Set in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Adrian C. Louis’s “Dust World” unfolds against a devastated background. In the poem, teenage mothers with dilated pupils and “rotten teeth” loiter on the street, cradling their children and holding beer, soliciting sex. High school drop-outs who work at the local video rental store—“products of Pine Ridge High”—clownishly dance “like two cats in mid-air, snarling, clawless / and spitting,” shadowing in their practice “karate kicks” a casual attitude toward violence that resonates throughout the whole absurd landscape. Nothing remains untouched by ruin. Tormented by virulent gusts “from the Badlands,” the poem depicts an environment gritty and grimy with “hot autumn dust,” evoking the imagery of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Forsaken, alienated, traumatized, it is a world bereft of hope, overwhelmed by feelings of irrevocable loss, permanent futility, and the impossibility of escape. All “lines to God” have been broken. The people are “dying people.”
Scott A. Campbell (MAPS) implies that the speaker in the poem saves “Dust World” from absolute cynicism. Without neglecting the speaker’s “impotence,” he argues that the Sioux man who ostensibly speaks “dust words / for my dying people” in section 1 and then recognizes his own interpellation in section 3 is the poem’s hero. He writes: “[the speaker] wants to act as a father to the community, to become an authority figure, but cannot because of his own subjugation by an addiction to alcohol and his isolation. [ . . . ] His trip to town could change the grown children he meets into adults, but his words have been rendered ‘dust’ by the effects of a colonizing American culture [ . . . ].” Later, he concludes: “throughout the poem [the speaker] maintains a commitment to [Pine Ridge citizens] and a simultaneous awareness of their problems and his own.” Campbell’s distinction is surgical. Though the speaker ultimately considers himself “like a stereotypical Indian,” he would transcend the imperialistic boundaries imposed upon him and other Pine Ridge Sioux by achieving a lucidity that acknowledges his words as “dust words” and his actions as swallowed by “the void.” In other words, for Campbell, though “Dust World” fails to induce a transformation, its speaker’s “dust words” still constitute “a real act of bravery” in their transparency.
However, while the speaker’s self-recognition in section 3 does introduce hope into a world where all else has withered up and blown away, Campbell’s reading oversimplifies how Louis’s poem diminishes that speaker’s “bravery.” It is true that the speaker fashions himself as a kind of hero. Yet, before his concluding self-recognition, his self-representations prove incongruous with the descriptions of a subject “aware” of himself and others. Focalizing his brawn and swaggering machismo, the speaker accentuates his “biceps as thick as [the video store clerks’] thighs,” which he suggests both intimidate and command respect, since the store clerks are “aware that I could dust / their wise asses individually or collectively.” Likewise, he draws attention to his sexual virility. Wherever he appears, whether in a parking lot or a video rental store, he perceives himself to be providing a tantalizing erotic spectacle for the “teenaged mothers,” “court[ing] frication” on the hoods of their ‘70 Chevy, who “wave at me like they know me,” as well as for the “two young attendants,” who are “almost courting me, / in a weird macho way almost flirting.” Though these images provide no specific information, such as the speaker’s age or actual physical appearance, and he calls himself “fatherly,” indicating an older man, these descriptions imply that he is muscular and handsome. Later, these implications are reinforced by his “new T-Bird.” Emblematizing masculinity par excellence, the speaker’s “hotrod” contrasts with the derelict Pine Ridge backdrop, signaling his superhuman status amidst a world of “dying people.” Supporting Campbell’s reading, these images demonstrate that the speaker is a parody of white American masculinity: a man comparable to Hollywood fictions such as “Dirty” Harry Callahan or Frank Bullitt, whose rugged appearances make them irresistible sexual icons as well as intimidating, intrepid, lion-hearted heroes.
Yet, throughout “Dust World,” excluding the conclusion, no signs indicate that the speaker recognizes his interpellation. Quite the contrary, in sections 2 and 3, he seems oblivious to his caricatured impersonations. While the speaker perceives himself to be the champion of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Louis’s irony burlesques that self-aggrandizing posture. For example, when the speaker approaches the video store attendants, he claims that he could “dust their wise asses,” yet the narration of the encounter, albeit without focalizing the slight, reveals that the boys do not check him out; theyignore him. Claiming that “this is the whiskey talking now,” the speaker attempts to attract their attention, saying “Heyyyy . . . ever so softly,” only to be greeted by silence. These two details do not quite square. If the speaker genuinely posed a threat to or commanded the respect of the clerks, it seems that they would be more attentive, even if only out of fear. If he were a macho-man, he would not say “heyyyy”; he would snap his fingers, bang the counter with his fists, or deliver a witty wisecrack, if he needed to do anything at all. What these incongruities suggest is that the speaker is neither a macho nor commanding presence. He performs his masculinity according to the scripts of Hollywood cinema, but unbeknownst to himself he performs it unconvincingly. Though he attempts to portray himself favorably, every image of the speaker’s cartoonish masculinity obliquely refers to a powerlessness repressed by that portrayal.
