Saturday, December 14, 2013

Review: What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned by Sherman Alexie

Review: What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned by Sherman Alexie
                           Hanging Loose Press
                           Copyright 2014
                           156 pp.

            Review by Myles Gordon                                                                                               

            Author of twenty-four books, and winner of the National Book Award, Pushcart Prize, PEN/Malamud Award,  and a slew of other prizes, Sherman Alexie remains a prolific and successful writer in multiple genres: poetry, short story, essay, novel, and screenplay. A member of the Spokane/Coeur d’Aleve tribe, Alexie currently lives in Seattle with his wife and two sons. He also has spent much time living on various Native American reservations. Tribal culture and topics deeply influence his work and create a central conflict in many of his poems: how does someone whose people were crushed by America come to terms with the America where he’s earned his golden ticket?

            In What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned, his thirteenth book of poetry, he does so with brilliant writing, a deep appreciation for life’s grey areas, wit, and an often self-deprecating sense of humor, as in this excerpt from “Happy Holidays!”:

I am asked this question at least a dozen times every year: “Do Indians
            celebrate Thanksgiving?”

That’s like asking: “Do Jewish people celebrate Oktoberfest?”

The answer is: “Yes. Indians celebrate Thanksgiving.”

            This ambivalent push pull with the ironic assimilation into the culture that nearly destroyed his own permeates the collection. In the poem, “Rest Stop,” the protagonist pulls off the freeway at 3 A.M. to relieve himself. As his eyes adjust to the darkness, he realizes he is peeing in the front yard of a small church of a small town. He notices the houses, the gas station, the town common. Although the protagonist professes a love for American small towns, one senses the malevolence of the gesture: a full Indian uprising may be a pipe dream, but at least he can piss on America, if only covertly. As he finishes, a herd of mystical deer surrounds him and they sprint off together into the wilderness, but he can’t keep up:

And then I do fall. If one hopes not to fall
Then one will surely fall, and so I do fall,
Falling and rolling down the hill, as the deer
Leave me behind, as I thud to stop against

The base of a tree, as I stare up through
The branches to see the night sky, the stars
The new constellation of one sad and lonely man
Chasing and failing to catch a herd of deer.

His tribe “departed,” he remains awkwardly alone, his uncertain identity mimicked by the night sky.

            No single theme poet, Alexie proves equally adept at riffing on Aristotle, 1980s pop culture, and paying homage to Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor Of Ice Cream,” with his own “The Shaman Of Ice Cream.” The scope of his skills also impresses. He creates dozens of sonnets that are prose poems broken into fourteen sections, allowing for wistful ruminations unachievable inside a standard sonnet’s constraints:

14. If you punch a kid once, then he’ll cry. If you punch a kid once an hour for a year, then he’ll learn how to make the fists feel like flowers.

            But he also knows how to fling the rhymes. Noted as a tremendous lyrical poet, the poems in this book live up to the hype, as in these couplets from “Possible Epitaphs For My Gravestone”:

Why did you bury me with this hand drum?
This whole Indian thing is overdone.

Is this death? Is this death? Is this death? Is this death?
If life is a marathon, then I’m out of breath.

            The fragility of life, particularly on the reservation, occupies many of his poems. He frets for his brother who has lost several good friends to drunk driving accidents. He grieves for his late father who also died in an accident. He rejoices in his own hard-fought sobriety, an ongoing theme that often relates to the joy he takes in his own, young family:

My wife, two sons, and I celebrate the New year by drinking root beer
            Floats. I hereby establish the root beer float as the official Native
            American New Year’s Eve drink. It should be the only drink
            Allowed for Indians on New Year’s.

Ain’t gonna happen.

            Alexie also takes on social issues. He dabbles in politics, writes heartbreakingly about loss of life in the war in Iraq, and speaks unflinchingly of the devastation wreaked by drugs and alcohol in Native communities. Humor often proves to be his sharpest weapon. In one hilarious exchange from “Another Proposition,” he offers a slick take on the “threat” of gay marriage:

“But, Sherman,” he said…”gay men threaten the institution of marriage. Gay men threaten your marriage.”
Actually,” I said, “Gay men catered my marriage. You want to know who really threatens my marriage? Who threatens any straight man’s marriage? Beautiful straight women with no boundaries.”

            Sometimes, though, the author offers too much commentary. If there is anything to criticize (and it’s a small criticism), it’s that sometimes Alexie goes on too long with some of the poems, and that some of the poems just aren’t up to the same top shelf standard as others. He is a successful writer and the press has put out a 156-page collection – more than double the usual length of poetry books. But do we really need his tribute to “My Sharona,” one of the most annoying pop songs of all time? And to make his point that rhyme is more memorable than free verse, does Alexie really need to list the top 100 rock hits of 1984? Wouldn’t ten suffice, or even just number one, When Doves Cry, by Prince?
            Still, after 24 books and a raft of major awards, leeway must be made. A little self-indulgence can be forgiven. After all, almost all his long poems pack a punch, his final poem, “The Naming Ceremony,” in particular:

My Indian name is Lies, Lies, Noun And Verb,
My Indian name is Do Not Disturb.
My  Indian name is Bitterroot.
My Indian name is Secret,
So let me share it with you.

Alexie shares his soul in this book and it’s a terrific read.

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