hay, who is one of my favorite writers, wrote The Immortal Wilderness and The Undiscovered Country. He's an older man who's been around for a long time, and he said, “I used to believe that men were ruled by logic and rationality.” And he said, “Now I know that people are motivated by fear and rage.” These poems are about that—what's beneath our sense of logic and human rationality that really moves us and propels our lives through the world.

Elaine A. Jahner (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Knowing All the Way Down to Fire,” in Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, edited by Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller, University of Michigan Press, 1994, pp. 163-83.

[In the following essay, Jahner examines the works of Hogan and Joy Harjo in terms of their respective use of metaphor to express cultural ideas.]

Native American women's poetry often appeals to readers with a tenacity that does not, however, cancel the insecurity that many experience over how to think about features of it that derive from unfamiliar cultural histories. This is often the case even for other Native Americans because there are so many different and contrasting indigenous cultures. But precisely because of the many discursive challenges that writers and readers have to confront if the poetry is to communicate beyond an immediate locale and audience, Native American women's poetry provides an exemplary array of different metaphoric mediations among cultures. We critics need better descriptive categories in order to show the working of metaphors that establish a cognitive middle ground between cultures, thus enabling metaphoric signification to move between the monocultural and multicultural, the personal and communal, the traditional and the innovative. Any analysis of those metaphors that negotiate the discursive conditions of more than one culture involves the critic in still another mode of mediation, that which takes place between poetic and theoretical language, so that the critical narrative becomes a model and summation of the entire range of different negotiations, transferals, and translations.

Knowing the difficulties of any kind of mediation or translation, we bring our best skills and attention to the effort, only to grow more aware of the limitations of the mediational strategies within our various discursive and disciplinary formations. In cross cultural criticism we try to use our skills to minimize the “cross fire of signals” whose dissonance, as Joy Harjo tells us, is as dangerous as love and as inescapably relational.

          I, too, try to fly but get caught in the cross
fire of signals
                                                                                                              and my spirit drops back down to earth.
I am lost; I am looking for you
                              who can help me walk this thin line between the breathing
                                                                                                                                                      and the dead.

(“We Must Call A Meeting” 1990, 9)

As I examine the work of two Native American women poets, Joy Harjo and Linda Hogan,1 I want to place that critical exploration within the broader context of various cultural practices that the global situation requires of us as women who want to respond rather than repress, translate rather than assimilate. I also want to advance my belief that Harjo's and Hogan's poems reveal metaphoric strategies that help us understand communication in all those social contexts where individuals routinely negotiate the terms of more than one culture. Mass global movements of people and ideas are resulting in the development of perceptual and interactional strategies so new that we can as yet barely recognize them, even though they are often in a direct line of descent from ancient cultures. In order to give coherence to my advancement of this complex agenda, I need to begin by addressing some general questions of cultural analysis in relation to a metaphoric process that is fundamental to linguistic perception.

At issue is how to employ contextualizing information in the development of reading strategies that reveal cultural determinants within metaphoric meaning while avoiding the critical domination that refuses to recognize elements of what is newly emergent, possibly even transgressive of older cultural categories. Recently developed psychoanalytic approaches to metaphoric functioning present alternatives to crude authoritarian imposition of cultural reference onto metaphoric terms; I want to explore the cognitive implications of psycholinguistic approaches to metaphor within the practice of cross-cultural criticism.

Norman N. Holland has cogently summarized how psychoanalytic ideas that are now part of our habitual approach to literature have effectively reshaped our expectations as readers, whether or not we are thinking in specifically psychoanalytic terms. What he wrote some years ago has proven to be a good indicator of increasingly insistent critical preoccupations. Because his summary includes reference to cognitive psychology, he also suggests some methodological parameters for any comprehensive study of metaphors of cross-cultural transfer. He notes that we now habitually

transact literature along two of the great axes of human experience, the line of time and the boundary between self and other. Further, the literary transaction understood in the psychoanalytic way has the same shape as other acts of perception, particularly linguistic perception, as revealed by modern psycholinguistics and cognitive psychology. That is, we perceive through a preexisting schema. What we perceive is our own self-generated schema plus the differences between that schema and what comes in from outer reality.

(Holland 1978, 22)

All the preexisting schemata that shape perception can be fragmented or augmented by splitting that occurs when people live culturally divided lives. Whether we concentrate on the advantages or on the problems of a way of living that always negotiates more than one cultural style, we know that gender as a part of culture has a formative role in the development of perceptual schema. Driven by the need to theorize gender dynamics in ways that can lead to social action, feminists have productively situated much of their theory at that psycholinguistic threshold where instinctual drives meet the structuring force of symbolic reference and shape our perceptual and cognitive frames.2 I think in particular of Julia Kristeva, whose continuing writing details the semiotic evidence of affect as it augments semantic meaning. She has greatly expanded our descriptive adequacy as we move from the general human foundations of psychoanalytic theory to those levels where specific historical and cultural significations have determining force. Her writing has incorporated more and more historical and cultural analysis as she pursues the question of how poetic language is coimplicated with all the instinctual drives that can hold semantic meaning in bondage or give joyous musical momentum to its signifying energies. And within this awareness of multiple interrelated dynamics lies the metaphoric tale that I want to trace in relation to the poetry of two Native American women. We can use foundational psycholinguistic theory like Kristeva's to facilitate an interpretive dynamic that depends on an awareness of metaphoric instrumentality as achieving a trajectory of signification which originates with primary affects and gathers traces of multiple historical and cultural specifications (the whole realm of the cognitive) along the way toward the stasis that poetic utterance eventually grants. Kristeva's theory allows the cognitive its constitutive place within the transferals that metaphor achieves and therefore within the critical narrative that maps those transferals so that we can all be held to the kind of accountability that different human communities require in order to establish the grounds for good faith exchanges and pedagogical integrity. This is a global agenda. But in order to advance it, we have to begin by examining it in its local origins.

Joy Harjo commented on her sense of this global agenda in her interview with the Italian feminist Laura Coltelli; and Harjo used the feminist community to illustrate her belief that we need to note the disjunctions as well as the conjunctions within our human networks:

I know I walk in and out of several worlds everyday. Some overlap, some never will, or at least not as harmoniously. The word “feminism” doesn't carry over to the tribal world, but a concept mirroring similar meanings would. Let's see, what would it then be called—empowerment, some kind of empowerment.

(Coltelli 1990, 60)3

As we all walk in and out of our several worlds, we stand at the edges of meanings and watch their mirror effects. Metaphor turns the mirrored meanings into the light show that is poetry; and the boundaries of our several worlds challenge our critical concepts. There is urgency to our attempts at greater critical adequacy because the misunderstandings that arise from our lack of knowledge about how to communicate as we daily walk in and out of our several worlds are dangerous. Contemporary political conflicts are teaching us that we must stand watch for changing meaning and renewed language; or as Joy Harjo says:

We all watch for fire
                                                                                for all the fallen dead to return
and teach us a language so terrible
                                                                                                                                            it could resurrect us all.


