Ever since Homer's time, poets have wrestled with the difficulty of transmitting historical events through the prism of verse, attempting to balance recorded facts with intuited truths. William Heyen's recounting of America's most legendary adversarial relationship - that of Sioux leader Crazy Horse and Army General George Custer - awards pride of place to the imagination. Though informed by published histories, letters and diaries, this series of more than 450 lyric poems constitutes a "fusion of dream & time," an unpredictable extrapolation of the psychological, social, and spiritual energies that led the principals and their nations to a fateful, bloody meeting on June 25, 1876. Avoiding rhetorical bombast and scholarly clutter, Heyen allows the rich imagery and tragic ironies of the West to emerge: a buffalo herd frozen to death in a canyon; the young Crazy Horse attempting to capture an eagle while cadet Custer struggles with a term paper on "the red race;" the grim, exhausting labor of extracting tens of thousands of buffalo tongues for shipment to chic Eastern restaurants; Custer's wife Elizabeth in a prairie tent, experiencing the "terror of being late, that some day/hundreds of men would have to wait/because a woman had lost her hat pins." Whether or not we believe Heyen's stated claim to psychic kinship with the spirit of Crazy Horse, his ability to maintain the reader's sense of surprise andwonder through an avalanche of poems both surreally plain ("Footnoted") and plainly surreal ("Custer in Cyberspace") is an amazing achievement in itself, enriching our sense of the past with a singular sense of the present.
Crazy Horse in Stillness
For Heyen, Crazy Horse embodied the spirituality of Native American culture as well as the fierce passion of a people under attack. The stillness of Crazy Horse would cause the air and the words around him to hum with an energy these poems echo in soft, intense vibration. Indeed, for Heyen, Crazy Horse seems to function as a muse in the ether, guiding the rhythm and topic of each poem. Heyen also includes many poems about Elizabeth Custer, left at home and reading the letters of her battle-weary husband, painting a portrait of Iron Horse, and remembering fragments of her life. Finally, Heyen draws apt parallels between General Custer and Crazy Horse, giving the collection thought-provoking as well as lyrical qualities.