What poetry can do: Poems of Layli Long Soldier

June 30, 2018

I chanced upon poems by Layli Long Soldier, a Lakota poet. Two of her long poems are stunning – 38 and Whereas. Both stretch the limits of what can be done in poetry and what poetry can do.

Both seem to be a departure from her earlier shorter poems. In a reading at Harvard, she says “I had never really written work that was overtly political or directly political. But one day I decided, I thought I felt so frustrated. I was like, well, There is a lot that I cannot do. But one thing I can do is to write. I can do that. So I am going to do it.”

And she does that powerfully. With the plainest words in 38 (“Real” poems do not “really” require words.) and with a ruthless play on the plainest words in Whereas.

Whereas is much needed in a world where If ruled.

When people without words (we know), speak the words we know, we hear words we haven’t heard before or may not have wanted to hear.


Excerpts from Whereas are here and here.

/WHEREAS I tire. Of my effort to match the effort of the statement: “Whereas Native Peoples and non-Native settlers engaged in numerous armed conflicts in which unfortunately, both took innocent lives, including those of women and children.” I tire

of engaging in numerous conflicts, tire of the word both. Both as a woman and a child of that Whereas. Both of words and word-play, hunching over dictionaries. Tire of referencing terms such as tire, of understanding weary, weakened, exhausted, reduced in strength from labor. Bored. In Lakota, tire is okita which means to be tired. Should I mention I’m bored. Yet under the entry for okita I find the term wayuh’anhica, meaning to play out to exhaust a horse by not knowing how properly to handle it. Am I okita or do I wayuh’anhica?/

Excerpts from 38 (The full poem is here. ) :

/Everything is in the language we use.

For example, a treaty is, essentially, a contract between two sovereign nations.

The U.S. treaties with the Dakota Nation were legal contracts that promised money.

It could be said, this money was payment for the land the Dakota ceded; for living within assigned boundaries (a reservation); and for relinquishing rights to their vast hunting territory which, in turn, made Dakota people dependent on other means to survive: money.

The previous sentence is circular, which is akin to so many aspects of history.

As you may have guessed by now, the money promised in the turbid treaties did not make it into the hands of Dakota people.

In addition, local government traders would not offer credit to “Indians” to purchase food or goods.

Without money, store credit or rights to hunt beyond their 10-mile tract of land, Dakota people began to starve.

The Dakota people were starving.

The Dakota people starved.

In the preceding sentence, the word “starved” does not need italics for emphasis.

One should read, “The Dakota people starved,” as a straightforward and plainly stated fact./