Andrew C. Gottlieb reviews Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas, edited by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
Sing: Poetry from the Indiginous Americas is an ambitious and remarkable book of poetry spanning a wide geographic range and presenting poets from a varied background—from newer, younger poets to some of the senior indigenous poets of our time. Structured into six sections and a prelude, more than 80 poets and writers are included here and many are represented in multiple languages.
What’s striking about this vast, rich collection is the scope. Hedge Coke has expanded the horizons of this volume to include not just indigenous, Native American poets of the United States—how easy it may be to not recognize the import of the plural Americas—but includes writers from Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Venezuela, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador. This anthology crosses and engages continents, linking and layering themes of migration, grief, redemption, and oppression.
It’s difficult to find one anchor in the writing here, given the range and differences amid similarities, but Hawai’i’s Brandy Nālani McDougall’s “The History of This Place” is a powerful short poem about the lost or forgotten migrations so many indigenous populations have experienced. She tells us:
Here, there are no visible remnants
to which this place bore witness,
Carolyn Dunn, a Los Angeles-based Muskogee/Cherokee/Seminole writer lifts the lens from the place itself to the people and the consequences of these invisible migrations. In “Mvskoke Giveaway,” she writes:
Free verse dominates stylistically, but under that umbrella, the structural variation is large. There are prose poems and litanies, couplets and paragraphs, short lines and long lines, dialogues and calendars, questions and answers, headings and repetition. There are tight, short sequences and larger, looser scatters of words, Ferlinghetti-style. There’s even one photograph of a women’s back, the poem inked on her skin from her shoulders to her lower back. Hedge Coke has let individuality and representation create and define this expansive volume, rather than try to force too small a scope into too tight an architecture. This might open an editor to an easier critique, but it’s a braver way to tackle an anthology.
The result is that reading through this volume almost requires one to refer to contributor notes as one progresses, at least if one wants to try to locate individual work within any context outside the page. There is much to be gleaned from each contributor’s background, more so than might be found in a usual journal or anthology. In Sing, references to linguistics and tribal affiliations are educational and intriguing.
Hedge Coke has done some organizing for us with the book’s sections, but even outside of that thematic links are everywhere. Paula Nelson, a Cherokee from the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee, North Carolina, includes work in Cherokee and English. In “Land Song” she writes:
I will not leave this land
Norys Odalia Saavedra Sanchez, from Venezuela—her work in Spanish and translated into English—in her poem “Leaf that brings the rain” writes:
Always barefoot I walk
I kneel down
Perhaps humanity’s greatest theme: our tie to place, to land, to the animals and the physical geography and ecology surrounding us. Certainly this is a dominant theme in Sing, and made more poignant by the awareness of stolen pasts, lands, civilizations, populations at the hands of oppressors. Choctaw Indian LeAnne Howe addresses directly stereotypes of cannibalism among Native peoples juxtaposed with desperate and violent murders of Indians Luis and Salvadore by white members of the Donner party. This poem, “The List We Make,” at four pages is one of the longest in the book, and ends with the word Love.
The anthology owes a debt to the translators as well, an oft-forgotten but essential group of writers and linguists. The authors are sometimes their own translators, but often not. It’s engaging to see the same poem on the page in three different languages. Hugo Jamioy’s work is in Kamsa (a Colombian tongue), Spanish, and English. There is Cherokee, Lenape, Mapuche, Mayan, and Comanche. I found myself often reciting aloud poems in languages I can’t understand nor even correctly pronounce, yet still enjoying the experience of hearing the sounds. New words and sounds become rhythmic and interesting.
It was also one of my frustrations. I wanted more information on the individual languages. This is not one of the prescriptions of the book, nor really part of its architecture. But there’s a richness with so many native languages, and it would benefit a reader to have even a short paragraph on each of the native languages presented here—the structure of the language, the quality, and perhaps the number of current speakers. After all, so many of the writers included herein are working hard at language preservation. When language or translation notes are missing, as for writer Ofelia Zepeda, one has to resort to the contributor’s notes.
The benefits and texture and depth of this anthology far outweigh any shortcomings, however. Anthology editors have choices to make. What’s included here is a rich selection, brought together from disparate cultures. Paula Nelson’s “Land Song” finishes:
I am this land
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