Walking the fire line that Hogan and Harjo show us, we can also note how each woman has developed contrasting techniques for incorporating distinctive cultural references into her work, thereby using the cognitive referential dimension of metaphorical meaning as a way to mediate between cultures. Sometimes, as in Harjo's use of Deer Woman references, cultural history establishes a connotative field whose specification dictates that we begin the critical narrative with cultural information in order, then, to trace how this level of reference extends the cultural range of metaphoric meaning through metonymic transfers that are part of an ancient tradition. References to Deer Woman, though, are more than just the evocation of a known legend with all its cultural resonances. Harjo also uses the legendary reference to point to other processes that are both new and individual. At this level of comparative analysis, we can observe two other features of cross-cultural metaphoric action. The image of the deer can reveal how basic psychological dynamics achieve alternative imagistic configurations within different cultures and how the resulting cultural cathexes configure processes guiding individual development. Then, finally, the image of the deer stands for a process whereby outsiders grasp some, but not all, of what is happening in a work of art. Reader and writer are linked in an ongoing dynamic of cultural and individual transfers that shape and control the critical narrative mediating the process.

Linda Hogan's central metaphors can illustrate a rather different use of cultural history. In Hogan's poetry, the Chickasaw tribal history of displacement from an original homeland coexists with her awareness that “we still travel together, so far / the sound is all that can find us” (1979, 9). Memory harks back to whatever can “find” the one who seeks evidence of continuity still persisting at some generally unperceived phenomenal level. The cultural and the individual searches combine to motivate a metaphoric dynamic that depends on a few central images drawn from nature as metaphoric vehicles that function to turn the phenomenal world into a text that speaks of what once was. Hogan consistently relies on imagery drawn from nature and from science. For example, something so basic as the conceptual dimension of sound becomes the connecting substance that operates across historical loss. But if we can all grasp the referential range of her specific metaphoric terms without any research into ethnohistory, we do not all necessarily understand how tribal history can affect the individual as an inescapable need to try to express the perceived continuity extending from geologic to historical time. Yet this is the need that motivates the intricate metaphoric patterning that makes Hogan's book title Savings into a statement of poetic purpose.

My assertions about how metaphor works to reveal cultures to each other in the very process of helping the individual poet find herself within a multicultural world can be verified only in relation to specific poems, so I want to illustrate with comparable poems from each poet so that the similarities underline the differences that characterize the two strategies I want to highlight. I also want to indicate how the featured metaphoric patterns represent important techniques and preoccupations within each woman's poetics. Harjo, of course, does not always depend on the kind of cultural reference that I describe here, and Hogan occasionally departs from the uses of natural imagery that I detail. My purpose is not to try for a complete picture of the individual poet's work. Rather, I want to suggest different possibilities for cross-cultural study of metaphor in general, and by engaging in descriptive analysis of two kinds of cross-cultural strategies, I want to encourage global comparative research.

Joy Harjo's In Mad Love and War is divided into two sections: the first is called “The Wars” and the second is “Mad Love.” Each section begins with a poem about Deer Woman, “the myth slipped down through dreamtime. … The deer who crossed through knots of a curse to find us” (1990, 6). The “Mad Love” section of the book has as its epigraph lines that should remain part of any study of Harjo's deer poems: “And if I go / into the wild sweet of your eyes / will I know more / of this burning country I love?” (1990, 27).


I hear a deer outside; her glass voice of the invisible
calls my heart to stand up and weep in this fragile city.
The season changed once more, as if my childhood
was forced from me, stolen during the dream of the lion
fleeing the old-style houses my people used to make of mud
and straw to mother the source of burning. The skeleton
of stars encircling this misty world stares through the roof;
there is no hiding any more, and mystery is a skin that will never
quite fit. This is a night ghosts wander, and in this place
they are as nameless as the nightmare the muscles in my
left hand remember.
I have failed once more and let the fire go out. I misunderstood
and left my world on your musk angel wings. Your fire scorched
my lips, but it was sweet, a bitter poetry. I can taste you
now as I squat on the earth floor of this home I abandoned
for you. On this street named for a warrior people, a street
named after bravery, I am lighting the fire that crawls from my spine
to the gods with a coal from my sister's flame. This is what names
me in the ways of my people, who have called me back.
The deer knows what it is doing wandering the streets of this
city; it has never forgotten the songs.
I don't care what you say. This deer is no imaginary tale
I have created to fill this house because you left me.
There is more to this world than I have ever let on
to you, or anyone.

(1990, 29)

The first stanza of “Deer Ghost” immediately establishes the poem's uncanny tonality by linking the image of the deer with the “glass voice of the invisible” and with mystery so intimate that it is the “skin that will never quite fit.” Less immediately apparent is the way the house of self and language in the city of fire is a metaphoric figuration of intersubjectivity; but other poems allow us to trace basic figures of shelter all the way back to their mythic blueprint in “the old-style houses my people used to make of mud / and straw to mother the source of burning.” In Harjo's poetic city, the self as shelter can enable and endure radical, pluralizing intersubjectivity, and the deer as a traditional legendary image helps us understand some of the psychological dynamics that come into the poem through the cultural associations surrounding the image of the deer. These associations alone, however, do not account for the impact of the poem. That is a much more subtle and individual matter bound up with all that is implied by the verse beginning the second stanza: “I have failed once more and let the fire go out.” The loved one to whom the poem is addressed has her own fire that scorches the lips, and “the bitter poetry” of otherness compels the poet to return to shelter and light the traditional fire “that crawls from my spine / to the gods with a coal from my sister's flame” because “[t]his is what names / me in the ways of my people, who have called me back.”

Fire and passion are so inevitably bound in popular imagination that a reader uncritically accepts that obvious association, especially since the poem is addressed to a loved one. But references to the deer interrupt the slippage along well-known associative paths and add cognitive features deriving from the cultural memory of an indigenous nation that kept its sacred fire burning even as it was relocated away from its hereditary homeland. The image of the deer has features of meaning that only the historical legend can reveal. As the poet tells us, “The deer knows what it is doing wandering the streets of this / city; it has never forgotten the songs.”

Because the deer who never forgets the songs is a familiar figure in Harjo's poetry and beyond it in the oral traditions of many Native American peoples, we can begin a first stage explication of her mediations by examining the oral traditions.4 Deer Women stories are among the most enduring legends in the Great Plains. In most tales, deer assume the form of women and seduce men, who are then caught in a passion that can find no appropriate outlet since it draws them to a being they can never possess. Some stories tell about how only the very strongest of these men can be cured. Other tales end in death for men who cannot sustain the call of Deer Woman. In addition, there are rare tales about encounters between women and deer spirits. Comparing the two kinds of stories, we can see how Deer Woman sets up distinctions that divide along the lines of gender. Women have quite different experiences from men when they meet her. Generally an encounter leaves the woman with amazing artistic talent, and stories are sometimes quite clear about the connection between art and redirected sexual energies. These women also intensify their bonds with other women. Deer sirens from the woods alert everyone that the uncanny introjected is a powerful force, capable of destructuring and restructuring all of our libidinal energies and of unleashing the creativity of all those they call.

