The Land Gauge of the Language of the Body of the Woman

 

 The Halfbreed Chronicle and Other Poems by Wendy Rose, $4.95, West End Press, PO Box 291477 Los Angeles CA 90029. 1985.

 

     a sound of birth

           a whirl of blood

     a spin of song

 

These are the final lines to Wendy Rose’s poem “Sipapu” (Sipapu: Hopi Place of Emergence). The drawing, also by Rose, that “signals” the first part, also called “Sipapu,” of this 4 part volume shows a powerful native woman emerging from an opening in the earth. The woman in the drawing looks out to the distance —from the distance itself— calling to her. Her fingers are bent, pushing against the earth that still surrounds her legs. She has yet to push her way free —no easy ride this, no “money for nothin’.”

     Like any organic collection of poems, organic because they are more than collections of individual poems but are to be read as a total work with a design each poem participates in and furthers each poem, and in this case each drawing, replicates the essential qualities of the others. I’m talking here of someone writing out of an integrated vision—even if that vision is not always realized, even if it cannot be realized because that vision is also an historical one, and therefore, one of pain and the loss of an essential wholeness of community values. Rose is, after all, writing within the larger culture which has destroyed every communal culture it has come in contact with. But still, still her work reaches into and out of (she is, apparently, Hopi, or also Hopi) an integrated cultural reservoir of wholeness, and it is that wholeness, call it a tribal memory, that informs the powers sustaining this work: “a sound of birth” —all the poems are that; “a whirl of blood” —more pain than we want to admit into our poetry, but also the blood of renewal; and  “a spin of song” —not merely a catch phrase indicating the dance that resides within her poetry, but a larger vision. Read “Throat Song: the Whirling Earth” along with “Dancing for the Whiteman,” the song / poem identified with the dance of the earth, and the dance / poem linked with the exploitation of an imperial culture but also linked to the necessary resistance to that culture, a resistance coming from being able to tap into the essentials of dance.  Here are two parts from “Dancing for the Whiteman”:

     Spin, spin, running in

     to where the whiteman waits

     tongue half in, half out

     for honey or salt to lick

     from our knuckles, ready

     to bind us around

     his slender bush

     afire with the bones

     he is still taking!

And, here the ending with a question that of necessity, by the fierce example of the poem’s own movement, must be answered with a resounding, positive “Never!” —

     And do we lose the way home again?

     Lose the movements of the dance—

     the door ajar, the sun slipped

     over the western brink

     by those lives linked

     with faceless pennies?

 

     Since the book is all of a piece, one long poem, all the main themes are necessarily connected, so that cultural imperialism, the power of money to absorb all value in service of consumerism, is tied to the destruction by the nuclear industry of native land (value). Rose is writing from her Hopi culture which nests” within the home of the atomic testing grounds. Knowing this, read the attending symbolism and how she translates her daily activity into the larger theme of resisting the exploitation of an atomic consumer imperialism:

     my finger bones

     reproduced in your books,

     x-rayed into helplessness,

     shatter. I am silenced

     and ground under

     your bulldozing chant.

           Things are kept still

           as ghosts are polishing the chains.

 

The poem is called “Backlash.”  It is not a song of despair. It is a necessary part, the reality that must be faced, of her vision that is also our (white culture’s) vision if we dare acknowledge it:

     It's not that your songs

     are so much stronger

     or your feet more deeply

     rooted, but that

     there are

     so many of you

           shouting in a single voice

           like a giant child.

 

(Now, run that by me again.  How many thousands of submissions are handled by Anteaus and American Poetry Review?  How many whiteboys playing Indian shaman?  How come they don't want to play cowboy?)  To help calm any white “backlash” to these words, look at her poem “Naayawva Taawi” ‘and welcome the gift of her generosity, in fact the balance between such generosity and her rage against loss reminds me of two others, two of the most powerful and generous of recent poetry books: Simon Ortiz From Sand Creek and Sharon Doubiago's  Hard Country.

