Sherman Alexie | Critical Review by Carl L. Bankston III

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Sherman Alexie.
This section contains 985 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Carl L. Bankston III

Critical Review by Carl L. Bankston III

SOURCE: A review of First Indian on the Moon, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 14, No. 3, May-June, 1994, p. 15.

In the following review of First Indian on the Moon, Bankston notes that while Alexie's recent verse resembles his previous efforts, his work has not become "hackneyed."

We know what to expect from poet and short-story writer Sherman Alexie. In his first three volumes of poetry and in his recent collection of stories, he focused intently on modern Native American life in the Northwest, employing the same characters to explore the themes of the bleakness of reservation life, of alcohol as the only readily available release from this bleakness, of powerlessness as the pervasive reality of contemporary tribal existence. In verse and prose, he has expressed this uncompromising vision with a spare, minimalist style, paring his words down to the bone. Comic moments appear suddenly and unexpectedly on this harsh landscape, so that irony twists despair into a peculiar kind of faith.

Alexie's new book [First Indian on the Moon] will be familiar in its characters, style, themes, and atmosphere to all of his readers. He is not exploring new territory. But he is reworking the old ground productively, like a gardener who sticks to his own backyard.

As in the author's previous works, a distinctive personality underlies the poems. While the writing may not be strictly autobiographical, it has the intimacy and the particularity of confessional literature. True, it often employs generic images of the modern Native American reservation as ghetto (HUD housing, fry bread, alcoholism), but the voice that lingers over small moments and the poems' powerful sense of self salvage these images from sociological abstraction.

Alexie appears to be keenly aware of his tendency to dwell, almost obsessively, on certain themes and images, and he frequently uses this tendency as a means of organizing his poems into chapters. In the section entitled "A Reservation Table of the Elements," for example, fire—both the air-fire of flame and fire-water—intertwines with memories of reservation existence. The first lines of the poem "Genetics" proclaim:

     follows my family
     each spark
     each flame
     a soldier
     in the U.S. Cavalry.

The fire is a symbol, but it's also a series of actual tragic and tragicomic events in the speaker's past. A childhood attic fire has burned up all the family possessions except

     … a family portrait
     curled at the edges
     all of our dark skin
     by ash and smoke damage.

A trailer fire kills the speaker's older sister and her husband. A series of electrical fires destroys three cars in separate incidents: "When the Tribal Cop heard on his radio that a car was burning down at Little Falls Dam, his first thought was Those damn Alexies and their goddamn cars."

The poem "Fire Storm" is one of the most intense and moving pieces of the book, shifting between verse and prose poem in a series of reflections on the fire that killed the older sister. Alexie follows mundane detail with simple but impassioned language, ending in an offertory funeral speech reminiscent of passages from Ginsberg's Kaddish. Death and life are close in this and other poems, and Alexie shows a gift for standing by the line that separates them and looking in both directions.

The poems in the section "Tiny Treaties" revolve around another of Alexie's recurrent themes: the contradictions and difficulties of having dark skin and inhabiting a white-skinned world. This emotional tangle, which one writer has referred to as the "cultural schizophrenia" of minority members, has occupied a dominant place in all of Alexie's writings. The "treaties" of love and friendship made with whites are continually plagued by tentativeness and doubt:

     Sometimes when an Indian boy loves
     a white girl and vice versa
     it's like waking up
     with half of the world
     on fire. You don't know
     if you should throw water
     onto those predictable flames
     or let the whole goddamn thing burn.

In writing about the twisted relationship between Indian and Anglo, Alexie slips from the intimately personal to the categorical. The fourth song of "Seven Love Songs Which Include the Collective History of the United States of America" evokes two lovers, one apparently native and the other apparently white:

     Suddenly, we are all arms and legs
     and it's summer and too hot to make love
     but we do anyway on the kitchen floor
     near the refrigerator with its door open.

In the next song, these two individuals have become racial categories: "I was a fisherman for 15,000 years / before you stumbled onto my shore / your legs sea-heavy and awkward." This continual tension between Alexie's autobiographical voice and his concern with the social and historical forces that shape biographies gives the poems a unique quality of being socially aware without being propagandistic, and of presenting a world from the perspective of the first person without being egocentric.

As he balances between the personal and the historical, Alexie also balances between song and ideas. "All I Wanted to Do Was Dance" proclaims the title of one of the book's sections, and readers can almost dance to the rhythm of the lyrics, but they won't lose themselves in the music. Alexie is always thinking while he's singing or dancing, always trying to come to terms with himself and provoke others to come to terms with themselves. Many of the poems close on notes of celebration:

     Believe me, the warriors are coming back
     to take their place beside you
     beyond the "just surviving"
     those new songs
     that sound
     like the old ones

But the dominant mood is dark and contemplative:

     Sometimes, I think I love you
     because it's always easiest
     to love the unloved
     to dream about the dreamless
     to watch an Indian woman
     just this side
     of beautiful
     slow dance
     to a sad song
     and never have to worry
     about making her any promises

The poems create an impression of somber, introspective requiems that constantly verge on breaking into triumphal marches, the cartoon movements of Merrie Melodies, or reservation fancydancing.

Sherman Alexie's new songs sound a lot like his old ones. But the songs haven't become hackneyed, and the poet still has his gift for lifting his readers above "just surviving."

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This section contains 985 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Carl L. Bankston III
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Carl L. Bankston III from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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