Deer Woman frames the experience of the uncanny, gives it cultural expression by giving it a narrative frame and a legendary path to pursue through history. Deer Woman is a mediator, and she achieves some of the basic transferals and translations that we need to appreciate how other key metaphors function in Harjo's poetry. Yet she never gives away all of her secrets. She just sets up the mirror play of possibilities as we compare cultural understandings. Therefore, this pattern of reference also works to define the critical task as one that sets forth the cognitive detailing needed to establish appreciation for alternative semiotic processes without pretense of informational mastery over another's way of experiencing what we only partially understand. At this stage of analysis, we can switch to Kristeva's “semiology of the uncanny,” which expands and reinterprets Freudian insights. If we can follow the trail of the uncanny that Kristeva marks, then we can compare that path with the one Deer Woman treads. Both the differences and the similarities point toward psycholinguistic foundations for cultural studies and the place of metaphoric mediations within such studies.

In a sentence that could act as a summation of all the stories and poems about Deer Woman, Kristeva tells us: “To worry or to smile, such is the choice when we are assailed by the strange; our decision depends on how familiar we are with our own ghosts” (1991, 191).5 Reading Kristeva's analysis of the uncanny from the perspective of Harjo's Deer Woman in the streets of the city of self and language, we can see how Freud and Kristeva after him have sought language within European conceptual frameworks to represent dynamics that Deer Woman dramatizes in cultures where she is a living narrative presence. The critic who stands between these two perspectives is transposing over and over again, back and forth from the key of psychoanalysis and semiotics to the key of legend—back and forth from cognitive experience to conceptual language—back and forth from Euro-American cultural history to cultures whose origins and mainsprings are outside these histories, even though wars, colonization, and domination have introduced terrifying tensions into the relational contexts that link us all. Translation and transposition teach us as much about what does not cross over as they do about how to transfer.

Kristeva's purposes for studying the semiology of the uncanny are certainly consistent with the goals of studies like this one.

It is through unraveling transference—the major dynamics of otherness, of love/hatred for the other, of the foreign component of our psyche—that, on the basis of the other, I become reconciled with my own otherness-foreignness, that I play on it and live by it. Psychoanalysis is then experienced as a journey into the strangeness of the other and of oneself, toward an ethics of respect for the irreconcilable.

(1991, 182)

But in order to apply Kristeva's analysis to another culture, we also have to be ready to alter and expand her focus somewhat. She addresses the experience of the uncanny throughout her many books, but it is particularly central to the arguments pursued in Strangers to Ourselves (1991). This recent work, as the American book jacket tells us, “examines estrangement from self, country and mother tongue.” The history she uses to examine the construction of categories of otherness is European, a fact that emphasizes the need for comparative work. At the end of Strangers to Ourselves, Kristeva attempts the first stages of a semiology of the uncanny.

Kristeva begins her narrative of otherness on grounds that are now as familiar to us as the first motifs of an often told fairy tale. Once upon a time, “the archaic, narcissistic self, not yet demarcated by the outside world,” began to project outward what is dangerous to the self. That projection can return as the malevolent other. “Such malevolent powers would amount to a weaving together of the symbolic and the organic—perhaps drive itself, on the border of the psyche and biology, overriding the breaking imposed by organic homeostasis” (1991, 185).

Then the familiar tale takes some unforeseen turns. The link between anguish and the uncanny constitutes a crossroads. It can lead to psychotic symptoms and fearful representations, or it can serve to achieve an opening toward the new. The second option, the opening toward the new, almost an afterthought for Freud, is Kristeva's point of emphasis. She can then use this possibility as a way to observe the beneficent effects of the uncanny in literature and in culture. As she makes this move away from the controlling other, she also opens her psycholinguistic theoretical frames to more productive political analysis, because she shows a first-stage framing of an ethics of equality that removes the interiorized other from a position of domination and establishes the psychological foundations for mutuality and equality.

The clash with the other, the identification of the self with that good or bad other that transgresses the fragile boundaries of the uncertain self, would thus be at the source of an uncanny strangeness whose excessive features, as represented in literature, cannot hide its permanent presence in “normal” psychical dynamics.

(Kristeva 1991, 188-89)

The uncanny is always excessive. It burns like fire. And we all know its existence within ourselves. But whether the fire harms or helps depends on the moment at the crossroads when we look at what the uncanny projects and view it either as a demonic or a beneficent guide. Kristeva would have us believe that the confrontation at the crossroads has urgent cultural implications for us all because the projected demonic uncanny easily takes on the face and form of anyone we deem strange, and when we try to banish the demon, we tragically turn against those in our midst whose meanings should mirror our own and thereby resist the aspect of ourselves that can lead us out of our narcissistic prisons in amazed wonder at all we can hope to encounter. Kristeva's simple but socially unrealized point is that if we recognize the uncanny in ourselves, we can also respond to strangers in our midst with the recognition that arises from mutual need.

Finally, we can conclude our rapid summary in a way that lets us return to Deer Woman in the streets of Harjo's poetic city. The paths from affect to representation to literature that Kristeva points out are semiotically marked trails letting us go from abstract, psycholinguistic conceptualizations to imagistically concrete forms in order to understand how “the sense of strangeness is a main-spring for identification with the other, by working out its depersonalizing impact by means of astonishment” (1991, 189).

The Deer Woman legend charts the same path. Its different cultural specificity, however, shifts aspects of how the self confronts otherness. The most basic and easily understood differences all derive from the fact that the legend provides a communally transmitted means for cultures to accept what is meant by the last verse, “[t]here is more to this world than I have ever let on / to you, or anyone.” All the mystery for which Deer Woman stands acts as an ongoing counterbalance for the fact that “In this language there are no words for how the real world / collapses” (1990, 5). The legend reflects how cultures have found ways to cope with collapses of reason and structure. It carries these ancient encounters with mystery into the possibilities of cross-cultural interactional dynamics.

Harjo's culturally distinct cognitive and relational style, brought into the poem by reference to the legend, shows how metaphoric mediations between cultures can depend upon a history of represented interactional dynamics that safeguard options within psycholinguistic parameters. Because mythic metaphors represent primary negotiations between affect and symbol, their function is to convey an affective heritage in tandem with a linguistic one; and they reveal how affect can shift poetic significations ranging from rhythm to discursive structures. Critical commentary on poems using this strategy requires presentation of cultural information that shows how any given mythic reference establishes metonymic transfers that function as a traditional basis from which to move toward what is new. Therefore, registering the signifying energy of any living tradition is a process that begins with cultural specification only to use what is thus understood to chart the path of metaphoric trajectories within which mythic nominations acquire more and more significance in the particular textual and intertextual world of a poem. Harjo characterizes this metaphoric process as a journey.

I no longer see the poem as an ending point, perhaps more the end of a journey, an often long journey that can begin years earlier, say with the blur of the memory of the sun on someone's cheek, a certain smell, an ache, and will culminate years later in a poem, sifted through a point, a lake in my heart through which language must come. That's what I work with, with my students at the university, opening that place within them of original language, which I believe must be in everyone, but not everyone can reach it.

