Southwest Book Reviews
Fri February 25, 2011
By Ann Cummins
Flagstaff, AZ – How do you map the round world after it's been flattened? After war, after the collision of cultures, but before memory loss, what language expresses the knot in the chest? If you're Sherwin Bitsui, a powerful voice from a new generation of indigenous poets, you sing a flood song. Flood Song is a book-length poem. It teems with startling, powerful images that collide and evoke a fractured world.
Sherwin Bitsui comes from White Cone, Arizona, deep in the heart of Din country. The world he draws has been over-photographed, littered too deeply mined. Birds, animals, and plants, all familiar here in the southwest, float through the poem: The crow, the wren, a mesquite tree, a cedar. They are familiar, but they aren't simple. Word by word, phrase by phrase, the images transform. Landscapes disintegrate; the natural world shifts to its mythological underbelly.
Myths describe world orders. They tell us how we got here and how we should live. In the Navajo Creation myth, the Din emerged through a reed in the ground into this, our human world. At that time, the land was flooded by ocean water. Coyote took the lead, helping the people learn to navigate this new world.
In Flood Song, Bitsui draws a Picasso-like version of the myth, adding bits of history and modernity to the story. As in the traditional myth, the reed is a passageway, but the land has been fenced, reservations drawn, oil wells erected. Here's a stanza: Stepping through the drum's vibration/ I hear gasoline/trickle alongside the fenced-in panorama/of the reed we climb in from/and slide my hands into shoes of ocean water.
Here, the poem's speaker is an active agent, claiming and taking part in the story, but the myth is complicated. When war and conquest wreck havoc on tribal identity, the emotional landscape of sorrow and loss change perception. The original image of a reed takes on new dimension.
Flood Song is a dark and beautiful poem. It is neither hopeful nor hopeless. It is a precise and moving description of a living but fragmented civilization, floating in a turbulent land.