Paula Gunn Allen, from her poem Du Bist, at the Lesbian Writers Series:
"in Cubero outsiders make a strange clan, connected by blood, proximity, shared events, history, fate. comadre, compadre, primo, amte, guwatze, how are you and oiga! que pasa, qu'estas'ciendo, dude!"
In Paula Gunn Allen's poems Native American singers rub shoulders with Plato, while clouds pile up on ancient western mesas and rain forms puddles on a Kmart roof--speed-bump juxtapositions that jolt us into new awareness of the exhilarating, baggage-laden ride called life in the U.S.A.
"It's because of how I was raised," Allen tells us in her husky voice at the reading several weeks back in Plummer Park, West Hollywood. Now in its 12th year the series has grown from a volunteer-driven event into an independent, nonprofit corporation and a nationally known showcase for writers, including poets Marilyn Hacker, June Jordan and Suzanne Gardinier; novelists Carole Maso and Sarah Schulman and the celebrated French theorist, Monique Wittig. (Coming in the fall, poet/performance artist Sapphire, author Linda Villarosa, essayist Bia Lowe among others.)
If one writer personifies this wide-ranging series it's Paula Gunn Allen, whose work cuts across genres and cultures. Novelist, poet, essayist and UCLA professor, she is part Laguna Pueblo/Sioux Indian and part Scottish on her mother's side, and on her father's, part Lebanese of Maronite Christian stock. Allen grew up in a Spanish-speaking, New Mexican village next door to a Laguna Indian reservation and a Navajo land grant. As a child, she saw her divorced grandmother marry a German-Jew whose relatives fled Germany for the U.S. as World War II broke out, bringing "beautiful goosedown beds like I'd read about in fairy-tales" and another set of cultural influences.
She is best known for her study of Native American literature and culture, especially "Spider Woman's Granddaughters," an American Book Award-winning anthology of Native American women's fiction, which she edited; and "The Voice of the Turtle, American Indian Literature 1900-1970," to be followed in 1996 by "The Song of the Turtle, 1974-1994"--a two-volume set she hopes will be the definitive "canon" of Native American literature. But her self-styled "checkered tradition" surfaces in more textured fashion in the poems she reads tonight--new poems and some earlier work from her 1988 collection, "Skins and Bones."
Some taste bitter, like "Dear World" in which her mother's lupus, an autoimmune disease that causes the body to destroy itself, becomes a wry comment on being a "half-breed" torn apart by two cultures. Yet she also looks beyond the difficulties and divisions of daily life for cosmic unity. "Taku Skanskan" explores the Lakota word for God--"whatmovesmoves" or "what we do"--using the rhythm of a horse and rider on a frosty morning to suggest the possibility of a harmonious life.
The highlight of this reading is a new poem called "Du Bist" ("you are" in German), which draws together all her family names, languages and cultures. "This poem goes on and on," she says. "Don't worry about it, just roll with it like you're surfing."
It's part memorial, prompted by the death of her uncle, Robert Bruce Gottlieb, and part denunciation of government-sanctioned destruction inflicted on her family through war, genocide and nuclear testing. But it's also a celebration--her family is her "schatz," her treasure--and "a funny punny word-song lullaby" for Suleiman, her son, whose presence in the poem is a thread of life amid the deaths.
This solemn theme in rollicking rhythm inspires the audience to much laughter and applause. Allen grins. "That's what you call a multicultural event. See, it can be done!"