(Coltelli 1990, 68)

Harjo's poetry, always “original language,” teaches that the place of that language, that fire, is a shelter enabling the poet to endure openness toward others and intersubjectivity. The creating self can use language to build imagined shelter only after abjection and rejection, all the painful, psychological coordinates of love's singling out, gathering in, and sending forth have been given their positive valences and turned inside out, as ability to release others into their own freedom.

In its complex intertextual existence, the Deer Woman narrative also sets up a gender-specific play of difference within a dynamic that has already been marked as culture bound. Deer Woman gave sanction to women's independence. (Reading Louise Erdrich's novels Tracks [1988] and Love Medicine [1984b] from this perspective proves illuminating.) If one marks the differences at work within the Deer Woman narrative traditions in terms of inside/outside (wilderness/inhabited space); male/female; and cultural insider/cultural outsider, then the resulting combinatory variables let us trace the impact of Deer Woman's legendary actions across several different conceptual registers. If she catalyzes encounters with what is outside the sphere of the ordinary, she also structures that encounter with an imagistic fullness that sets up relations appropriate to different subjective positionings. She represents a culturally distinct cognitive style that orchestrates gender dynamics along with those of insider and outsider.

My analysis of metaphoric configurations within Harjo's poetry suggests the subtle but precise permutations of signification that occur through historical markings within metaphoric significance. I would not want to suggest that every legendary reference found within Native American women's poetry or novels has such historical resonances with psycholinguistic and therefore cognitive import. Many do. History, though, can shape metaphor through means that affect cognition without depending on psycholinguistic variations. Linda Hogan's work illustrates an approach to historical understanding that leads to other kinds of choices of central metaphors with different cognitive import.


Stones go nowhere
while the river rushes them
dark with rain.
Fish are pulled out of their lives
by red-armed women on the banks
of vertigo.
What is living
but to grow smaller,
undress another skin
or scale
away rough edges
the way rivers cut mountains
down to heart.
We already know the history of sand,
and how days pass.
We know water and air
trying to break the spirit of stone.
We know our teeth grinding down
to their pith.
We know flint
all the way down to fire.
Go nowhere, be the fire.
Wait here for a nibble, you fishwomen,
stand where light is pared to a spark.
Be dust
growing to life.

(1988, 22)

Hogan's need for access to cultural memories was first experienced as devastating, irremediable loss. Her Chickasaw heritage first came into her life as the “secret” of “never having a home” (1978, 17). Like the Creek nation to which Harjo belongs, the Chickasaws were forcibly removed from their ancestral territory in the American Southeast to the plains of Oklahoma. They endured “the long walk” over hundreds of miles to new homes in a region drastically different from what they had known earlier.

                    chikkih asachi, which means
they left as a tribe not a great while ago.
They are always leaving, those people

(1978, 27)

By confronting the negativity of loss, of not having a home, Hogan learns to see the negative as absence and therefore as sign of a former presence. Absence turns the world into a text that speaks what once was, and the poet listens to learn that

the wind in leaves
feeds fire
gives you dreams
and words
to move your lives.

(1981, 15)

Listening lets the poet register a call to a self that is home. As we saw in Harjo's poems, the fire of home is the fire of life, and that awareness lets the poet enter the significance of the historical past as she learns how it has shaped her subjective consciousness. There is more to history, though, than what we usually find in books, and Hogan's historical references are far more inclusive than the temporal frames of historiographic narrative can ordinarily accommodate. The poem “Fishing” tells us, “We already know the history of sand,” and “We know flint / all the way down to fire.” Furthermore, we can “be the fire.” We too are part of the physical world; therefore, our knowing opens us to dimensions of existence that let us make hitherto unknown connections whereby poetic language can echo within loss, becoming both its emblem and sublimated object. The imagery that Hogan draws from physics and geology flows from this conjunction between personal need, cultural experience, and the psycholinguistic transferals that imbue universal images with motives arising from historical knowledge.

Hogan asks us to think of a translation process even more basic than that which occurs between cultures. It involves listening to the life that is within all form, including geological form, so that the text that form itself is can tell the story within which the ethnohistorical specifics of any one person's experiences are a subtext. This subtext is important and indispensable but always just a part of the global telling that sustains all our memories of loss by linking them to the physicist's knowledge that cosmic matter is transformed, not lost, as our universe evolves. The text of form records “The Truth of the Matter.” Hogan's poem with that title tells us that

Stars go on forever
about their lives.
Thank heaven,
.....emptiness admits it wants to steal your breath
but didn't I know it all along,
hearing those stars chatting
with their brothers, the stones,
and telling the truth.

(1988, 47)

The poet attunes her listening to “the truth of the matter,” and her task becomes one of registering the distinctions among different voices in the cosmic chorus. She has to recognize the sameness as well as the otherness in the voices she hears so as to achieve imagistic specification that is also translation and transferal.

the other voices speak
and they are mine
and they are not mine
and I hear them
and I don't,
and even police can't stop earth telling

(1988, 46)

As she listens and transfers what she hears into the sounds and rhythms of poetic language, Hogan knows that translation from one kind of telling to another is an enabling prelude to other kinds of cross-cultural communication precisely because it allows the conditions of survival for different peoples and cultures and thereby sets up the relational terms for communication among all survivors. Translation among forms is fundamentally educative because it teaches us what it is to know something “all the way down to fire.” Even this phrase, which I am borrowing to sum up the substance and purpose of this entire critical transpositional exercise, is based on the extended, slow temporality and the transformative force of geological life that women know by analogy to their somatic existence. Women, listening to their bodies, are attuned to the slow processes of dust growing to the spark of life. From this somatic knowing to hearing is already a synesthetic transfer. Our bodies teach the attentiveness that is a prelude to hearing. And from their listening, the women speak. Phonic substance gets transformed to phonemic significance. Sound breaches the divide between individuals and between past and present. It is inherent in all form. It is an image of what endures beyond transformation in order to emerge as originary sign of the process that melds endurance into meaning.

Something lives in everything
In stone
metal becomes a bell
and takes hold of silence

(1983, 60)

Sound is evidence of ultimate anteriority. For Hogan the origin of the universe, the big bang, becomes guarantee of connection with her own culture in spite of exile and losses because it is evidence that sound ultimately connects all times and places. This scientific understanding serves as the foundation for her metaphoric uses of sound to recover the cultural past through her own listening. Laura Coltelli also interviewed Hogan. Statements from that interview point directly to the importance of sound in the dynamic of transfers that constitute Hogan's complex poetic agenda.

Everything speaks. I have a friend, Flying Clouds, who one time said, “Some people are such good listeners the trees lean toward them to tell their secrets.” I think that's true. When I wrote that poem [“Blessing”] I thought about my family that we were the last in our own blood group, the last Indian people—which wasn't true at all—but at the time I thought of Indian people as vanishing and that our stories and histories were disappearing. In some ways I got that idea from public education, from white education. They want us to believe we don't exist. I realize now that the stories are eternal. They will go on as long as there are people to speak them. And the people will always be there. The people will listen to the world and translate it into a human tongue. That is the job of the poet.

