Sherman Alexie Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1048

Sherman Alexie writes both lyric and narrative poetry, usually in free verse, though his poetry sometimes rhymes, and he has rarely but effectively used arcane poetic forms. In “Spokane Tribal Celebration, September 1987,” he makes use of the sestina, a form that originated in medieval Provence. Although Alexie invokes Lakota...

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Sherman Alexie writes both lyric and narrative poetry, usually in free verse, though his poetry sometimes rhymes, and he has rarely but effectively used arcane poetic forms. In “Spokane Tribal Celebration, September 1987,” he makes use of the sestina, a form that originated in medieval Provence. Although Alexie invokes Lakota mystic and warrior Crazy Horse as both character and symbol, his poetry is usually set in a very realistic or even surrealistic present, articulating the concerns and struggles of contemporary Indians living in the larger American society through descriptions of powwows, reservation basketball tournaments, the consumption of commodity rather than traditional foods, and the use of old Camaros and pickup trucks instead of horses.

The Business of Fancydancing

In the five short stories and forty poems that make up The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems (1992), Indian traditions come into conflict with the exigencies of contemporary life on and off the reservation. In the short story “Special Delivery,” Junior spends hours watching the automatic door at the trading post open and close, “more fascinated with the useless technology than autistically obsessed.” Similarly, reservation storyteller Thomas Builds-the-Fire “spent more than a few moments transfixed by the door, dissonant, like a missed step in a fancydance.” Fancydancing, introduced in the title, recurs as one of the controlling metaphors of the collection.

Perhaps the most striking frame of reference is Alexie’s invocation of Crazy Horse, a nineteenth century Lakota mystic and warrior, as a symbol of Indian heroism, hope, and failure in “Crazy Horse Dreams,” the third and final section of the book. In “Ceremonies,” Seymour muses on “. . . Crazy Horse dreams, the kind that don’t come true,” and Crazy Horse is often transposed into a working-class present that is ironic and sad but often insightful. In “Missing,” Crazy Horse gets a job at a 7-11, enjoys the free sodas and cigarettes that the job affords, but “. . . picks up a nicotine habit/ spends breaks lighting up in a cooler, hiding behind the milk and eggs/ because his co-workers told him there’s much less smoke that way.” In “The Reservation Cab Driver,” Crazy Horse is hitchhiking at 3 a.m.; in the prose poem “Basketball,” the first-person narrator claims to be “the Reservation point guard with the Crazy Horse jump shot,” going home at the end of the story to “hang another shirt in my closet, another Crazy Horse dream without a skeleton or skin.”

Old Shirts and New Skins

Alexie begins Old Shirts and New Skins with the equation “Poetry = Anger Imagination” on the frontispiece and proceeds to document the Indian experience of the 1990’s within the context of both traditional and contemporary referents. He continues periodically to reflect on the character and significance of Crazy Horse, especially in apposition to Custer in the parallel poems “Custer Speaks” and “Crazy Horse Speaks.” Alexie imagines Crazy Horse saying, as he sits across the fire from Sitting Bull, “We both saw the same thing/ our futures tight and small/ an 8 10 dream/ called the reservation./ We had no alternatives/ but to fight again and again/ live our lives on horseback.” Alexie exhibits his developing interest in communicating in multiple media in “Powwow Polaroid” and by having poet and artist Elizabeth Woody of the Warm Springs Confederated Tribes contribute twelve illustrations to the volume.

First Indian on the Moon

In First Indian on the Moon (1993), Alexie continues his free-verse ruminations concerning the enduring frustrations and ironies of contemporary American Indian life. In “Reservation Drive-In,” he asserts that “we chase the tail of some Crazy Horse dream, chase the theft of our lives.” Continuing his interest in figures from American popular culture, in “Vision: From the Drum’s Interior,” he imagines Bruce Lee as a young Indian boy, envisions Charlie Chaplin as a Spokane Indian, and pities Elvis Presley as “. . . a poor white boy . . . trash. He was the dumpster singer who faked guitar and sang black music like it was his.” In “My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys,” Alexie suggests that “We’ve all killed John Wayne more than once” and reflects on “this country of John Wayne and broken treaties,” showing Alexie’s interest in the well-known motion-picture cowboy whom he would later memorialize in “John Wayne’s Teeth,” the drum-group song in the film version of Smoke Signals. Concerns of racial and individual identity suffuse many poems, as in “Because I Was in New York City Once and Have Since Become an Expert,” in which he wonders: “Am I Native American only when I am hated because of it? Does racism determine my entire identity?” The stanza ends without any response to the questions, emblematic of Alexie’s penchant to raise compelling, thought-provoking questions that resonate without making a specific reply.

The Summer of Black Widows

In The Summer of Black Widows, Alexie uses principally lyric rather than narrative poems to examine the circumstance of being “. . . an Indian/ who knows the difference/ between Monet and Manet” and what significance that might have for him in “Things (for an Indian) to do in New York (City).” Focusing especially on the plight and dilemma of young male American Indians, Alexie sees basketball as a possible outlet for “the twentieth-century warriors who will never kill” in the poem “Defending Walt Whitman.” Elegiacally, he feels the need to compose “a poem for people who died in stupid ways” and easily fills twenty-seven stanzas with a litany of human foolishness and stupidity that is tempered with resignation and a poignant sense of pity.

Face

In Face, Alexie’s metacognitive and agile poetic perspective creates pages of footnotes and even commentary on his own footnotes as he seeks to convey the complexity of his vision. In “Vilify,” he attempts to answer “What is Native American poetry?”—a question that he has most likely fielded many times—by simply responding “funny grief.” He shares, in “Tuxedo with Eagle Feathers,” that “my literacy/ saved my ass” and suggests that it provided him with the impetus to swear off alcohol, beginning in his early twenties with the publication of his first collection of poetry. In “Unauthorized,” he somewhat justifies the number of appearances he makes as a stand-up comedian as he, a resident of Seattle for decades, asserts that “great comedy comes from bad weather” and that “poets and comics share a toolbox.”

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