You can be a cruel word: On Fred Wah’s 'All Americans'

The essay was commissioned by Derek Beaulieu as he prepared to celebrate 25 years of No Press and housepress. I have now received a copy of a book, entitled Paper and Thread, edited by Derek, which includes my essay about Fred Wah along with contributions by Kyle Schlesinger, Charles Bernstein, Sacha Archer, Nasser Hussain, Richard Harrison, Kit Dobson, Gregory Betts, Gary Barwin, George Bowering, Johanna Drucker, Nick Montfort, bill bissett and a number of others. The book can be purchased here. I have made a PDF version of the published essay, and a copy of the essay follows as well: 

The frontispiece of the housepress edition (2002; 125 copies) of Fred Wah’s poem-series All Americans is a reproduction of a commemorative plate produced by the Standard Brewing Company. The illustrated souvenir dish, of the sort common in its time, has been photographed upright on a wooden stand. In consultation with housepress founder, editor, and publisher Derek Beaulieu, Wah chose to open his book by featuring the lithograph reprinted and colorized on this plate. The drawing itself was apparently made in 1863 — presumably the artist had been a witness not long after the execution by hanging of 38 eastern Dakota people at Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26, 1862. These death sentences, rendered hastily and prejudicially by a military court in reaction to the uprising of the eastern Dakota that had commenced in August — sentences then affirmed by Abraham Lincoln in the White House — were carried out in the largest single-day mass execution in U.S. history. The uprising was the prompt for Wah’s poem, which Beaulieu was producing as a chapbook soon after its first appearance in a Calgary gallery. So why not, for this work about atrocity, aid readers with a more direct representation of the original drawing representing the executions, perhaps one of the lithographic copies made later (and certainly more readily available than the photograph of the plate)? Why not, in short, present a depiction less mediated? And why the collectable? It was a shrewd choice because it added a layer to the complex histories of retelling. The Standard Brewing Company, when it featured a state-sponsored atrocity on decorative merchandise made available to its customers and to adorn the walls and shelves of affiliated taverns, presumed what Wah’s All Americans identifies as a violent “we” that intends to overwhelm the “I” of witness.

Of what exactly did the rendering bear witness? A 2000-man military guard had been required the day after Christmas in 1862 to constrain the crowd of enraged white Minnesotans attending the proceedings[1] — spectators furious that most of the convicted Dakota were receiving long prison terms instead of death by hanging. These white settlers, held in check by the imposition of martial law and a timely temporary ban on alcohol, could only stand by and witness the state’s retributions, which is to say they were prevented from participating. Yet of course witnessing is messaging. “The point is,” Wah offers in the third line of the first section of his poem, “we must send a clear and unambiguous message to the world” — itself a verse-sentence of trenchant ambiguity. In context such a “we” can be understood as bespeaking a national perspective, presuming its “we” to extend to its citizens, in response to the state’s own reckoning with terror. Another quoted or appropriated line in Wah’s poem: “Who’s we, dude?” And another: “Who is the enemy? Who are themselves victims?”

The titular phrase “All Americans” carries with it several kinds of ironic connotations. And, as is the case with nearly every expression and bit of conversation and testimony Wah cites, selects, extracts, and re-situates in this series, these ironies converge and overlap. Every line benefits from a double historical narrative—and, as we will see, it then tripled by happenstance. The poem’s first line, “We are all americans,” would seem to raise an issue Wah had been confronting across much of his work for decades in verse and prose: the separate and convergent identities of Canadians—indigenous, immigrant, settler-colonizer—in relation to the North American culture of United States. “We are all Americans” seems to be a faux naive call for “American” common purpose. It turns out, however, that this adage of allyship is a specifically contemporaneous quotation, one that can only have been (as a matter of rhetorical logic) imported from outside North America once the U.S. — the perpetrator through domestic counter-terroristic political strategy of the 1862 mass execution of recalcitrant First People of the continent — had become itself a victim of external terror. It was Le Monde, in Paris, that offered its headline: “We are all Americans now.”[2] What connection can be construed in a poem titled All Americans between, on one hand, the vast West-unifying “all” of Le Monde’s and others’ response the U.S. as a victim, and Wah’s inclusive “we,” on the other, in verse-sentences that could well be read as responding to the bewilderment felt by the eastern Dakota (or Santee Sioux) between 1837 and 1858 during the time when a series of four treaties seemed at least nominally aimed at accommodation, reparation, and coexistence? The line Wah deploys is: “We never thought of ourselves as the enemy.”

