Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Post National Poetry Month Posts: Bold Projects, James Thomas Stevens, A BRIDGE DEAD IN THE WATER

I'VE NEVER READ A book like James Thomas Stevens' A Bridge Dead in the Water.

And, I mean that as a compliment.

It's really not like anything out there.  Part of the fabulous Salt Earthworks Series, Stevens' experiments with form and epistemology are both refreshing and radical.

Stevens is Mohawk and his book takes on a number of pseudo-sacred ideas such as the Bering Strait theory, the ease of Eastern/Western relations, and the notion that learning English is both ethical and value-free.

The first part of the book explores the odd connections between the Jesuits and the Chinese, which becomes a larger metaphor for the contested spaces in which missionaries of all religions clashed with American Indians.  These poems are smart, energetic, probing arrows that puncture the inflated sense of self (and mission) we tend to cling to in the West.

From a poetic perspective, though, the most interesting segment of the book is the crazy cool "Alphabet of Letters." In a gesture that both waves at and gives the bird to such methods of Western knowledge and classification, “Alphabet of Letters” converts the traditional American school book into a veritable collage of signifiers. Subtitled “A New Primer for the Use of Native or Confused Americans,” this 20+ page “poem” collates phonics, classical rhetoric, a 1766 inventory list, false and real headlines, instructions on diphthongs, snatches of correspondence, a short Mohawk/English dictionary, and even heroic couplets as an alphabet lesson (K When KING Phillip, dead did lay, / the Puritans did Make their Way” (Bridge 97).  

Part time-capsule, part linguistic experiment, part experimental poetics, part historical bricolage, and part pedagogical sketchbook, Stevens’ bizarre anti-poem takes Belin’s and Woody’s fragmentation one step further.  Suggesting the cornucopia of sources that have shaped Indian identity (both within and outside Native communities), Stevens utilizes the genres of knowledge-making to assert the impossibility of compressing Indian and Mohawk identity into lessons, lists, and libraries.  

“Alphabet of Letters” divests the Western project of “Letters” of its privilege of seeing Indians as its subjects.  The forms of teaching and learning, the forms of identity arrangement, the forms of blood catalog—these are the forms that poetic genres, though their ontology of exclusion, Stevens contravenes.  It's angry. It's funny. It's inventive.  And, oh yes, it's funny. Unlike, I realize, this blog post.

Therein likes the minefield of earnestness.

Readers interested in ways in which Native American poets take on the ideology of mainstream America and the poetic conventions of mainstream academic poetry will love this book.  I highly recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. this is a very good book and jts is underrated as a poet (and teacher).