Between the Grasses and the Sentence

Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS

I began this series of commentaries with David Herd’s attempt to find a path through the largely legalistic language of the modern border. Layli Long Soldier covers similar conceptual territory in her brilliant new book Whereas (Graywolf, 2017), but she comes at the border, as it were, from the inside out. Writing from the position of an indigenous (she is Oglala Sioux) addressee of the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, Long Soldier considers the affective impact of this empty statement as it participates in a long history of linguistic obfuscations and justifications of theft and genocide.

The border of concern for Long Soldier is the one that is part and parcel of the whole system imposed by colonization: exclusive private property rights, resource extraction, militarized control of the flow of people and capital. But it is also the border formed by the colonizer’s language, as both indigenous territories and indigenous languages are historically displaced and erased. That it is ultimately the same border that restricts entrance to the contemporary state and at the same time restricts and controls the territories of people who have had that state imposed upon them is driven home by the fact that US Customs and Border Protection forces took part in the assault on the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance camp at Standing Rock earlier this year — events that hover over the closing pages of Long Soldier’s book.

But I do not want to give the impression that Whereas is reducible to its political and historical engagements. Because this is a book that resides somewhere between deep feeling and accusation — between the grasses and the sentence.

you understand the grasses
hear me too always
present the grasses
confident grasses polite
command to shhhhh
shhh listen

Whereas shifts back and forth between short-lined lyrics (like the one this passage is taken from) and prose poems comprised of precise sentences that make the most of the book’s broad pages. Grass and sentence don’t exactly oppose or contradict each other in the book, nor do they line up tidily as lyric vs. prose, but they do mark out conceptual poles: the grass is, of course, the very manifestation of the land — its undulant and living coat, its indivisible plurality — and it always arises in the context of reverie and desire. The sentence, by contrast, is restriction and imposed structure/artificial order — but it is also very carefully and cannily used by Long Soldier as an expressive vehicle for driving right down the middle of another polarization: the personal and the political. This is nowhere more clearly explored than in the poem “38.”

“38” — a poem that became well-known in internet circulation before the publication of Whereas — is composed of sentences and it is about sentences. It begins:

Here the sentence will be respected.

I will compose each sentence with care, by minding what the rules of writing dictate.

For example, all sentences will begin with a capital letter.

Periodically, the poem returns self-reflexively to the nature of the sentence. However, Long Soldier also recounts a bit of history in the poem: the story of the “Dakota 38” and the Sioux Uprising of 1862. After a long series of “amended and broken treaties” the Lakota were “reduced” to “a stark ten-mile tract” of land upon which they could not survive. Their lands had been “ceded (taken)” in exchange for money and governmental support, which was not forthcoming. Thus the starving Lakota rose up, attacked American settlements, surrendered after the US Army retaliated, and eventually thirty-eight Lakota were executed — the largest mass execution in US history — the same week that President Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation.

A painful irony to be sure, but perhaps the central irony of the poem is that while the “sentence” as a grammatical unit may indeed be “respected,” this is a mere cover for the fact that the “sentencing” of the Dakota 38, and the very “legal” system of treaties and appropriations that oversaw the theft of the Lakota people’s territories and livelihoods, will be accorded no respect whatsoever. Indeed, these historical crimes are held up in plain and clear prose for our collective disdain.

This was the same week that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the preceding sentence, I italicize “same week” for emphasis.

Drawing near the end of the poem, Long Soldier inserts a new revelation: “Yet, I started this piece because I was interested in writing about grasses.” This triggers the poet to “backtrack” to “one other event” she had wanted to “include”:

When the Dakota people were starving, as you may remember, government traders would not extend store credit to “Indians.”

One trader named Andrew Myrick is famous for his refusal to provide credit to Dakota people by saying, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.”

There are variations of Myrick’s words, but they are all something to that effect.

When settlers and traders were killed during the Sioux Uprising, one of the first to be executed by the Dakota was Andrew Myrick.

