annotation by Lisa Cheby
Alexie’s poetry is a hybrid of formal poetics and experimental genre bending compounded by the often-conflicted aesthetics of these various traditions. In the guise of formal poetics, Alexie challenges the reader’s place in poetry and mocks almost all schools of poetry – reader response, biographical, confessional, historical, and formal.
Alexie divides his book into four sections. The first section, “War Stories,” establishes conflicts to be woven throughout the text: life versus death (“Avian Nights” and “The Father and Son Road Show”); fathers versus sons or old generations versus new; nature versus humans; whites versus Native Americans; Alexie versus his own histories. In the second section, “Tuxedo with Eagle Feathers,” Alexie examines the multiplicity of cultures at his disposal as an artist and the multiplicity of worlds he must negotiate in asserting his identity. The third section, “Size Matters,” moves into a celebration of mundane moments of humility. The final section, “Ten Thousand Fathers,” gives us new and old mythologies of his origins as a poet.
The book declares war between the poet and critic, between the oppressor and the oppressed through a battle between formalism and experimentation. Alexie appropriates the rules of form to undermine the history of literary domination by white men. “War Stories” and “Vilify” are highly crafted formal poems dismantled and disrupted by extensive footnotes, a risky move, flirting with pretension and imitation (didn’t Eliot already challenge the folly of footnotes in “The Wasteland?”). Alexie’s footnotes are commentary, digression, and political protest. The reader must decide how to read the poem: straight through, or do we follow the trail away to find our way back to the base poem? In “War Stories,” the first footnote undermines the speaker/poet’s authority, “He wasn’t really my uncle. I lied” (18). This footnote leads to another footnote to tell the true story, the truth of law, turning this poem about something akin to a bar fight into a dialogue with history. Unlike Eliot’s footnotes that mock the self-referential nature of literature and academics, Alexie exploits allusion and exposes how poetry and literature often mask the stories that lie beneath. While subverting dominant traditions, Alexie shows off his mastery of them: the poem’s six tercets are matched by the six tercets of the numbered footnotes, which lead to a tercet of prose footnotes. (Later it the book, he makes a similar move where the footnotes for a sonnet create a separate sonnet that adds commentary to the original sonnet.) For Alexie, form is not just a tool; there is a deliberate link between form and content. The form is a means for him to speak his truth in a world that wants to suppress his voice. This forces me to examine how form functions for my poems and challenges me to see how form does not just add structure, but can actually subvert that from which it came.
Similarly, Alexie mixes formal verse with prose segments throughout the book. In “Tuxedo with Eagle Feathers,” Alexie poignantly merges Native American storytelling with Western/American poetics. The poem starts with a prose section whose mythic voice blurs the lines between truth and reality; “Six years ago, or maybe it was eight or ten . . .” the speaker begins by inviting the audience to let go of the need for precision, a very western, formalist requirement (79). Once the scene of the powwow is set, Alexie transitions into an English sonnet that recounts his encounter with a former bully. At the end of the sonnet he relapses into expository prose to reflect on the lesson of this incident, the sonnet. A pattern of dialogue between cultures and the two selves of the speaker is established between the prose and the sonnets. The next sonnet focuses on another character that he must battle in his quest for identity. He again uses the natural argument structure of the English sonnet to make the point that “It was all shoe goddamn texts / By all those damn dead white male and female writers / That first taught me how to be a fighter . . . ” (80). Alexie resists the idea that his identity and power comes from only one culture; he claims the voice of both the Native Americans and western literary traditions. To emphasize this unity of self, each sonnet and prose section is enjambed. The next sonnet praises Dorothy Grant, who, through fashion, like Alexie through his poems, creates hybrids of Native American and mainstream expressions. Interestingly, Alexie ends on a sonnet: “This sonnet, like my reservation, keeps/ Its secrets hidden behind boundaries / That are simple and legal at first read . . . ” (81). Though his prose seems audaciously honest and exposed, it is in the control and boundaries of the formal verse that Alexie reveals the more vulnerable, raw emotions and insights, like the quiet clarity after a storm of rage or grief, like the unspoken truth of every joke. Likewise, the prose creates the mythic stories we create to explain our world, which may be just as true, or even “more impressive” than actual truth. With constant play of language and story, the reader eventually gives up on the idea of absolute truth and autobiography or confession, is forced to meet the poem eye to eye, at face value, as we all want to be met in life.
There is much more to be extracted, for the writer, from Alexie’s Face: the examination of his use vernacular, his depiction of the body (reminiscent of Olds), and his exploitation of the confessional voice. Yet, for me, Alexie exemplifies how form can be used to serve the poem and the voice, rather than finding a poem or voice to serve a form.