Layli Long Soldier’s collection Whereas* is a searing response to the congressional apology to Native American peoples (tucked away in a 2009 defense appropriations bill, signed by President Obama but not read aloud or offered in person to tribal leaders) and the legacy that apology (such as it is) represents.
Whereas considers the language of government bureaucracy and history in poems that vary wildly in form. Here you’ll find prose poems, a historical narrative (the blistering “38”), found poems and poems that depend on erasure, a poem in the form of a definition, and on and on. It’s almost dizzying—you never know what the next page will bring.
The work of living and observing language and its uses: these stood out to me as the twin subjects of Whereas. Of the latter, Ms. Long Soldier writes, “If I’m transformed by language, I am often / crouched in footnote or blazing in title.” In one of Whereas‘s most quoted passages, she 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.” The personal—mothering, writing, living—serves as a counter to the formal, insidiously impersonal language of government documents, and it also highlights the effects that language has on people, culturally and physically. The poet writes of her weariness, her tooth that was pulled instead of saved thanks to budget sequestration (“Yet the root of reparation is repair. My tooth will not grow back. The root, gone.”), her relief at a real apology offered by someone close to her.
Layli Long Soldier melds form and content in impressive, important ways. Whereas is highly recommended.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.