This irony permeates section 3. Narrating his departure from the video store parking lot, the speaker travels a circular detour that takes him “past [his] house” and then back to the parking lot, where he “re-enter[s] the store.” Campbell suggests that he has merely “forgotten [the videos] in his alcoholic stupor,” but the previous omissions of his narrative urge another perspective. There, where the clerks are still behaving like “clowns,” the speaker arrives at his concluding flash of self-recognition. He says:
I stare them down and place two cassettes, both rated X, on the counter. It’s Friday night and I’m forty years old and the wild-night redskin parade is beginning.
Palpable is his determination. Both his stare and the certainty with which he drops the cassettes on the counter—a gesture dramatized by the meticulously end-stopped lines—suggest a man resolved in his purpose. The implication is that the speaker returns to the video store not because he “forgot” the cassettes but because, embarrassed to be renting pornography, he lost his nerve and skulked away without them. In this sense, his softly uttered “heyyyy” betrays him; less than “the whiskey talking,” “heyyyy” reveals the speaker abashed, choked with shame, and almost speechless with timidity. His “stare,” rather than confrontation, signals sheer fortitude to complete the task. He is not being ignored by the clerks out of fear; to them, he is just inconsequential.
Glimpsing the speaker at this moment is shattering. In section 3, when the teenage mothers wave at him, he already intimated his true physical appearance, and the concluding revelation pulls that peripheral detail into the center: rather than the muscular and chiseled features of a Hollywood actor, he has a “gut” that he must self-consciously “suck in.” Then, in the last lines, it is revealed that the speaker is not youthful; he is “forty years old.” Though he does consider himself “fatherly,” the number “forty” connotes being “over-the-hill,” past one’s prime, and the speaker’s age symbolically inflects his fatherliness with infirmity and disintegration. Moreover, the image of a grown man renting X-rated videos undercuts his sexual virility. Rather than a mouthwatering sex-machine, desired by everybody, the speaker has no genuine romantic prospects subtract pornography and masturbation; he is an isolated, lonely, unloved man, confined to a world of narcissistic fantasy, and too impotent to forge meaningful interpersonal connections. He is not the figure performed by Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen. He is a coward, not only too embarrassed to rent adult videos, but too pusillanimous to command the clerks’ attention beyond his effete “heyyyy.”
This is the detail that Campbell oversimplifies. While the speaker does recognize his interpellation and impotence in the poem’s concluding lines, that self-recognition simultaneously calls to mind the fact that he has not maintained “throughout the poem [ . . . ] awareness of [Pine Ridge citizens’] problems and his own.” Until the end, in the second and third sections, his problems are dissembled for him by his over-compensatory swashbucklery and braggadocio. Furthermore, after the concluding self-recognition, the reader may be inclined to reread “young attendants” and “teenaged mothers” not as “clowns” or “court[ing] frication” but as symbolic extensions of the speaker’s own misrecognized feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. In this sense, not only is he unaware of himself; the Sioux man’s own self-awareness forbids him from recognizing his “dying people” as well.
Perhaps his self-recognition is heroic, but “Dust World” insists that the poem’s speaker is a tragic effect of American colonialism. Campbell may be correct that his limits are imposed by “his own subjugation [ . . . ] to alcohol and his isolation,” but the ironic exposure of his immaturity renders the thwarted possibility that he “could change the grown children he meets into adults” a non sequitur. This is not to say that Campbell (whose biceps are as thick as my thighs) is wrong. There is bravery in “Dust World.” However, more than the courage of self-recognition and speech, it is Louis’s irony that asserts its prominence, and what that irony suggests about bravery is unforgiving. Juxtaposing the speaker’s avowal of his interpellation and racial self-hatred in the concluding lines with the return to the video store, Louis insinuates that the conditions of “Dust World” can only produce acts of bravery equal in their audacity to renting pornographic film. The action may be daunting, accompanied by anxiety and shame, but the intensity of that intimidation is darkly humorous and maladroit in comparison to the task of recovering from genocide.
If there is heroism in “Dust World,” it is located in Louis’s irony. While the poem does not dissimulate the traces of colonialism in the Pine Ridge Reservation, Louis’s irony tends to subordinate white American imperialism. As does the work of Sherman Alexie—to whom Louis dedicated “Dust World”—Louis’s poem primarily examines the difficulties of Native Americans’ hegemonic relations to themselves and one another. (Even the line “Here is the Hell the white God gave us,” while meriting serious consideration in isolation, cannot be regarded with the same gravity in a poem that labors to place its speaker so far into question.) Louis’s indictment is dark, but in the very least his irony extends to every Charles Bronson in the Pine Ridge Reservation the opportunity to see themselves ironically. Indeed, perhaps Louis’s sardonic words are “dust words”—almost nothing, but sufficient to provoke major transformation. In these words, every Pine Ridge Sioux would see both their interpellated identity and the shame disguised by that interpellation, but they would also see that shame and scripted subjectivity exposed to ridicule, critique, and change.