The American poet Layli Long Soldier’s debut collection, “Whereas,” is in part a response to the Congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans, which President Obama signed in obscurity in 2009. There were no Native Americans present to receive the apology, as most never knew an apology was made. In an introduction to the title poem, Long Soldier writes: “My response is directed to the apology’s delivery, as well as the language, crafting and arrangement of the written document.” She is referring at least to the disclaimer that renders the document’s admissions of crimes null in legal matters. It can be argued she is referring to a more general language exercised in American documents, including American poetry. “Whereas” is an excavation, reorganization and documentation of a structure of language that has talked the United States through its many acts of violence. This book troubles our consideration of the language we use to carry our personal and national narratives.
In the same introduction, Long Soldier writes: “I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation — and in this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.”
Long Soldier’s affirmation as a dual citizen is important considering the less than rigorous practice of American literary criticism’s strategic and diminishing valuation of a writer’s “racial” or “ethnic” identity as part of or in place of a writer’s craft. She is usually referred to first as a Lakota or Oglala Sioux poet, as one might be called a concrete or experimental poet. A distinguished black poet recently told me, “Many people have written about what I write about, but none have written about how I’ve done it.” Long Soldier is aware of the American tradition of reading a racial or ethnic identity, especially an indigenous language, as an art form. She has built a poetics that refuses those boundaries, even when she engages with her Lakota identity. Her literary lineage is wide and demanding. “Whereas” is in deep conversation with the work of M. NourbeSe Philip, bpNichol and Gertrude Stein, as well as indigenous works like Zitkala-Sa’s “Impressions of an Indian Childhood,” Joy Harjo’s “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings,” Ofelia Zepeda’s “Ocean Power: Poems From the Desert” and Simon J. Ortiz’s “From Sand Creek.”