(Coltelli 1990, 72)

With this description of listening, Hogan indicates how and why she rearranges our commonplace dialogical priorities giving the place of privilege to listening rather than to speech. “What do we have left / except the mirage of sound?” (1983, 9). Listening is radically preliminary to responsive speech because it is the only act that can lead speech back to narrative origins; it is an act of receptive somatic interiorization that precedes exteriorizing speech and authorizes the speaker. It is how we come to know something “all the way down to fire.”

By making the conceptual dimensions of sound into a basic metaphoric vehicle, Hogan extends the temporality of her poems and slows its pace to the near stasis of geological time. Within the minimal temporal progression of Hogan's poems, we can observe as action what would appear to be static if observed at our ordinary perceptual tempo, and we learn to ask “[w]hat is living / but to grow smaller?” Even more fundamental is the way we endure our living to “the way rivers cut mountains / down to heart.”

Several different imagistic features of the cosmologically bound life process that Hogan listens for and fights to sustain are present in the poem “The Sand Roses.” With that poem we can follow how listening to voices audible only through Hogan's slow temporality of exile becomes a cross-cultural dynamic. She shows transfers based on listening that take her from culture to culture, from Crazy Horse to Nijinski, through a hearing that occurs at a level created and expressed by the poem. Her poem begins with a series of synesthetic transferals that connect Hogan's metaphors of temporal transfer. The poet listening achieves such exquisite attentiveness that she can hear flowers forming:

as once I heard
invisible hooves of elk
.....and heard the breastplate of Crazy Horse,
a man who listened to stones

(1985, 61)

Gradually the reference to the stone that Crazy Horse carried with him becomes an inclusive one, linking different persons in many lands before leading the poet inward and backward through time to “the ancient ones that burn inside us.” In this poem we can see again how “thin flesh” is a moving boundary between different life forms whose development through time is a continuing transformation of everything “born of nothing” light years ago.

It was on his breast,
that song
that bone plate
that thin flesh
over lungs and heart, on skin
moving across the land,
the song of all people in a stone
he wore beneath his arm.
Beyond time,
beyond space
Nijinski heard that stone
and danced his body into the shape
of Guernica and war.
Who didn't know
gods live in stone and in our bodies,
that inside each other's skin
we hear voices
in the solar plexus
the heart
the ancient ones that burn inside us
rising up from nothing
in the dark fields of ourselves
Like roses

(1985, 61)

Within the “dark fields of ourselves” we hear the voices of “the ancient ones that burn inside us,” and what we hear may have already been transfered across cultural boundaries, just as Nijinski heard Crazy Horse's message and danced in magnificent response. In Hogan's poetry listening anneals loss, lets what was lost live again in new forms. Thus any evidence of form can be a starting point for a translation process that moves from culture to culture, filling in the details that once belonged to a concrete but transitory historical realization of form. Yet, if Hogan's poetics of transferal establish a coalition able to gather in members from everywhere and all times, it never assimilates the differences. The women speak in their own tongues; they wear the costumes of their own nations. Crazy Horse has his personal story, as do Picasso and Nijinski. The poet asks us to be true to each story and what it can bring into her poems where sound establishes relationships among the stories.

Knowing all the way down to fire is different from feeling or intuiting all the way down to fire. Knowing implies cognitive and conceptual determinations that Hogan's metaphors of fire never destroy. The sound that survives fire is the raw material for a speaking that continues the many stories of people in different nations. The cognitive force implied by knowing is of particular importance when the histories in question incorporate the endangered stories of exiles and the survivors of genocide.


Hogan's cognitive transferals bring us back to the requirements and possibilities of the critical narrative. Poetry invokes and evokes. Criticism specifies and achieves supplemental translations. The critical narrative that begins in cautious and informed response to poetry has to negotiate carefully its points of transfer from imagistic to conceptual registers, from the syntax of poetic form to the logical structures of critical narrative, from the markings of subjective agency to cultural determinant. If the poetry crosses in and out of different cultural worlds, critics also have to traverse more than one cognitive territory, mapping the semiotic formations we discover in each. Within the poetic territories we explore, some semiotic formations arise from the workings of gender, some from the influence of culture, and many from interactions between gender and culture that can only be understood with respect to definite times and places.

Our mappings of the cognitive territories within which poets situate themselves have all the risks of our political situation. Even if the statements we make do not have particular political reference, our way of structuring the cognitive dimensions of our argument is implicitly bound to cultural politics. That is why I want to safeguard the hesitations that are an honest element in cross-cultural responses to poetry, just as I want alternatively to stress the determinations imposed by ethnohistorical reference within the trajectory of metaphorical signification. This weaving between critical hesitation and authority uses the exclusivity of pragmatic specification to inaugurate a relational responsiveness within which hesitation marks the moment of recognition. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak further describes what is at stake as we explore the dimensions of the cognitive middle ground between image and concept that metaphor allows us to negotiate. In “Explanation and Culture: Marginalia,” Spivak turns her formidably discerning ability toward the “ferocious apartheid” that opposes the literalist language of the conceptualism of pure theory to the “entrenched privatism” of many approaches to metaphor. Privatism drives metaphor out of political play by claiming a special status for metaphor that either holds it so rigidly to conceptual standards that it can never challenge their epistemological limits or assigns it a radical freeplay of signification that has only the contrived links of artifice to bring poetic significance into pragmatic relationships with our conceptual frames.

Using examples from Giambattista Vico and Wallace Stevens, Spivak deconstructs the “marginalization between metaphor and concept” to show

not only that no pure theory of metaphor is possible, because any pre-metaphoric base of discussion must already assume the distinction between theory and metaphor; but also that no priority, by the same token, can be given to metaphor, since every metaphor is contaminated and constituted by its conceptual justification. If neither metaphor nor concept is given priority (or both are), the passage of poetry above could be taught as a serious objection to the privileging of theory that takes place when humanists gather to discuss “cultural explanations.”

(Spivak 1987, 115)

Spivak's examples are meant to emphasize “the conceptuality of poetic language and the metaphoricity of historical language to similar pedagogical ends” (Spivak 1987, 117), all of them requiring the mutuality of the interpreting relationship to which poetry like Harjo's and Hogan's issues an invitation to feminists.

The cognitive middle ground, strategically established through metaphoric mediations like the ones I have been describing, allows us a way out of the apartheid and politically neutralizing views that Spivak deplores because it frames an analytic stance that engages socially contingent conceptual meaning through the metonymic transfers that any culture necessarily sets in play. Culture functions less as definition (the semantic register) than as associative and interactive entailment (the cognitive register). Culture sets up interactional expectations; it does not define the outcomes of interactions. When metaphors cross cultural boundaries, they carry their original cognitive determinations and potentialities while they add to them the weight of another culture's significations, and the combinations push both sets of signifying features toward new interrelationships. In poetry, the interweaving of different meaning traces is even more intricate than in other discursive formations because the poetic voice gathers more of its force from desire.

Poetry has a unique place in cultural analysis, not because of its autotelic character but because of its desiring drive toward the revelation and innovation that has to distinguish whose history is being gathered into the momentum. Poetry's metaphoric impetus is toward limits of all kinds in order to reach beyond them; but as it reveals the limits of culture, it also emphasizes the originary energy channeled through these limits:

                                                                      I am an arrow, painted
                                                                                                                        with lighting
to seek the way to the name of the enemy,
                                                                                but the arrow has now created
its own language.

