reviewed by Jennifer Michael Hecht
The first and larger half of Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS is made up of seventeen individual poems, the second is one long poem titled “Whereas,” which responds to President Obama’s 2009 congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans. The poems in the first half are set on the page in ways that complicate or slow down reading, such as a thin stripe of a poem with many words hyphenated from one line to the next. Long Soldier is inventive in her uses of typography, poems in shapes, crossed-out lines, and boxed text. Throughout the book Long Soldier addresses the struggle of coming of age as a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe in America. Some of the poems experiment with language, while others tell stories—the speaker being teased with schoolyard “warcry” taunts or being shocked by a woman’s admission that she hadn’t imagined Natives could feel. In the poem “Talent” we witness an expert evocation of power, “I slid along with that hunter I did as he directed from quiver my draw my black lashes in steely eyed release it felt good there it felt strong my breath in autumn…there I thought did I really do this,” and then a keen sigh of empathy and insight, “when I did not hear it though I clearly mouthed poor thing poor thing poor thing.” Opening the “Whereas” section of the book, Long Soldier writes, “I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and in this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” Her vision is intense and incisive. Many of these poems report on rage and the toll of having to carry it around.
This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2017.