James Ruppert (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: "The Uses of Oral Tradition in Six Contemporary Native American Poets," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1980, pp. 87-110.
[Former president of the Association for the Study of Native American Literatures, Ruppert is an educator and critic who specializes in English and Native studies. In the following excerpt, he analyzes Young Bear's attempts to recreate the Native American "story world" in his poetry, discussing his focus on song and dreams.]
[Ray Young Bear's poems] do not speak of the old days, of a story world of "a long time ago" or "in the beginning"; rather, they bring that world into our reality. The old story world is a place and time when humans were finding out the power that other beings held—how they acted, and how that power and those unique creatures created the world as we know it today. Beings with power could transform themselves, separate parts of themselves, dominate time and space, create and destroy on a grand scale. While [Peter] Blue Cloud tries to put us in the persona of those story beings, Young Bear tries to have us experience that world—the powers, the perceptions and amazing occurrences germane to it. The time and world of the oral tradition is now, if we will just realize it. Not that the reader defeats monsters, but the powers and perceptions of that story world, those things that define it and give it meaning, are alive and rediscovered in the world today. This is the goal of many Native American poets, but Young Bear's uniqueness lies in his evocative use of composition and elements of the oral story as a form for his work. His poems use the fantastic events and perceptions of the story world to make new stories, rather than using these elements solely as subject.
In poems like "The Cook," the woman has supernatural powers and is instructed by her contact with those powers. She seems to have a direct power over the weather and an indirect power over any human that may come in contact with her. The poem "The Way the Bird Sat" presents a wind that is jealous, a bird that keeps watch and divides the season with song, and blue hearts in the form of a deer. In the animated universe of this poem, an unidentified narrator is guided by animal spirit power into visualizing and thus participating in a ceremony that transforms him into a hummingbird, the originator of his personal power. These occurrences are not unusual in oral tradition, nor are they unusual in Young Bear's work. Dogs climbing down from the sky on a cord of sunlight, a sun growing on someone's back, a face existing in a mouth and rocks with mouths are occurrences typical to Young Bear's poetry. Through these we feel that spirit, the power that accomplishes these miraculous occurrences and incredible transformations, is still here. It lies under the surface of our daily lives. We can touch that world and experience the story reality if we look hard enough, seek visions and believe. Young Bear's poems seem aimed toward changing those who he says [in "For the Rain in March: The Blackened Hearts of Herons"], "think that all they see is all they will ever see."
Many of Young Bear's images occur and recur in several poems as if they were resonant oral material trying to find an appropriate niche in the cultural mind. Many of these are hauntingly surreal images. However, the images come more from the story reality, the dream and the vision—peyote and otherwise—than from a European art form. Through this imagery, his poetry becomes vivid because the power of the story and the dream is present, an active force in the events and processes of the poem and the world. The visionary quality of the poetry is as haunting as the ghosts that seem to linger around his verbal campfires. The world of his poems is active, in the process of making itself. [He writes in "Through Lifetime"]:
She combed my hair with wings of the seeking owl
she sang of spring birds and how brown running
would be a signal to begin family deaths by
she showed me a handful of ribs shining a land dry
These actions are not so much metaphors as magical occurrences.
As the world is being created in...
(The entire section is 1800 words.)