On September 5, 2014, NPR ran an essay by critic Juan Vidal titled, “Where Have All the Poets Gone?” which questioned whether American poets still produce political work, and suggested that “literary [political] provocation in America is . . . at a low.” Because I find this assessment of contemporary American letters to be very incomplete, I wanted to take the opportunity to create a dialogue on the subject by curating a series of compelling political poems from contemporary American poets. I christened this series “Political Punch” as an affectionate reflection on the cocktail of poets who decided to honor me with their participation in my little Infoxicated Corner; it was intended to celebrate the glorious mix of poetics, voices, and life experiences all being shaken and stirred into a sense of community and conversation, being distilled into burning gulps of experience for the reader. Leaving aside all the boozed-up metaphors, it was also intended to celebrate my experience of American letters, in all their willingness and ability to pack a political punch.
These two poems by the lovely Native American poet Susan Deercloud, who is eloquent and funny even in her sorrow and her rage, speak for themselves, in a cultural climate where we have a national football team called the Redskins, educators routinely disparage the tradition of oral literacy as ineffectual, and American twentysomethings of Western European ethnic descent think nothing of wearing feathered headdresses to concerts as a fashion statement.
High noon at the community college. As usual,
the Dean was starring in her cowgirl-and-Injun movie,
a WASP looming seven feet tall, big-boned L.A. import –
what upper middle class white feminists aspired to
in Gloria Steinem 1970’s. She had heard rumors
about a poet hired to teach comp-lit for a semester,
complaints that this Mohawk played poetry on CDs
in the writers’ voices. The Dean swaggered into
the classroom, boomed she had come to observe.
The Indian, short, quiet, shocked, peered up
at the Dean encased in black suede cowgirl skirt,
fringed vest, boots shooting out spurs. She jangled
from turquoise and silver, bragged to the poet wearing
beads strung softly by her own hands on lonely nights –
“From Sedona, jewelry made by Native Americans,”
as if the savage needed to know she paid big bucks
for rings and necklaces made by Navahos. The Dean
spread cannon-thick legs at the front of the room,
made conspicuous notes. The students looked unhappy,
the poet went through the ridiculous motions. She was
back there – the little girl schoolmarms ordered to walk
“single file” in Catskill hometown. She was the teen
graded low for saying U.S. heroes were villains because
they massacred Indians. She was the sister already hip
about sisterhood, the real one of her blood sister, mother,
grandmother, aunts, great aunts, Indian girlfriends. The Dean
bullied, “I know your people believe in oral tradition
but you exist in our system now. No playing poetry on CDs.
Students have to read that stuff on the page. They forget
what they hear in ten seconds.” The Mohawk poet recalled
a male cousin laughing, “You mean it was our ancestors
who put that bug up their ass?” when she spoke about
Iroquois influence on white feminists. Yes, Haudenosaunee
felt sad for female settlers, the way their husbands legally
could beat them into obedience. Yes, they got their equality,
and some grew crueler than their men. They, too, could shoot
down Native women they secretly hated for their heart songs.
Poet with hair color of stars listened to Dean “Has It Made”
reeking of dead cow, her dominatrix words unlike poets’ voices
soaring from CD sacred circles. “Ooooo,” the Dean caressed
the Mohawk’s coat. “Polar bear? I simply must pet it.”
Showdown at The Not OK Corral. Damned if she’d let
that cowgirl get an Oscar. Damned if she’d stop spinning poetry
in her own movie where the beautiful Indians always win.
(“My grandmother still uses the term White Man.”
– Embarrassed statement by a young “mixed blood” Cherokee man)
May, Chenango State Park … she driving
sidewinder road to Lily Lake, small second lake
few people visited. New York sun flashed
past unfurling leaves, ghost danced across car hood.
At first the lump on asphalt seemed a ghost
of some darker kind, powerful enough to make her
brake. Then she saw what it was, leapt out
to nudge Turtle with one foot. It snapped towards
her, rocked rough penile head back and forth.
She laughed at its ferocity, picked up fallen branch
to poke it to safety. Cadillac squealed up behind
her old Indian car. Man, grey hair bristling
close to skull, strode over to her. He wore golfer’s cap,
white shoes, stared with pink face at her dilemma.
“I’ll get that damned thing off the road,” he kicked
Turtle in its map of shell, kicked harder, knocking
it upside down so flame of orange underside blazed up.
“Stop,” she choked, but he only kicked more when
Turtle bounced back on clawed feet, lunging, snapping.
How dare a mere beast snap at a man owning
a gold chromed Cadillac? He kicked it tumbling down
wooded bank. “There!” Pale eyes ran over her
long flowered skirt, breeze-tangled hair, bra-less breasts.
She gazed away, trying to see if Turtle landed upright.
This intruder playing uninvited “hero” would never know
her people called America Turtle Island. He would scorn
her love of Turtle, her delight in its sacred rage like that
of Indian warriors who defended women like her against
conquerors like him. Turtle rustled through old leaves.
“Thank you,” she breathed, nearly prayed, in soft voice.
“You’re welcome,” the golfer swaggered loudly
to his hard-on of a Cadillac, sped off. She stood
in the exhaust. “Stupid White Man,” she snapped.
It was only then she cried.
Susan Deer Cloud is a mixed-lineage mountain Indian from the Catskill Mountains. An alumna of Binghamton University (B.A. & M.A.) and Goddard College (MFA), she is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, two New York State Foundation for the Arts Poetry Fellowships, an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant and a Chenango County Council for the Arts Individual Artist Grant. Published in numerous literary journals and anthologies, her most recent books are Hunger Moon, Fox Mountain, Braiding Starlight, Car Stealer and The Last Ceremony. Deer Cloud is the editor of ongoing Native anthology I Was Indian (Before Being Indian Was Cool) and the Re-Matriation Chapbook Series of Indigenous Poetry (FootHills Publishing).