Friday, December 19, 2008

The Theft Outright, A Poem by Heid Erdrich

IN RESPONSE TO MY most recent post about Elizabeth Alexander and the role of the inaugural poet, my friend Heid Erdrich sent along a copy of a fairly recent poem of hers, which he has been gracious enough to let me post here. In truth, Heid's poem is a response to Robert Frost's famous inaugural poem, "The Gift Outright," read at John F. Kennedy's inauguration. As I suggest in an earlier post, the poem is a swan song for the chauvinism and ethnocentrism of Manifest Destiny. Suffice it to say that when in the first line the speaker says, "The land was ours before we were the land's," he was not channeling Chief Seattle, Wovoka, or any person of color. Frost, frosty as they come, embodied whiteness.

Erdrich (Ojibwe) plays with Frost's line and its sentiment, inverting the poem's claim to land by invoking the transgressive history of land reclamation, removal, and theft.

A special thanks to Heid Erdrich and her publisher, Michigan State University Press, for allowing TWR to print "The Theft Outright" from Heid's forthcoming book, National Monuments.

The Theft Outright

after Frost

We were the land's before we were.

Or the land was ours before you were a land.

Or this land was our land, it was not your land.

We were the land before we were people,

loamy roamers rising, so the stories go,

or formed of clay, spit into with breath reeking soul—

What's America, but the legend of Rock 'n' Roll?

Red rocks, blood clots bearing boys, blood sands

swimming being from women's hands, we originate,

originally, spontaneous as hemorrhage.

Un-possessing of what we still are possessed by,

possessed by what we now no more possess.

We were the land before we were people,

dreamy sunbeams where sun don't shine, so the stories go,

or pulled up a hole, clawing past ants and roots—

Dineh in documentaries scoff dna evidence off .

Th ey landed late, but canyons spoke them home.

Nomadic Turkish horse tribes they don't know.

What's America, but the legend of Stop 'n' Go?

Could be cousins, left on the land bridge,

contrary to popular belief, that was a two-way toll.

In any case we'd claim them, give them some place to stay.

Such as we were we gave most things outright

(the deed of the theft was many deeds and leases and claim stakes

and tenure disputes and moved plat markers stolen still today . . .)

We were the land before we were a people,

earthdivers, her darling mudpuppies, so the stories go,

or emerging, fully forming from flesh of earth—

Th e land, not the least vaguely, realizing in all four directions,

still storied, art-filled, fully enhanced.

Such as she is, such as she wills us to become.

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