I knew what to expect from the poems of Jennifer Reeser in her new collection Indigenous. I knew I’d get what I’d gotten every time I read her poetry. Brilliance. This woman who speaks a number of languages, including Russian, French, and more than one Native American language, simply put, puts the majority of US poets to shame. Don’t believe me?
Pick up a poetry magazine touted by academics. Read it and try to remember lines. Try to remember anything. You will likely fail. Then pick up poetry by poets like Reeser who work in forms—the sonnet is probably the one most familiar to the general reader. Maybe it’s the rhyme. Maybe it’s the rhythm. Or maybe it’s just the power of the poet, but you will come away with memorable lines and an intellectual journey not to be forgotten.
Reeser brings a unique perspective to these poems about Native American culture, myths, and history. Her own ancestry is both Celt and Native American. It’s eerie, when you think about it, the similarities in what happened to most Celtic tribes and Native American tribes.
What is very interesting about this collection is the lack of bitterness. There is passionate retelling, but somehow it comes off as very objective. I do have favorites in this book—“Why the Cherokee Abandoned Privilege” is top of my list for a number of reasons. The poem tells a fascinating story about a mystery that is part of Cherokee legend—the fate of the “privileged” class among the tribes. This poem is timeless, reaching backwards into history to recount a people liberating themselves and sparking awareness about our own political class in the US, arguably the freest country on the planet.
In telling the story of how the Cherokee dispensed with their privileged class, Reeser first explains the system that “held as though by rein/The people…” Once the narrative is clear, the finale hits home in a message that resonates across centuries, throwing a bolt of lightning towards today:
“Not since that bloodbath do the Cherokee
Exalt a single soul, nor tolerate
Entitlement by birth—society
Admitting neither paramount nor great.”
Poems about a dark-skinned child born to a white father, about dual heritage with lines like “In me, the Red Man mingles with the White”, about “An ancient Cherokee shaman’s formula, translated”—these are poems that stop the reader in her tracks. They stay with you long after you’ve closed the book.
Reeser is a master of the sonnet and many other forms. Like so many formal poets, she isn’t a darling of the fixed academic class controlling poetry in the US today. Accomplished formal poets are masters of the genre, however.
Writing in form doesn’t just involve manipulating a fixed form. You have to think in the rhythm of it, take the frame of it into your consciousness so that you are not even aware you’re writing in form. I speak from experience. I love the sonnet form, but it took me many years to be able to even write a fair-to-middling piece in that form. It’s almost like learning to speak another language.
Most poets won’t bother. Free verse rules because for one thing, it is easier for most who consider themselves poets, and that has resulted in what I consider poetry mills—reams and reams of poems few will remember in the future because most of them are not only poorly crafted. Many poems today leave even the most educated reader asking, “What the hell does that even mean?” The journey ends with that.
Good poetry helps the reader begin a journey. Reading Reeser’s book is like a journey through history, not only the history of a people, but the history of a person. I read her book three times, and have taken to reading some of the poems aloud to my loved ones.
The final poem in the book is “Benediction.” It is a beautiful poem replete with grace and blessing. I’ve long said Reeser would make a fine US Poet Laureate. I still believe that, and wish she’d been selected as the first female Native American poet laureate.
The first Native American poet laureate was William Jay Smith. The US Library of Congress refuses to acknowledge Smith’s heritage to this day.
Learn more about Reeser’s work by visiting Jennifer Reeser online.
(Kay B. Day/Jan. 24, 2020)
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