“We are vanishing lines in history books,” Tanaya Winder writes of Native American women in “Missing More Than a Word.” Through her own lines of poetry, she seeks to make visible that population’s invisibility, describing the many Native women who go missing or suffer from sexual assault: “1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime”; “Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted compared to all other races.” The phrases’ grammar is telling: passive verbs echo the women’s lack of control in such situations.
But elsewhere in the poem, verbs work differently. Winder describes one woman’s desire for “verbs that will story our bodies into something more / than missing, more than squaw or lost, beyond statistics.” Later, she adds: “Let us poem a place where you cannot erase us into white space.” In transforming “story” and “poem” from nouns into verbs, Winder increases their agency and potency. And the latter line—with its triple-rhyme of “place,” “erase,” and “space”—is self-consciously poetic, and thus a claim to power.
In her sonnet sequence “Lacing,” Tacey M. Atsitty describes a woman lying in a canoe, reciting Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and “floating the holiest way I knew.” Tennyson suits the occasion: works such as In Memoriam A.H.H. and “Crossing the Bar” meditate on death and the post-death experience. “We’ve crossed over into the pale,” Atsitty writes—an allusion not just to the latter poem, but also to the cross-stitching of lacework. As the sonnet continues, the speaker becomes progressively more lace-like herself: “we are soon to thread, soon to embellish, // then loop back into each other: braided the way / we were taught to approach each other—the same way.” Meanwhile, the poem loops verbally, repeating words such as “pale” and “way”; it boasts a subtle fabric all its own.
Trevino L. Brings Plenty’s “Will” opens with two openings: the speaker knifes the shrink-wrap off a box of Altoids and pries the tin apart. Then he unseals an envelope, removes an important document, and digests its contents while chomping on mints.
The will, which describes the division of land, is rich with the vocabulary of writing, from “line” to “plots” (“some plots are gumbo”—clay-like soil— “after winter thaw”). And writing, as well as art more generally, defines the speaker’s love of his region. He is “partial to this / grassland; the place of deer marks and porcupine / quills”—a place where deer record their passage across space, as people do across pages, and where porcupines grow the quills crucial to much Native art. This poem—which Brings Plenty might have written, in another age, with another kind of quill—continues that larger tradition.
In “Eel,” Eric Gansworth describes a kindergarten assignment: “Draw Your Clan.” “The three letters,” he writes, “live in abstraction,” and besides, what does an eel—his clan’s animal—look like? He imagines them as birds without legs, “forced to fly the skies forever.” His mother feels they are “ambiguous, not quite a fish, / more than a water snake.” Not quite bird, fish, or snake, the creatures embody the in-between—much like Gansworth’s clan itself. They are Eels of the Onandaga nation, but they live among the Tuscarora, whose own Eels died out a generation ago. (The Onandaga and Tuscarora are two peoples within the Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee, Confederacy.)
His mother ultimately sets him straight: the eel link is metaphorical. “If I threw you in the dike,” she says, “you’d drown as fast as anyone else.” Still, he dreams of swimming like a literal eel, of “opening / my eyes and mouth, taking water in, / filling my lungs, discovering gills.” He yearns to be human and creature, and so he lingers between those two existences, half in the water and half out: “I flip on my back, ears below the surface, listen / to mysteries, breathe shallowly at that level, and float, / wondering what it would be like to glide the depths / on fins, knowing if I were there, I would desire / legs and lungs.”