With the mendacity and misdirection involved in American politics, it's easy to lose track that a law, like a poem, is a thing made of words. Enforceable words, words with money and muscle behind them. Ideally, the words are the will of the people. More likely, they're an unrecognizable compromise. (And as a wise fictional six-year-old once said, a good compromise leaves everybody mad.)
I recently read Layli Long Soldier's book Whereas, a response to an apology encoded in law. The book assimilates the structure of the 2010 Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans
into poetry through a series of "Whereas Statements," one for each of the statements in the resolution. And why shouldn't an act of poetry respond to an act of government? Long Soldier uses Congress's language as an instrument to disassemble it.
The poem, the word, is the available tool. Introducing her "Whereas Statements," she writes:
My response is directed to the Apology's delivery, as well as the language, crafting, and arrangement of the written document. 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.
The verb "art" creates poetry as an imperative action. And the Whereas statements that follow are astute, sometimes darkly humorous. They closely read the apology to expose the ways it contradicts its own stated desire for reconciliation. Commenting on the last "Whereas" statement in the apology, which declares "Whereas Native Peoples are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", Long Soldier notes:
Whereas I remember that abstractions such as life, liberty and happiness rarely serve a poem, so I have learned it best not to engage those terms anyway. Yet I smash head-on into this specific differentiation: the Creator vs. their Creator. Whereas this alters my concern entirely — how do I language a collision arrived at through separation?
How do we put into language something irreconcilable: our differences from those around us, our relationship to history?
I didn't know it at the time, but seven months after the Congressional Letter of Apology to Native Americans entered into law, I spent two weeks on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. A work trip. With three other young women and a van full of art supplies and playground games, we visited communities and played with children, a roving day camp. I left feeling ambivalent: what did we accomplish, what could a full summer of enthusiastic strangers from distant urban places do for these children and the stark scattered towns they lived in? It's painful to see how much America has taken away from these places and how little we have to offer in return. No apology can cover it. And it's difficult to envision what the "work toward reconciling relationships with Indian tribes" that the apology halfheartedly encourages might look like. What comes to mind are more abstractions of the sort that rarely serve a poem: humility, understanding, dedication to strengthening the institutions that underpin life in a Native American community. How do we language all that?
Whereas is unsettling and memorable. It reminded me in parts of Claudia Rankine's Citizen, another book that questions and punctures the official narrative of race in America. How do we live our lives in our own positions, our limited perspectives shaped by our race and class and how the world perceives our gender, and act justly? Often I feel like I get further every day from understanding this. I keep reading. I repeat myself. I wonder.