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“There is no such thing as a Native American,” writes Joy Harjo, U. S. poet laureate, in When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through (2020), an anthology of poetry by Native writers. With this initially surprising claim, Harjo makes the point that terms like “Native American” and “American Indian” tend to carry less importance for poets of Native Nations, who instead identify foremost with tribal affiliations, which often have close ties to ancestral homelands. For these reasons, any list of indigenous poets will never be comprehensive, or even representative. Consider what follows a mere glimpse into the bright constellation of contemporary poetry by writers who are Inuit, Dine’, Chamorro, and Oglala Lakota, among others.
Corpse Whale. By dg nanouk okpik. 2012. Univ. of Arizona, $15.95 (9780816526741).
Okpik’s stellar first collection imagines a space that is both contemporary and timeless, a place where extinct mammals roam Arctic forests, but oil spills threaten oceanic life. Okpik’s speaker uses “she/I” pronouns, which complicates the question of who, exactly, is speaking, and adds a tantalizing layer of complexity to this otherworldly debut.
Dissolve. By Sherwin Bitsui. 2018. Copper Canyon, $16.00 (9781556595455)
Composed almost entirely of one long poem that shares the book’s title, Bitsui’s second collection of poetry includes delicate and unforgettable scenery (“the flattened field is chandeliered / by desert animal constellations”) and evocative, complex images that comment on present-day concerns: “we wear slippers of steam / to erase our carbon footprint.” Readers will be rewarded for trusting the momentum of Bitsui’s poetic vision.
Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers. By Jake Skeets. 2019. Milkweed, $16.00 (9781571315205).
Few poets confront the enticing intersections between desire and violence with such searing intensity and inventive typography as Skeets in this darkly mesmerizing debut. In inimitable lyrics that surprise and unsettle, Skeets creates a uniquely somber mood among his speakers. Especially memorable are the phrase “a man found dead in a field” repeated in overlapping jags, and two poems titled ”In the Fields,“ which play with the role of white space on the page.
Habitat Threshold. By Craig Santos Perez. 2020. Omnidawn, $17.95 (9781632430809).
After his tetralogy of books around the theme of unincorporated territory, Perez’s fifth book expands on such ecopoetic concerns as oceanic plastics and greenhouse gases, with the added urgency of his daughter’s life on this planet. Perez dazzles in his embrace of form, from sonnets and haiku to a concrete poem in the shape of an ominous hourglass.
Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry. Ed. by Joy Harjo. 2021. Norton, $15 (9780393867916).
Harjo collaborated with the Library of Congress to create an interactive online map of Native poets. Those in this anthology decided where they wanted to appear on the map and chose which poem of theirs to include based on themes of place and displacement. This collection approaches place metaphorically, with the section titled “East” featuring poems on daybreak and beginning, “Center” as “the belly and the heart of presence,” and “West” focusing on the future and departures.
New Poets of Native Nations. Ed. by Heid E. Erdrich. 2018. Graywolf, $18.00 (9781555978099).
Erdrich curates a collection of “Twenty-One Poets for the Twenty-First Century” to introduce readers to influential contemporary Native poets. One of this anthology’s standout features is its distinct approach to contributor bios. Instead of a long list of accomplishments, each poet details their heritage and their relationship to Native languages, and recommends other Native poets.
When My Brother Was an Aztec. By Natalie Diaz. 2012. Copper Canyon, $16.00 (9781556593833).
Before she won the Pulitzer Prize for Postcolonial Love Poem (2020), Diaz debuted with this terribly funny, awfully troubling, undeniably brilliant collection of poetry that centers around the speaker’s brother, a meth addict and former soldier. Diaz deftly weaves Mojave-Aztec, Greco-Roman, and Judeo-Christian poetic lineages into a timely, beautiful, and heartbreaking portrait of reservation life.
Whereas. By Layli Long Soldier. 2017. Graywolf, $16.00 (9781555977672).
In another remarkable debut, Long Soldier uses a Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, signed by President Obama in 2009, as a launching point to argue against the typical portrayal of Native space as controlled and surrounded by the U.S. federal government. In a poignant and solemn blending of verse and prose, Long Soldier commands her own brand of precise legalese to resist the ongoing colonization of Native spaces and peoples.
The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East. Ed. by Diane Glancy. 2017. BkMk, $14.95 (9781943491070).
This unique anthology asks 17 Native poets to engage with the Middle East, as an actual locale, geopolitical conflict, or emotional, spiritual, or cultural concept. This provides an illuminating route to the work of Native poets and the nebulous, contentious construct that is the Middle East. Familiar names, such Natalie Diaz and Craig Santos Perez, are joined by voices that will be new to many readers, including Trevino L. Brings Plenty and Kimerly Blaeser.
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