(1990, 9)

Once when I tried to replay this argument for an anthropologist, he interrupted my description of how basic cultural metaphors establish a process of analogical entailment and he exclaimed: “But that is the definition of culture!” He was right, of course. The tropological resources that “define” any culture function in a multicultural world as epistemological and poetic radicals, basic starting points for extensions of cultural knowing. But that is only part of their task in cross-cultural discursive formations. They also launch moves away from what any one culture defines and alternatively back to what cultures have preserved for those exiled from them. That too may just be what culture does; but this intercultural dynamic has not been given much place in our critical narratives about the workings of culture within literary forms. Poets have been better than ethnologists or cultural historians at showing us how metaphors can usher their users in and out of worlds and ways of knowing. Poetry that springs from this back-and-forth movement orchestrates a unique metaphoric dynamic depending sometimes on the stability of determined reference, sometimes on the energy of destabilized determinations.

In the process of becoming more adept at noting cultural determinants as well as innovative departures from them, we will have taken important steps toward teaching about metaphor's most basic transpositional operations. In cross-cultural contexts, we linger over basic narrative positioning because it represents the most politically sensitive aspect of our work. We do not want our critical narratives to impose ever more clever but inappropriate determinisms; nor do we want the whole enterprise to hover in well-meaning suspension among optional empathetic responses with minimal institutional efficacy. Bringing the analysis of cognitive style into a working relationship with thinking about metaphor and culture helps us deflect the institutionalized will to power by confronting it with its own social contingency and the metaphoric foundations of all human cognition. Those central metaphors that I am calling the metaphors of cultural transfer always bind an associational network that is also a semiotic guide to fundamental cultural dynamics. Some metaphors of transfer come straight from myth or legend. Deer Woman is an intriguing example. Others, like the ethnohistorical significations of loss as they are bound to images in Hogan's poetry, require more indirect analytic effort. Nevertheless, Hogan's use of poetry to place images that spring from a radically expanded temporality is as characteristic a cultural task as anything that the mythic figure of Deer Woman can subsume.

The awareness of need for women's empowerment that is Harjo's Native American endorsement of the feminist movement intensifies the need to give poetic realization to relational networks that can go beyond exile to transformation and to renewed recognition of commonalities and differences. In the last paragraph of her historical novel Mean Spirit (1990), Hogan identifies a characteristic moment of history that shaped a whole range of cognitive presuppositions at work among survivors within cultures where a history of genocide always exerts determinate force within personal histories:

They looked back once and saw it all rising up in the reddened sky, the house, the barn, the broken string of lights, the life they had lived, nothing more than a distant burning. No one spoke. But they were alive. They carried generations along with them, into the prairie and through it, to places where no road had been cut before them. They traveled past houses that were like caves of light in the black world. The night was on fire with their pasts and they were alive.

The poets Harjo and Hogan are alive too; and so are the cultures in which their central metaphors originate. The critical narrative recognizes the cultural life through ethnohistorical specification, but it also has to safeguard a place for the individual who reaches irrepressibly toward the future. Highlighting the creativity of women who are poets gives us amazed pause. Hesitation has its moment in our response and in our critical language.


  1. A member of the Creek nation, Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1951. She has taught Native American literature and creative writing at many different universities and colleges and is currently teaching at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Her best-known publications include two collections of poems, She Had Some Horses (1983) and In Mad Love and War (1990). Secrets from the Center of the World (1989) is a book of poetic prose responses to photographs by Stephen Strom.

    Linda Hogan is a member of the Chickasaw nation. She was born in Denver, but she grew up in Gene Autry, Oklahoma. She received a master's degree in English and creative writing from the University of Colorado, where she now teaches creative writing and American Indian literature. She also taught at the University of Minnesota, and she has been poet-in-residence for the Oklahoma and the Colorado Arts Councils. Her first book of poetry was Calling Myself Home (1978). Her other collections of poems include Daughters, I Love You (1981), Eclipse (1983), Seeing through the Sun (1985), and Savings (1988). She has also published a novel, Mean Spirit (1990).

  2. For a recent article that addresses contemporary feminist theory and its relationship to the criticism of poetry, see Linda A. Taylor's “‘A Seizure of Voice’: Language Innovation and a Feminist Poetics in the Works of Kathleen Fraser.” Taylor recognizes her indebtedness to the critical work of Marianne DeKoven and quotes DeKoven in a way that is relevent to this article. “The fact that one hardly ever sees [women] writers … mentioned in print except by one another is particularly surprising given the widespread interest among feminist critics in ‘French theory,’ which emphasizes precisely the kinds of formal dislocations these writers employ” (1992, 337).

    See also Chaviva Hosek and Patricia Parker's Lyric Poetry (1985), a collection of essays addressing relationships between theory and poetry. Jonathan Arac's “Afterword: Lyric Poetry and the Bounds of New Criticism” provocatively frames questions about the current emphasis on literary language and our professional habits of comparison as they are based on institutional teaching of canonical literature. He reminds us that intertextuality has had limited application to the study of poetry because it is assumed to be canonical intertextuality. He also reminds us that “intertextual reading prods into consciousness cultural traces that we wish—in some happier time—could remain unconscious but that we know now would not otherwise exist at all” (1985, 349). The minimal representation of feminist positions is notable in this collection of essays designed to provoke new agendas of poetry.

  3. Laura Coltelli's Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak (1990) also includes interviews with Paula Gunn Allen, Louise Erdrich, Wendy Rose, Leslie Marmon Silko, and several male writers.

  4. For a representative transcription of an oral tale from the Great Plains, see Ella Deloria's Dakota Texts (1932). For examples of literary uses of the traditional tale, see the chapter entitled “Crown of Thorns” in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine (1984b). Erdrich has a poem about Deer Woman in Jacklight (1984a). Paula Gunn Allen has written a short story, “Deer Woman,” that is set in Oklahoma (1991).

  5. In Black Sun Kristeva sketches the therapeutic role she sees for literature:

    the line of questioning that I shall pursue could be summed up as follows: aesthetic and particularly literary creation, and also religious discourse in its imaginary, fictional essence, set forth a device whose prosodic economy, interaction of characters, and implicit symbolism constitute a very faithful semiological representation of the subject's battle with symbolic collapse. Such a literary representation is not an elaboration in the sense of “becoming aware” of the inter- and intrapsychic causes of moral suffering; that is where it diverges from the psychoanalytic course, which aims at dissolving this symptom. Nevertheless the literary (and religious) representation possesses a real and imaginary effectiveness that comes closer to catharsis than to elaboration; it is a therapeutic device used in all societies throughout the ages. If psychoanalysts think they are more efficacious, notably through strengthening the subject's cognitive possibilities, they also owe it to themselves to enrich their practice by paying greater attention to these sublimatory solutions to our crises, in order to be lucid counterdepressants rather than neutralizing antidepressants.