     See, Pahana

     how we nest

     in your ruins

‑‑with this note: “Pahana: Whiteman (Hopi)” and this further comment: “( ‘Whiteman refers to a way of life, a set of institutions, rather than the male human beings of European ancestry. It is my belief that all of us, including such men, are victims of the ‘Whiteman.’)”.

 

     Recall the name Rose gives to her collection —The Halfbreed Chronicles. This is the condition of all of us, caught in the space between, between blood and money, between home and the open road, song and book, academy and street, even between space and time. 

     Wendy Rose is pointing out of the condition —not merely reveling in it and using its frantic energy residing there (think of William Carlos William's reaction to Eliot, or of Meridel Le Sueur saying that The Wasteland leads directly to the Bomb). Rose points out to value that takes the fragmented nature of our condition as a given. What is this value? It is as easy to state as it is difficult to explain. Try “earth / body”, the ontology of body wisdom made possible through the incorporation of earth wisdom. Add to that the negative example of the resistance of women to the dominant male vampire-culture we all suffer from, and the direction she points to comes into focus. The last poem of The Halfbreed Chronicles is one of the most frightening, and positive, poems I have ever read. Before I explain my reasons for saying this I want to mention one indirect reason why I think this is so, and why this book, text, is so important to our poetry.

The book itself is beautiful. It is a statement of affirmation. It is produced with a larger vision of hope and faith that a true popular culture is possible. Typeset expertly and free from error by Jim Dochniak. Drawings by Rose. The whole book is an affirmation. And it is important to keep this in mind while reading Rose’s last poem. It portrays the terror of male / female relations set within the consumer culture we all live within and the racism our culture feeds upon. The poem resists explication / exploitation, as it should, as it maintains its own integrity, but it deserves notice, even homage, as a poem that is so necessary that not only should it be commented on in a public forum but should be, will be (is) shared amongst friends, reproduced in letters, the book given as a gift if only for this last poem. Rose includes a necessary historical prologue explaining that Julia Pastrana, a Mexican Indian, was exhibited in circuses as “The Ugliest Woman in the World” or “The Lion Lady” because of her facial deformities and hair that grew all over her body. Her manager married her to control her and keep himself in the money. She had a child but it died shortly after birth, and she died days later. Her husband had Julia and the child stuffed, mounted in a glass case, and kept his investment giving returns. Old “barbaric” exploitation, an appropriate metaphor of the days of the Robber Barons?  Rose states: “As recently as 1975, Julia Pastana and her little baby were exhibited in Europe and in the United States.” 

     The poem, Julia speaking, a ghost, a refusal to accept the deception, the violence of this man’s (this? or man’s?) exploiting the value of her essential strength, even, even under that body mask, even her essential beauty as woman:

 

     Tell me it was just a dream,

     ...that our marriage is made

     of malice and money.

     ...

     I had become hard

     as the temple stones

     of O’tomi, hair grown over my ancient face

     like black moss, gray as jungle fog

     soaking green the tallest tree tops.

     I was frail

     as the breaking dry branches

     of my winter sand canyons,

     standing so still as if

     to stand forever.

 

Where are the academics, the soul-full academics, who will spend the hours necessary to work with their students to fully explain this poem? Would that there are some, many, for it would be some proof that the official high culture can incorporate such vision and perhaps renew itself. Perhaps it just cannot fully face the vision of a native woman, of a woman, coming out at it this way?

     Oh such a small room!

     No bigger than my elbows outstretched

     and just as tall as my head.

     A small room from which to sing

     open the doors

     with my cold graceful mouth,

     my rigid lips, my silences

     dead as yesterday,

     cruel as the children

     and cold as the coins

     that glitter

     in your pink fist

     ....

 

     This book, in short, signals the emergence of a great talent. How much more simply can I state it? Your awareness of what is at stake in the poetry that speaks out of a woman’s voice, out of the violence of racism and cultural exploitation, from the myths that may sustain us yet, your awareness will simply not be realized without this book.