Layli Long Soldier
National Book Award Finalist
The title threw me off immediately. It’s a conjunction, an unlikely choice for any title, much less a title for a collection of poetry. And Part I of the collection, “These Being the Concerns,” threw me off as well, both because of Long Solider’s language and the way she’s placed her poems on the page. There are some standouts, like “Head Count,” “Tokhah’an,” “Left” and “Talent” as Long Solider, who is Lakota, does just what the section’s title promises and focuses on the use of “Diction” (also an excellent piece) that is used to describe Indigenous people. Everything, she writes in “38,” a poem about the Dakota 38, is in the language we use. She asserts in the opening line of the poem, Here, the sentence will be respected. The connotation is clear. The sentence passed down by the Civil War courts that resulted in the hanging of the Dakota 38 will most assuredly not be respected.
Part II of the collection, “Whereas,” makes the title’s selection clear. It is the first word of The Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, and Long Solider spends this section presenting a series of what she calls statements that dissect if not eviscerate this apology. These individual statements do not have titles. They use the Resolution (from which she lifted the word ‘Whereas’) to attack its language and intent. Her statements, like everything else, keep you off balance. Words, often small ones, are omitted. And you are off-balance until the very end when she provides the knockout blow. It’s hard to unpack all of the intent behind one of the final lines of one of the final statements in this section – the root of reparation is repair- but it gives you some idea of Long Solider’s powerful precision. She seeks to remind us that any kind of reparations require repair. In Judaism, we’d call this kind of repair tikkun olam. And the connotations of ‘root’ are numerous here. The root of her tooth which had to be removed because of the poorly funded Indian Health Services, the root of the problem, the root of a tree. It goes on.
I don’t know what beat out Whereas for the National Book Award, but it must be something pretty impressive. This book should enter every history and English class. No study of the population indigenous to this country, no study of language is complete without it.
Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.