“Never.” Never would seem definitive. Then Le Monde’s headline motto of allied intercultural empathy coincides with the making of All Americans. Wah’s piece had been commissioned as a serialization by curator Luanne Martineau at the Art Gallery of Calgary for an installation titled “Storybook Story” that was set to open on Friday, September 14, 2001. Four writers — Skawennati Tricia Fragnito, Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew, Rosemary Nixon, and Wah — were invited to write and submit seven weekly responses to two panorama paintings depicting the aforementioned 1862 Minnesota Massacre (known also as the U.S.-Dakota War). These artworks had been borrowed from the permanent collection of the Glenbow Museum and installed by Martineau in the gallery. The writers’ weekly responses were to be installed in proximity to the two displayed panoramas. The serial structure of the installation created multiple juxtapositions crossing between and among the writings even as each served as a commentary on the two paintings and even perhaps served gallery visitors as supplemental curatorial captions. Week by week the writers would respond to the artworks and optionally to each other — forming an iterative antiphonal commentary, across the chaotic weeks that followed, upon various responses to the depiction of the legal suppression of indigenous rebellion. Throughout the duration of the show there were always going to be four new views of the two old pictorial views of a duly chronicled but much-forgotten massacre. Here and there we read Wah’s verse sentences as more or less direct responses to the panoramas. “I am the name at the top of the list, the ire in prairie,” Wah would offer, marvelously, in the fifth installment. Or, in another response to the art on display: “Now we watch from the tops of hills, between the grass and trees.” However one further reckoned a name on a list (a roster of the dead?), or pondered what entity “we” (in “we watch”) might constitute, these lines at bottom reflect the poet’s more or less direct encounter with the paintings on display. Ut pictura poesis. If fellow Canadian artists Fragnito, Nixon, and Maskegon-Iskwew responded to these responsive lines in their own installments, the whole project would continue to respond to the artwork serving as prompt, and of course to U.S. scenes of atrocious culpability. In short, no matter how disjunct the new writing, it would all be legible because it had been focused first as collaborative border-crossing historical consideration.

Culpability? “Who cut the rope?” is a question posed by Wah that had a discernible, findable answer. The quasi-aleatory mash-up method is not meant to negate fact—indeed the opposite. And as a matter of fact we can know who cut the rope. His name was William Duley. Indeed there was just one rope—“the” rope—holding up the platform; Duley swung the state’s ax against it, and all the convicted violently dangled from the scaffold until they ceased. Another sentence in Wah’s “All Americans,” “Who lost part of his family in a massacre at Lake Shetek?”—also presents an answerable historical query. On August 20, 1862, Dakota warriors had attacked a group of settler families fleeing from a small community near Lake Shetek. When the dust settled, eight adults and six children from the white settlement there were dead, as were several Dakota combatants. Eleven people were taken captive by the Dakota men. A photograph of eight of them was made and survives.[3] One survivor, the same William Duley “who cut the rope,” lost family at Lake Shetek. To be sure, Wah’s seven-part poem cannot be read as ordered narrative; it is a collage of documentary quotations and traumatic points of view. Its form is meant to defy any easy rendition of history, any supposedly adept sense of cause and effect. Still, readers can be guided by a known or knowable reference. The poem gives its reader numerous perspectives yet a single setting for armed rebellion and documents the re-assertion of white anti-indigeneity that followed. Complex as cubistic history, yet focused.

