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A Black Bear Dancing Like a Man : HARPER'S ANTHOLOGY OF 20TH CENTURY NATIVE AMERICAN POETRY, edited by Duane Niatum; introduction by Brian Swann (Harper & Row: $24.95, cloth; $14.95, paper; 390 pp.)

February 21, 1988|Louis Owens | Owens is the author of "American Indian Novelists" (Garland).

In her poem, "Grandfather at the Indian Health Clinic," Elizabeth Cook-Lynn writes of an old man dignified by age and "averse to / an unceremonious world." Cook-Lynn's words might serve as epigraph to "Harper's Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry." For the 37 poets collected here, poetry seems often a tool for investing the world with vital ceremony, and poetry-as-ceremony becomes in these poems a way of survival.

Consistently excluded from anthologies, Indian poets have long been accustomed to seeing "Indian poetry" represented by Anglo re-workings of Indian texts. In 1975, Klallam poet Duane Niatum made a large stride toward rectifying this situation when he edited "Carriers of the Dream Wheel" for Harper & Row, a gathering of 16 young Indian poets that introduced readers to a rich new vein in American poetry. Now, more than a decade later, Niatum has brought together a much broader selection of Indian poets ranging from the internationally known such as N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Silko, and Simon Ortiz to such relative new-comers as Earle Thompson and Anita Endrezze.

To readers familiar with Indian writing, even a partial list of the authors included here will almost complete the roster of Indian poets: Niatum, Momaday, Silko, Ortiz, James Welch, Linda Hogan, Joy Harjo, Wendy Rose, Paula Gunn Allen, Gerald Vizenor, Lance Henson, Barney Bush, William Oandasan, Maurice Kenny, Carter Revard, Peter Blue Cloud, Louise Erdrich, Louis (Little Coon) Oliver, and Ray Young Bear. To this list Niatum has added nearly 20 younger and lesser-known poets with the only inexplicable and glaring omission being that of Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso.

On one hand, with more than 300 tribal cultures remaining in the United States, to lump even the 30 tribes represented in this anthology under the category of Indian is to tell the reader very little. Indian poetry stretches here to include the influences of such mentors as Richard Hugo, Theodore Roethke, and Yvor Winters as well as traditional tribal elders. Surrealism merges in these poems with Blackfeet oral tradition, haiku with Ojibway tricksters. Even the volume's editor, Niatum, argues that there is no unique "Indian Aesthetic," and that "Anyone who claims there is encourages a conventional response from both Indians and non-Indians. . . ."

However, in spite of such disclaimers, running through the poems collected here are unmistakable threads of common Indian experience: Close and exact attention to environment; consciousness of a heritage passed down through a precarious and evolving oral tradition; a heightened awareness of myth; a frequent and often bone-dry humor; the inevitable anger.

The sense of belonging to place, irrevocable and beyond value, which escapes the peripatetic Anglo-American psyche pervades this volume. "I must remember," Acoma poet Simon Ortiz writes, "that I am only one part / among many parts, / not a singular eagle / or one mountain. / I am transparent breathing." The close scrutiny, as if meaning itself depended upon it, surfaces again and again, as in Peter Blue Cloud's vision of a Bear Totem Dance: "The black bear does a strange and shuffling dance / foot to foot slowly, head back, eyes closed / like that of a man."

This collection represents a rich offering to America. Here is a mythic consciousness that is native American, that has grown out of the continent rather than coming from overseas. Here through poetry, or song, the world is articulated and made inhabitable for each of us, a phenomenon Kiowa poet and novelist N. Scott Momaday calls to mind in "Angle of Geese" when he asks, "How shall we adorn / Recognition with our speech?"

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