Thursday, February 15, 2018



WHEREAS by Layli Long Soldier
(Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2017)

I admire, among many things, Layli Long Soldier’s transparent self-awareness of language in her powerful, debut collection WHEREAS. Such self-consciousness befits her poetic concerns. In the words of Joy Harjo, Soldier’s poems are of “a young Oglala Lakota poet taking her place, as she follows in the path of buffalo, horses, Indian cars, and patient ancestors. Whereas, we are in a century still drenched in gunshot and longing. Whereas, these poems are the songs you need to make it through to the other side.” As such, these poems are addressing history and you know what they say about history—history’s written by “victors.” But such need not be the case. The dominant version (at any point in time) of history can, for example, shift when singers like Soldier present their own interrogations of the past. Thus, language.

The magnificent poem “38,” for example, begins with the first line:

Here, the sentence will be respected.

Subsequent sentences in the poem then discuss, among other things, the “Dakota 38” (do go HERE for more information); how the tribes Dakota, Anishinaabeg, and Ho-Chunk lost their land as the U.S. expanded territory in the 1800s; and how as a result the Dakota people starved. As regards the latter, specifically per Soldier’s self-aware language, the Dakota people first “were starving” and then “starved” so that the stark switch towards the past tense affirms the crude fact of starvation.

Nothing I can say—including summaries of historical events—can replace the reader conducting their own research as well as, of course, reading Soldier’s book.  My review, rather, engagement, thus, presents poems I wrote while reading through Soldier’s book (though the examples I present below focus on the first of the book’s two sections). You see, WHEREAS was sent to me by another poet (Mike Gullickson) who hoped I would write a poem inspired by Soldier’s poems. At the time of receiving the book, I was in the middle of a constraint to write 100 tankas so I thought to create tankas as I read Soldier’s poems. Each tanka below is epigraphed by an excerpt or my notes from the page I was reading when I wrote the tanka—just the fragments, I believe, testify to the beauty and power of Soldier’s language. Her language compelled me to write poems and these fragments below and their impact on me as one reader hopefully will encourage you to read the book for yourself.



            “There is muscle in … flight” (P. 9)

Muscle towards sun
Feathers incidental now
When the path risks all
Like the plunge to deep water
What gleams is not always gold

“I so want the light / to / blink”  (P. 13)

What hides in a blink?
Perhaps: impulse to erase
Don’t we know better—
To shutter eyes will not change
History: we all kill

“fog from the mouth”  (P. 14)

Edit reflection
“grind nose into a mirror”
You see you, I eye
But no door appears, only
Fog—their words do not uplift

“I’m told I come from a small world” (P. 16)

They call our world dirt
“a paragraph from their book”
Unknot twisted threads
Release yellow, plastic beads
Failed tokens of ivory

“dry dermis / of hand winter bent” (P. 23)

Winter hardens hands
Once hopeful by cupping light
One crooked finger
Sufficed to make a small gun
Destroy a world you cherished

“Poem eat and lie down full” (P. 24)

When you love something
Let it go. If it returns
“Be a good mother”
Pull out grease and frying pan
Poems work more than one job

“What am I doing here, writing. What am I doing here righting the page at funerals.” (P. 28)

“To attend” suggests
Attention. But not in church
Where minds escape from
Hymns memorized through lifetimes
Of witnessing No Return

 “Yet nuance saves a line and looking / space / in the trees” (P. 29)

How does nuance serve
As savior? Questions from grief
Cut like broken lines
In a poem entitled
“Hope” as blood swallows sidewalk

“Does the padding of hair scalp skin and blood rested upon a rock, pulse?” (P. 30)

There was a rock there
Padded by scalp skin and blood
More than one context
Can swaddle this mental rock
Without releasing each hurt

“I don’t trust nobody / but the land” (P. 32)

I only trust land
This land that does not trust me
I may rip my hair
(I do rip my hair) but I
Possess hair that will grow back

Lustrous hair as black
As cancer within our lungs
As red as twilight
As white as GMO plants
Where grey bombs we made landed

“photos of wounds” (P. 34)

They need not show blood
Breathe deeply a scent of rust
When images grab
From behind their walls of glass
Sense again cruelty’s grin

“skin of nightfall” (P. 35)

Darkness brings relief
You sip wine as if there’s time
But shadows surround
Even as the world goes black
Nothing pauses before night

“supple empty” (P. 36)

Chimes from the wall clock
I read “sever” as “sewer”
What knowledge saddened
Suddenly, legs shaking sheets
“bleeding more than expected”

“you read the commas aloud” (P. 43)

“To be destitute”
means to avoid the comma
Treasure momentum
Until seared meat lies on plate
Sentimentality costs

“Let them eat grass” (P. 53)

No cake except mud
Venezuela’s prisoners
Eat shit with pasta
We are all Andrew Myrick
Immune to GoFundMe pleas

In that last tanka above, Andrew Myrick is part of the history interrogated by Soldier’s poem “38”:

(click on image to enlarge)

I read this part of Soldier’s book not long after perusing articles about the crisis in Venezuela (e.g. THIS).

Human history = a history of abuse. It’s often difficult to preserve song, to make sure it is not written out. I am relieved Layli Long Soldier not only sings but, with WHEREAS, proclaims de facto an intent to keep singing.


Eileen Tabios is the editor of Galatea Resurrects (GR)She loves books and has released over 50 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in nine countries and cyberspace. Her 2018 poetry collections include HIRAETH: Tercets From the Last Archipelago and MURDER DEATH RESURRECTION: A Poetry Generator. She is the inventor of the poetry form “hay(na)ku” which will be the focus of a 15-year anniversary celebration at the San Francisco Public Library in 2018. More information is available at http://eileenrtabios.comShe is pleased to direct you elsewhere to recent reviews of her work: MURDER DEATH RESURRECTION (MDR) was reviewed by Joey Madia for Literary Aficionado and New Mystics ReviewsMDR was reviewed by Grady Harp for Goodreads and, as an Amazon Hall of Fame Reviewer, for AmazonMDR received an engagement by Leny M. Strobel; and MAKING NATIONAL POETRY MONTH GREAT AGAIN! was reviewed by Neal Leadbeater for The FilAm Magazine. She does not allow her publications to be reviewed in GR as she is its editor, except for when the review involves other authors, as is the case of a review of MARAWI (co-authored with Albert E. Alejo and with translations by Aileen Cassinetto) by Neal Leadbeater in this GR February issue.