But then, as noted, another history intervened. The juxtapositional, analogical structure immediately multiplied dimensionally and then, with each installment, proliferated still further. The first installments commissioned from the four writers were due at the gallery three days before the show opened on a Friday — and that due date was Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Wah does not recall precisely when his writing for this installation began responding specifically to the attacks on the U.S. on the morning of the first due date, but the seven sections (later numbered in print when Talonbooks republished the poem in Sentenced to Light of 2008) include an increasing amount of references to responses to 9/11. All Americans gains an unplanned, polyvocal level of rhetorical and non-narrative complexity, as “massacre,” already an ideologically disputed term when used primarily in connection with the Civil War-era U.S.-Dakota War, is further disrupted by a current—and overwhelmingly popular—sense of American victimization. When asked recently about the added complication, Wah emphasized for me the “mashup” aspect of the poem’s composition and pointed to “the tidal wave of post-9/11 news.”[4]

If any single line was now about 9/11—for example, “Someone shouted, ‘We are being hijacked, we are being hijacked!’”—then every line could be read as history in parallel. “We never thought of ourselves as the enemy” expresses domestic American astonishment in the hours and days after the 2001 attack, certainly, yet it is also a wonderment to be uttered, in the aftermath of the Dakota raids, by white farmers of southern Minnesota who had been the silent beneficiaries of exploitative treaties made with the Dakota by disingenuous U.S. military and government officials representing those settlers. “It is my purpose utterly to exterminate ... if I have the power to do so and even if it requires a campaign” is a line that, a reader must suddenly ask with uncertainty, belongs to which extremity of response? “I am dead or alive,” writes/quotes Wah, surely with one eye on post-attack retributionism of 1862 and another viewing the same of 2001. This warranted “I,” crazed and existential, seems out of time yet locked in the crisis moment. “I find it amazing that it was this sophisticated and coordinated an attack” registers historical condescension toward radicalism, and puts fears of alleged 21st-century Muslim theological primitivism in the context of centuries of assumptions about indigenous North American communities and their belief systems. “I am for continuing the war” is another first-person assertion of witness; its ambiguity points out where war-mongering viewpoints properly belong.

Throughout the first six sections of All Americans, short lines, many centered on the page—each poetic line is also a sentence—either read as indicating 1862 or 2001, and many, as noted, both. The seventh installment, a section that is the true finale of this paired historical prompt, is a prose poem in which the writing veers and converges and perfects the co-temporality that had emerged in the earlier parts. In a sample passage presented just below, I have numbered the sentences:

[1] Four days later he caught up with them by the house of Mr. Brown, on the way to New Ulm [site of the first Dakota attack]. [2] He was flying into Reagan National Airport and couldn’t stand of leave his seat during the last 30 minutes of the flight. [3] He was convinced. [4] He led the first and second attack. [5] He returned to Minnesota in 1863 and was killed by a farmer of July 3rd. [6] He has a digital metavirus. [7] He has many other names and he will look for them. [8] He was nailed to the table.

Sentences 1 and 5 derive from accounts of the 1860s, while sentences 2 and 6 date from the early twenty-first century. The paratactic prose poem structure (are they “New Sentences”?—yes, they are, of a sort) prevents us from knowing too certainly who “was convinced” — or of what. Sentence-to-sentence cause-and-effect relationships are not impossible but they are unstable. The work we do to assimilate the usual continuity of our reading, one line to the next, is our own project, the semantic flow no longer a given. “He was convinced” is a sentence belonging definitively to neither era — or perhaps to both. Sentences 4, 7, and 8 are also historically ambiguous, sentence 7 implying digital counter-terror investigation; 8 pointing possibly to a form of torture, a brutality sadly transcending epoch; 4 implying coordination, apparent planful sequencing. There were in fact two attacks against New Ulm, Minnesota, one after the other, as there were against the World Trade Center on the morning of the day Wah finished his first installment and brought it to the gallery. As for the aliases in the 7th sentence: the variable, unfixed multi-pseudonymity that was culturally indigenous to the Dakota coincides with the ipso facto suspiciousness of false names, fake IDs, and general furtiveness, promulgated by foreign terrorists who should not be permitted to enter a nation where security is thought to depend on a rational system of one-to-one-correspondent identity — individuated human denotation. Sentence 8 seems to have been derived from an account Wah found of the military custody of captured Dakota rebels, but readers already attuned to the vocabularies of 9/11 might also be thinking about brutal tactics used to extract confession and information of their own day. So someone is nailed to the table. Torture is physical abuse, of course, but here it also brutally operates according to a conservative idea of language: in a time of radical uncertainty, a person, like a thing a word points to, must be pinned, hunted down to mean something fixed, denoted, preserved as identified, held still or in place — prevented from multiplication, transformation, or slinking back into the wilderness or into the global night. “And so we hunt,” Wah writes in the first poem, in which each sentence contains the first-person plural pronoun. “We should not be second-guessing.” And: “So that is why we were compelled to make our way as best we could through grape vines, prickly ash, gooseberry bushes, and trees. / We have always done this” (emphasis added).