    (1989, 24-25)

Works Cited

Coltelli, Laura. 1990. Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Erdrich, Louise. 1984. Love Medicine. New York; Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

———. 1988. Tracks: A Novel. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Harjo, Joy. 1990. In Mad Love and War. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

Herrera-Sobek, Maria. 1990. The Mexican Corrido: A Feminist Analysis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hogan, Linda. 1981. Daughters I Love You. Denver: Research Center on Women.

———. 1983. Eclipse. Los Angeles: UCLA American Indian Studies Center Press.

———. 1985. Seeing through the Sun. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

———. 1988. Savings. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.

———. 1990. Mean Spirit. New York: Random House.

Holland, Norman N. 1978. “Dr. Johnson's Remarks on the Death of Cordelia.” In Psychoanalysis and the Question of the Text, ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman, 18-44. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kristeva, Julia. 1991. Strangers to Ourselves. New York: Columbia University Press.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1987. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Methuen.

Stacy Alaimo (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Displacing Darwin and Descartes: The Bodily Transgressions of Fielding Burke, Octavia Butler, and Linda Hogan,” in Isle: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Vol. 3, No. 1, Summer, 1996, pp. 55-64.

[In the following excerpt, Alaimo studies Hogan's handling of nature in her poems. Instead of humanizing nature and animals, the critic contends, Hogan gives them their own identity, an identity that doesn't always conform to common expectations of characterization.]

Linda Hogan, in an interview with Patricia Clark Smith, stated that after participating in a research project on wolves in northern Minnesota she realized that “wolves really are the projection of people's inner fears or desires.” She also discovered how “difficult it is for people to see difference—between one human being and another, between species. What people look for is similarities—or shadow—the shadow-self, as Jung says, so you can look for evil on the outside and not have to acknowledge your inner evil” (151). These projections, of course, are no mere psychological matter—they have contributed to the extermination of many thousands of wolves in the United States alone. It is therefore important for environmental philosophy to create conceptions of nature that neither radically sever it from humanity nor pose it as a tabula rasa for human inscriptions.1 While Hogan's poetry evokes profound connections with nature, it strives to affirm nature's differences, in part by refusing to engulf it within human projections. As it represents human-nature relations with a difference, Hogan's poetry rejects both the romantic and the debased versions of nature, which are both projections of a Cartesian self. Here I will limit my discussion to her latest collection of poems, The Book of Medicines.

“Mountain Lion,” for example, eschews any simple bond or mystified moment of unity as it describes the speaker's fearful encounter with the mountain lion. Hogan grants the mountain lion her own perspective that reverses the usual categories of the civilized and the wild, a perspective in which the human “was the wild thing / she had learned to fear.” She also acknowledges that the mountain lion does not desire her presence; in fact, “Her power lived / in a dream of my leaving.” Knowing that the lion would prefer her absence complicates whether the speaker can look at her. The look serves as a metonym for their vexed relation.

It was the same way
I have looked so many times at others
in clear light
before lowering my eyes
and turning away
from what lives inside those
who have found
two worlds cannot live
inside a single vision.


By turning away and lowering her eyes, the “I” of the poem acknowledges the mountain lion's integrity and difference. By looking away, she does not entrap the lion within the parameters of her gaze. As John Berger explains, the human gaze has objectified animals: “animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. They are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are” (16). Paradoxically, by diverting her gaze and choosing to know less, not more, about the mountain lion, she does not push the lion farther away by making her into an object of knowledge within the poet's gaze but instead acknowledges that they exist in separate, but parallel, worlds. She deflects the romantic desire to feel a sense of unity with the lion or to use the lion as a mirror to reflect her own consciousness. She also refuses to colonize the lion's territory or self by subsuming it into her own view. The colonizing response to nature operates, in part, through “denying and canceling [nature's] independence of self” (Plumwood, 191). These responses to the lion would destroy her: “two worlds cannot live / inside a single vision.”

In “Naming the Animals” (40-41), language, not vision, entraps the animals. Leaving Eve out, Hogan rewrites the story of Adam naming the animals by suggesting that naming is a proprietary act. After he named “legs, hands, / the body / of man”

these he named; wolf, bear, other
as if they had not been there
before his words, had not
had other tongues and powers or sung themselves into life
before him.
These he sent crawling into wilderness
he could not enter


Naming captures the animals in language, seemingly to fence them within the sphere of human territory; yet, the final act sends them “crawling into wilderness / he could not enter.” Whereas acknowledging the integrity of the mountain lion's vision allows the poet and the lion to retain a parallel relationship, naming the animals within human language paradoxically inscribes them as the not-human. Moreover, although the animals had “been there / before his words,” the act of naming constitutes an ersatz “creation” that negates the animals by conjuring them into language only to expel them. Descartes appears to incite this process, since naming the animals follows naming “the body / of man.” After severing mind from body, man divorces himself from animals and constructs a wilderness to contain the exiled.

The animals' abject status would then be transferred to certain groups of humans: the children of Adam “would call us pigs.” Rather than denying the racist appellation of “pig,” the speaker of the poem abruptly affirms the misnomer:

I am a pig,
the child of pigs,
wild in this land
of their leavings,
drinking from water that burns
at the edge of a savage country
of law and order.


By affirming a connection to one of the most abject animals, Hogan underscores a historical truth, that Christians treated Indians with disdain and brutality, as “pigs”; but she also takes refuge in a space that is not the territory of a “savage country / of law and order.” In her interview with Smith, Hogan discusses how “women and Indians are often equated with animals, in ways that have negative connotations for all three.” When Smith suggests this underlines “the horror people have of the physical,” Hogan responds, “And of the body, of all matter. Matter is not our primary concern in this country, or in Western thinking” (148-49). Instead of distancing herself from the abject, Hogan animates matter itself. Like the animals “at the fierce edge of forest” who “know the names for themselves,” the speaker, at the end of the poem, finds her power through physicality:

From somewhere I can't speak or tell,
my stolen powers
hold out their hands
and sing me through.


As the animals had already “sung themselves into life” before their naming by man, the speaker is recreated. Although she cannot articulate where the source of her powers lie, perhaps because (the English) language itself enforces the mind / matter split, the metaphor of her powers holding “out their hands” suggests an embodied passage “through,” to a time “before” Cartesian, Adamic separations, to a time when “there [were] no edges to the names” (40).

Living in an age when matter doesn't matter, it seems crucial for Hogan to accentuate human embodiment. In an interview with Joseph Bruchac, Hogan explained the fundamental importance of physicality: “We're here on earth with our bodies. We're not meant for outer space physically or spiritually. People who go into the mental can go off too far into the mental. I don't know many people who can go off too far into the physical (I don't mean athletically or sexually, I mean awareness of the body)” (130). Awareness of the body not only offers a sense of grounding for humans, it also holds out the possibility for connections with nature that neither obliterate its differences nor reinforce hierarchies of beings.

Along with “Naming the Animals,” several other poems in The Book of Medicines capture a yearning to experience bodily ties with nature and to cross over to a time when those corporeal connections were most evident. “Crossings” reverses the teleological and anthropocentric misconception that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” which is usually portrayed as the (human) fetus replaying the entire evolutionary procession by developing from fish to human. Instead of speaking of a human fetus with fishlike characteristics, Hogan describes a fetal whale with human features:

Not yet whale, it still wore the shadow of
a human face, and fingers
that had grown before the taking
back and turning into fin.


