Monday, March 19, 2012

I bite shut my eyes between songs: Review of Sherwin Bitsui's Flood Song

Flood Song by Sherwin Bitsui

Reviewed by Melissa Tuckey

Sherwin Bitsui is a member of the Dine tribe of the Todich’ii’nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for the Tl’izilani (Many Goats Clan), who grew up on the Navajo reservation in White Cone, Arizona. Flood Song is his second book of poems. Bitsui writes in English, and also speaks Dine, so that the poems navigate between Dine culture and industrial/ American culture.

In a recent interview, describing how the book moves between these experiences, Bitsui says:

Politically, English is the language of my tribal nation’s oppressor, but we certainly have to use it to come into a new kind of knowing that will help us translate this outer culture into our own and vice versa. Flood Song feels like it’s trying to braid these diverging worldviews together in order to create a middle area that is accessible to both perspectives.

Flood Song is a poem in which images such as “I cover my eyes with electrical wires,/see yellow dawn eclipse Stop signs” co-exist with “grandfather’s accent rippling/ around the stone flung into his thinning mattress,” the grandfather who “Years before, he would have named this season/ by flattening a field where grasshoppers jumped into black smoke.”

Flood Song is both a vision and an utterance, from the first line of the poem, “I bite shut my eyes between songs.” We are drawn by the vividness of image and its strangeness. The speaker has a world to make, one that crosses between cultures. The singer’s “shrill cry.... becomes the wailing that returns to the reservation.” As readers we are participants in this ritual, we follow the singer “across sand dunes/ warm his hand with your breath.”

This sense of braiding or bringing together of disparate worldviews is present at the very level of sentence-making in the book. Entering the poems, we are entering a world. Sentences like “bison horns twist into the sides of trains/ winding through the broth filled eyes of hens/ squawking from the icebox./ shock-coils from the jet engine’s roar/ erupt from memory of splintered eagle bone” render a world where past, present and future are simultaneously present and time is luminous. The natural world here is violently displaced, but continues to exist in the memory of an eagle bone, and as song.

As Americans – especially those of us who are white – we often do not live with our history. We live in the present tense and even that is not fast or new enough. These poems contain history and vision, as well as the shocking pace of the new, even while they bend toward beauty.

At its most surreal, the poem is birthing a new world: “The storm lying outside its fetal shell/folds back its antelope ears.” Bitsui writes, “I wanted to crack open bulldozers and spray their yolk over the hills so that a new/ birth cry would awaken the people who had fallen asleep.”

I especially enjoy the sense that experimentation is not for its own sake, but that there is something pressing within this book to born, to be remembered, to be told.

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