The epigraph Wah chose for this work is a single complex sentence drawn from Nicole Brossard’s “Poetic Politics” (1990) as follows: “Anyone who encounters insult and hatred because of her or his differences from a powerful group is bound, sooner or later, to echo a we through the use of I and to draw the line between us and them, we and they.”[5] In Wah’s and Brossard’s work, the politics of poetics finds its locus in the pronoun; ultimately All Americans is an investigation of the deceptive alliances promulgated by potent uses of “we.” Wah’s assemblage of “we”-statements, for the first poem in the series, unsettles the language of settlement: “After all, we had settled in our new home when those who lived near us began to be uneasy.” The gathering of “who” statements follows in the second poem, disclosing the rhetorical deception further: “Who is the enemy? Who are themselves victims? .... / Who have not the remotest connection to terrorism will die.” “The line between us and them,” the boundary drawn in the epigraph, pushes them away. They emerges as the pronoun of destruction, managed by hiding and deception. “They’re playing hide and seek” and such cunning would have been tolerable “had they behaved themselves and remained in possession of this immense tract of land.” But “they chanted ‘God is Great’ and handed out candy.” Poem 4 then compiles a list of “you”-statements, such that the language of second-person address no longer describes a relationship but becomes of derivation of they. When the poem offers “You disguise yourself too readily,” it sadly undermines the potential in language for honest direct address. “You, too, can be collected” is the first strategic step of counter-terror and then as a next step there is precisely the destruction of language as human contact, familiar from colonialism, of which Brossard warns: “You can be a cruel word.” In the first poem, the assemblage of 1862/2001 “I” statements, Wah bears out Brossard’s admonition that power conspires “to echo a we through the use of I.” “I am not going to change my lifestyle because of these things.” “I” is a co-temporaneous witness, giving a first-hand view of then in the language of now, masked by romantic-confessional subjectivity: “I have to say that the stories are in my version.” “I am terrified.” “I” uses the language of “they” to pretend to share a common language: “I called in their language, I said ‘I’m Raven.’” The sixth and seventh poems compile third-person statements through “she” and finally through “he.” “She has taken another name” — which is Brossard’s nightmare scenario in sum. “He thinks he owns the place. He does....” and yet: “He is already camouflaged.”