Wearing a “shadow of / a human face,” the fetal whale is hauntingly humanlike; caught in a frozen, illuminating moment on a “block of shining ice,” the creature embodies a corporeal “crossing” between whale and human. Significantly, the human form is not the ultimate destination: the fingers are taken back and transformed into fin, a more fitting form for whale life.

Seeing the fetal whale evokes a longing for the “terrain of crossed beginnings”:

Sometimes the longing in me
comes from when I remember
the terrain of crossed beginnings
when whales lived on land
and we stepped out of water
to enter our lives in air.


The corporeal crossings embodied by the human features of the fetal whale parallel the geographic, evolutionary paths of humans and whales that crossed in the past. Although the poet longs for the time when the paths crossed and humans and whales met at the intersection, the narrator does not envelop the whale in her longing, but instead charts the separate, but intersecting, paths that the two species have taken. Hogan displaces a ladder of beings with a horizontal, nonhierarchical model of difference.

“Skin Dreaming” and “Great Measures” also evoke a mythical past of corporeal crossings. In “Skin Dreaming,” skin, which is “the oldest thing,” is also the

closest thing to God
touching oil, clay,
intimate with the foreign land of air
and other bodies.


Skin is “godly,” not because it is transcendent or ethereal, but because of its liminality, its intimacy with the “outside” world of oil, clay, “other bodies,” and the “foreign land of air.” The juxtaposition of intimacy with the “foreignness” of something as common as air depicts the skin as a sort of a brave corporeal ambassador, crossing borders. Skin, somehow, has a memory: “It remembers when it was the cold / builder of fire” (70). The skin blends into the cold air that chills it. As a liminal zone, the skin both “was the cold” itself and was also the “cold / builder of fire,” as the line break suggests. Since fire is a common icon for human achievement, these lines make skin a corporeal agent of culture. No gift from the gods on high, fire is created by the skin that it will warm.

Skin is not only spatially liminal but temporally liminal; it comes from the past, from ancestors and forests.

It has fallen through ancestral hands.
It is the bearer of vanished forest
fallen through teeth and jaws
of earth
where we were once other
visions and creations.


Skin falls from the “ancestral hands” as if it were an unplanned gift from the ancestors, a gift that has escaped the predatory “teeth and jaws of earth.” As a liminal zone the skin is both part of the oil and clay it touches, yet it has escaped being absorbed back into the earth itself. Skin “bears” vanished forest in somehow bringing forth the forests of the past it has been intimate with, but it also must “bear” the fact that the forest has vanished. Born from its ancestors, skin brings forth both the presence and the absence of the forests “where we were once other / visions and creations.” Similarly, in “The History of Red,” another poem in the same collection, it is the “cave of skin / that remembers bisons” (11). The final lines of “Skin Dreaming” suggest that skin dreams recall a time and place where humans were not human; the skin as a liminal boundary dissolves, dissolving a distinctly human identity.

Although it has genealogical “roots” in the past, Hogan's image of the skin is similar to Deleuze and Guattari's notion of a rhizome, which “connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states” (21). The skin connects with oil, clay, air, cold, ancestors, and forests—both signifying and nonsignifying states. More important, like the rhizome, it is “always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (25). By being precisely in the middle, skin disrupts the old dichotomies that sever nature from culture, subject from object, body from mind. Grosz explains that in Deleuze and Guattari's writing, “subject and object can no longer be seen in terms of rigid boundaries, clear demarcations; nor, on an opposite track, can they be seen as inherently united, singular or holistic” (167). In other words, their work “de-massifies the entities that binary thought counterposes against each other” (181). Similarly, Hogan transforms the skin from a boundary that contains the human form into a liminal zone that connects across and dissolves boundaries.

“Great Measures” dissolves the boundaries of the human into corporeal connections with substances and elements of the earth. The voice of the poem describes the “first time a lover held me” as an elemental transformation into body and liquid.

I was hand, body, liquid
ruled by dark seas
that swallow the edges of land
and give them up to another place.
I am still this measure of brine,
ancient carbon, the pull of iron
across linked and desperate distances,
beginning and end together
the way sunlight on skin
is still connected
to the fiery storms of its origins.


The “I” defines herself as a “measure” of the basic fluids and elements of life. The word measure suggests the materiality of the definition, since places, substances, and ingredients are measured; but it also suggests a section of music, a section made up of the same basic elements as the other measures and related to them through patterns of melody and harmony. Yet this is a profoundly antiromantic definition; the images of brine, carbon, and iron are not prettified, lofty, or ethereal: no rainbows or flowers here. Again the skin suggests to the poet the origins of life itself; the fiery storms recall cauldrons of lava deep in the earth. The connection is an embodied, sensual one: sunlight on skin does not look like fire, it feels like fire. But most significant, the “I” of the poem defines herself as “the pull of iron / across linked and desperate distances;” her body becomes not a self-enclosed place but a magnetic force that pulls together “desperate distances.” “Desperate” suggests the strong desire for these severed distances to reconnect, yet the images of brine, carbon, and iron disrupt any lingering desire for a holistic unity that would contain and govern these dispersed elements. Like Deleuze and Guattari's “body without organs” that is not a “fragmented, splintered body” but instead “nonstratified, unformed, intense matter” (164, 153), the body in “Great Measures” transgresses ordinary physical boundaries by becoming a multiplicity of nonstratified matter, the same elemental matter that exists across desperate distances.

The body is a crucial site for contestation and transformation, precisely because ideologies of the body have been complicit in the degradation of people of color, women, and nature. Octavia Butler's Wild Seed and Linda Hogan's poetry in The Book of Medicines challenge the dominant dichotomies by envisioning bodily transgressions and corporeal crossings. They transform the body from a site of abjection into a means of connection. Instead of displacing corporeality onto the bodies of racially marked others as Ishma does in Call Home the Heart, they displace the Cartesian and social Darwinist ideologies, which cast the body as abject, by rewriting the body as place of power, knowledge, and liminality. Rosi Braidotti describes a “new form of corporeal materialism” in which “the body is seen as an interface, a threshold, a field of intersection of material and symbolic forces” (219). For this corporeal materialism to effectively challenge the system of dichotomies that sever nature from culture, it is important that the body be not only a place that has been inscribed by cultural forces, as Judith Butler describes it, but a threshold where nature and culture dissolve, a rhizomatic place that connects “desperate distances” through elemental relations to such things as brine, carbon, and the pull of iron. Not exactly abject and certainly not sublime, images of brine and carbon suggest another way of envisioning nature that neither engulfs it within a romantic vision nor severs it from humanity altogether. By refusing to divide nature from culture, body from mind, subject from object, Linda Hogan and Octavia Butler throw out the old maps and encourage us to find new ways of understanding the places we inhabit, the places we are.2


  1. Thanks to Rajani Sudan for helping me remember this phrase.

  2. I would like to thank Greta Gaard and Patrick Murphy for all of their constructive and thought-provoking comments.


Linda Hogan Poetry: American Poets Analysis