When Myrick’s body was found,

                                                                         his mouth was stuffed with grass.

I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem.

Grass, in this sentency poem, is act and it is poem — and it is counterpoint and pointed response — with, from, and through the land of the Great Plains — to the hollow and too-often betrayed or meaningless “acts” of government proclamations and apologies. But, as Long Soldier writes, “Everything is in the language we use.” Everything. Crimes. Oppressions. But, potentially, witness and resistance too. The chance to tell what was not told. To hold on to what has almost been erased. Grass and sentence, act and poem, merge to the degree that the poem depends upon what is outside the language, but paradoxically might still be accessed through the language.

I have hardly touched upon the long title sequence — Long Soldier’s impassioned and circular response to the 2009 Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans (a government proclamation buried in the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act — the audience for which is uncertain since it was never actually read aloud). I will have to be brief: constructed as a series of legalistic and dependent “whereas” clauses, such a “Resolution” might acknowledge “inalienable rights” but

whatever comes after the word “Whereas” and before the semicolon in a Congressional document falls short of legal grounds, is never cause to sue the Government, the Government’s courts say. Whereas I remember that abstractions such as “life,” “liberty,” and “happiness” rarely serve a poem, so I have learned it best not to engage these terms anyway.

Elsewhere in the sequence Long Soldier turns to other linguistic impositions:

In a note following the entry for Indian an Oxford dictionary warns: Do not use Indians or Red Indian to talk about American native peoples, as these terms are now outdated; use American Indian instead. So I explain perhaps the same could be said for my work some burden of American Indian emptiness in my poems how American Indian emptiness surfaces not just on the page but often on drives, in conversations, or when I lie down to sleep. But the term American Indian parts our conversation like a hollow, bloated boat that is not ours, that neither my friend nor I want to board, knowing it will never take us anywhere but to rot.

The question then is, when one is “language poor” — put upon by and largely excluded from the colonizer’s language and the colonial state’s governmental and legal systems — when one’s people have been rendered “bare life,” noncitizens adrift within the state — how does one respond? One way is via the exploration of Lakota words, which stand as titles to several poems, which then explore the potentialities revealed by the word. Another way is, once more, through the grasses that whisper beneath many of the poems — the land itself for which the poet advises: “listen to it speak.” But another possibility is not a linguistic one at all — it is in fact that “act” that might also be a kind of poem — an example of which concludes Whereas: the resistance camp at Standing Rock, which I will leave for now outside language, amidst the grasses, in the realm of the necessary act.

In conclusion I come back to the grasses. I have of late been experiencing my own obsession with grassland near my home — a coastal wetland, beneath which the remains of millennia of Indigenous settlements lie. I think Long Soldier has in this book made more of the politics of grass than any poet since Whitman. It is the very borderlessness of grass — its indivisibility (as opposed, say, to inalienability) — that attracts, that holds out against any attempt to master or contain — its persistent growth from below, its strength to break concrete, to return from any desecration and simply grow once more. Grass fills the cover image of Whereas (a still from the film Modest Livelihood), and the book ends with — the whisper of the land? The poet’s own prayer? — “the grassesgrassesgrasses.”  

Is it too much to describe the grasses as in solidarity with the Lakota, the Lakota in solidarity with the grasses? What about the ecological balance that must have existed between the Lakota, the buffalo, and the grasses? The grasses covering the broad and riverine heart of Turtle Island may not have been the food the Lakota ate, but they fed the Buffalo, upon which they did depend. As symbiotic ecology and economy, this system depended upon open space and fluid movement. It was at odds with the colonizer’s economics (with its exclusive, bordered land acquisitions) and reveals in time (think: dustbowls past, and, with climate change, future) the ecological disaster colonization set in motion. Layli Long Soldier is all too aware of this. She walks towards the grasses, but she speaks back to the sentence still being carried out by the colonial project.