Timothy Yu, devoting a chapter in Diasporic Poetics: Asian Writing in the United States, Canada, and Australia to Wah’s writing, observes that his work has been “transnational from the start,” especially “through an aesthetic negotiation with the U.S.–Canada border.” In All Americans what Yu calls Wah’s “complex negotiation of Canadian, U.S., and Asian literary borders”[6] supplements the transnational project with an experiment in transpronominalism. If in 1981 he began to focus on “Breathin’ My Name with a Sigh”—he means to aspirate the Chinese surname Wah in a major affirmative development of aural poesis, the making of truest possible sounds, even if quiet groans of lamentation, into words—in 2001 he is still very much open to “the (auto)ethnographic rubric of reading ethnic writing”[7] but the crisis forced by 9/11 and the commission to face the judicial racial murders of Americans not far across the border as too close to the Canadian “we” for comfort extended the quasi-confessional, personal — again, “(auto)ethnographic” — to the more theoretical and seemingly more abstract (and ironically less personal) topic of pronouns overall: the “I” made collective, thus in a way more ethically consistent, by means of unordered assemblages or disarranged collages intertwining others’ statements. It was true all along, argues Yu, that Wah’s presentation of his beloved Swift Current, Saskatchewan, as home town or ur-locality, is not an origin but a place where origins and nationalities converged, a far-flung meeting point of “europe asia.”[8] Before and since All Americans Wah has written poems and essays addressing the fundamental issue of pronouns and identity in just the way Broussard prefaced the 2001 poem. “Between You and Me There Is an I” (2008, from Is a Door) is one such effort. The poem is a vertical roster of short lines, almost all of them containing pairs. The pairs are mostly non-binaristic and non-parallel, but at least they come in twos. Thus, yes, we have “The eggs and the nest,” but which one — and what anyway is the meaning of the difference between them? Similarly: “The blind and the fold.” And (watch your head!): “The height and the trestle.” But how do we find the sought-for “I” between the “You” and the “Me” in “The slash and the burn” or “The brink and the disaster”? The main transnational character (or protagonist) in All Americans is language itself—to be more exact, the human system we employ to address others. And here in “Between You and Me There Is an I” the witty catalogue of non-binarisms reaches a point where there no longer seems to be two elements surrounding a conjunction, rather merely scary proximity, for example, “The shadows of NAFTA” or (very ominously) “The smoke ‘round your neck” — or the horrific momentous site where the construction of the Trans Canada Railway connected western Canada to the eastern rail lines, thus supposedly unifying the nation (at Craigellachie in the mountains of British Columbia), and not incidentally imitating the connection constructed earlier of East to West in the U.S. (in Utah). Did this signify a Trans Canadian “I” situated between you and me? Or: between what and what exactly? Doubtless no distinction is meant, for the line coming from the east was built with Chinese Canadian labor just as the line coming from the west was also. In this part of the poem we get two further distinctions:

The brink and disaster

The bank and the laughter

The spike below Chinaman’s Peak

The spot where the two rails meet

(In the second of these lines one can’t help but hearing echoes of bankers finding it comical that a citizen with a surname like Wah would ask for a loan. Yet another cause for sighing. Those who chuckled at “Wah” seeking a modest piece of the action were the same who capitalized mightily upon the railway connection.)

Fred Wah was reporting from within a new disjunctive historicizing that in all this you­-ing and all that me-ing (he is essentially an anti-confessional poet) there can be found a new constructive I. As an epigraphic inspiration for All Americans Brossard’s warning can turn into a knowing, positive resistance:  Anyone who encounters bound, sooner or later.... It points toward action although does not anticipate it. The phrase “between you and me” does suggest a convergent space to be discovered amid the first-person witness and the second-person addressed other, but it also implies a shared speculative confidence. After all, it’s a pun on entre nous. As much as by the fifth poem in the immediate post-9/11 series brought weekly to the gallery in Calgary we know better than to hear the poet speaking personally through all those gathered “I”-statements, it is not so difficult to forget momentarily the constructivist compositional constraint and be set free to comprehend these two histories, then and now, for ourselves. Wah comes speaking through. “I don’t think that I can overstate it,” and indeed he doesn’t, not in this poem. “I am terrified,” he quotes someone — and we believe him. “I am the name at the top of the list, the ire in prairie” reads just like a personal poem by Wah, and it is.


[1] “Lincoln and the Hanging of 38 Sioux, 1862,” American History: Western Exploration & Native Americans, Bad Ideas, JF Ptak Science Books LLC, John F. Ptak. 10th Regiment, Minnesota Infantry, The Civil War - Battle Unit Details, Union Minnesota Volunteers, National Park Service, Department of Interior website.

[2] See Nash Jenkins, “How Paris Stood with the U.S. after 9/11,” Time, November 14, 2015.

[3] “The Lake Shetek Captives & the Fool Soldiers,”

[4] Email from Fred Wah to Al Filreis, February 13, 2022.

[5] Nicole Brossard, “Poetic Politics,” in The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Roof Books, 1990), pp. 73-86. See also Nicole Brossard, "Poetic Politics,” in Nicole Brossard: Selections, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010, pp. 179-192.

[6] Timothy Yu, Diasporic Poetics: Asian Writing in the United States, Canada, and Australia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), p. 50.

[7] Paul Lai, “Autoethnography Otherwise,” in Eleanor Ty and Christl Verduyn (eds.), Asian Canadian Writing beyond Autoethnography (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press), pp. 55-70. See Yu, Diasporic Poetics, p. 53.

[8] Yu, Diasporic Poetics, p. 59.