Sherman Alexie Poetry: American Poets Analysis
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.
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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,048 words.)