Phillip Ernstmeyer: On "Dust World"

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.

Pantheolla T. Williams: On Middle Passage

Pontheololla T. Williams In "Middle Passage" he treats the origin of the slave trade in Africa as it relates to the devlopment of the new ethnic group—the Afro-American. "Middle Passage" tries to achieve a two-fold purpose. Hayden says that he wanted to fulfill Benet's prophecy and to write a poem that would give the lie to bigots who had distorted the Afro-American's history. Though it was inspired by epic intentions and contains elements of the epic, it is not quite that. The traditional epic depicts the values and patterns of the life of an entire people or culture through the experience of a hero who represents in himself certain ideals of that culture. "Middle Passage" attempts through a hero to present the values, both positive and negative, of the slavery era and the Afro-American's historic condition, depicting his dislodgment and displacement from his mother country to an alien land. The hero of the poem is Cinquez, the captive prince who inspired and carried out the Amistad mutiny. This figure, however, blends with the poet-observer, who enunciates "the deep dark immortal human wish / the timeless will to be free" (lines 172-73). Another epic element in "Middle Passage" is the device of cataloging--the listing of the ships and the listing of the African tribes, all historically authenticated by Hayden's research. It begins in medias res with the depiction of ships under full sail carrying slaves in mid-Atlantic. Its tone is dignified. The ending is not without a note of triumph, though this term does not adequately describe the mystical exaltation of the concluding stanzas. Yet, the poem is not an epic. It is too short. Moreover, it is more lyrical than narrative; whenever a narrative section appears, it is telescoped or fragmented. The issue of religion is handled with great irony and for the purpose of condemnation. Intervention of the gods is lacking. The intervention of John Quincy Adams is the nearest approximation to this convention. And the hero does not engage in monologues; his words as well as his deeds are presented from the reportorial consciousness of the poet-observer. The poem is set in the classic framework of a journey--one that begins when the African principals leave their villages. The exodus is engineered as much by the African kings who sell their captives to satisfy their greed for "luxuries" as it is by the Spanish greed for gold. The first lap of the journey is to the "factories"--places where the captives are sorted out, processed, and subdued for their coming enslavement. The second lap, the horrific "Middle Passage," is the journey across the Atlantic Ocean to America and slavery. The third lap, only alluded to in the poem, is the journey from the barracoons in America to the plantations. Part 1 begins with a chilling description of the inhumane treatment slavers gave the Africans aboard various slave ships. Moving from the general to the particular, part 2 presents the reminiscences of a corrupt old slave-trader who is stopped from plying his trade only by the physical toll the tropics take on him--"fevers melting down [his] bones." Ironically his greed for gold is shown as being of a piece with that of the African kings' greed for luxuries. Part 3, the climactic section of the poem, is the poetic recreation of the Amistad mutiny, which occurred in 1839 and became a cause célèbre. The personae are the omniscient poet-observer, the African tribal chiefs and their subjects, the heroic Cinquez, the Spanish captain of the Amistad, common seamen, Celestino the mulatto, and the silent voice of John Quincy Adams, who argues the case for Cinquez and his people and who, in fact, argued the case for the Amistad rebels. It is a tribute to Hayden's poetic genius that in the poem, otherwise so brilliantly and uniquely his own, he stands in debt to two poets who demonstrated conflicting views of America. Evident in "Middle Passage" are the techniques T. S. Eliot used in "The Wasteland" and the influence of Hart Crane's vision of crucifixion and resurrection, horror and squalor out of which radiates hope and light. As Crane, in "The Bridge," attempted to forge the American identity, Hayden likewise forges in "Middle Passage" the American identity of the Afro-American. In part 1, Hayden introduces the technique of fragmentation which Eliot used with striking effect in "The Wasteland." It is a device that lends itself to a vivid portrayal of the disintegration of a society--in "Middle Passage," the historic disintegration of African society. Accordingly, the development of part 1 includes sequential presentation, without transition, of names of ships, a section of a ship's log, a sailor's prayer, a portion of a sailor's letter, and a legal deposition. The Eliot-like motifs that achieve unity are the refrain "Jesus Savior Pilot Me" (a hymn line which creates an ironic commentary), the biblically derived names of ships, and the poet-observer's chorus-like voice. From a vantage point that spans time and place, the poet condemns the horrors of the Middle Passage, describing it as a "voyage through death" (lines 3-7). He condemns American greed--that of the New England shipping interests as well as that of the southern plantation owners: Standing to America, bringing home black gold, black ivory, black seed. Deep in the festering hold thy father lies of his bones New England pews are made, those are altar lights that were his eyes. The "altar lights" motif establishes an ironic relationship with Shakespeare's theme of death and resurrection in The Tempest. The allusion is to Ariel's speech to Ferdinand that falsely reports the death of Ferdinand's father. Hayden explains that his intention was based on his feeling that there was some connection between the sea change Shakespeare describes and "the change from human beings into things--objects, suffered by the enslaved Africans--the idea that slavery was a kind of death." Hayden's immediate purpose in using the allusion, according to Charles Davis, is to mock "a less than spiritual transformational while reminding the reader of a supposed death by drowning, which in reality led to a regeneration through sea change, Ariel's song also portrays a metamorphosis from blindness to new vision. (The sailor writes that "Opthalmia has struck the Captain as well as the Africans aboard the ship.") The line "those are altar lights that were his eyes" may be seen as a scathing indictment of a Christian people with eyes blind to the enslavement of their fellowman. It is a blindness that prevails in the poem until John Quincy Adams, as the champion of human rights, speaks "with so much passion of the right of chattel slaves" (lines 164-65) and their will to be free. When the justice he represents proves not to be blind, it opens the way for the African "to life upon these shores." According to Elizabeth Drew, Eliot uses the Shakespeare line "Those are pearls that were his eyes" as the central symbol for the whole of Western tradition, which, as he saw it, was lifeless as a pearl. Eliot also used the symbol to suggest metamorphosis from blindness to vision. Drew further notes that Eliot's purpose in making the allusion was to symbolize the transmutation of life into art--a creative act the poet must find, not only through suffering but in suffering. Whether in response to the Eliot model or not, Hayden develops this dimension of the metaphor in the sailor's letter: "8 bells. I cannot sleep, for I am sick with fear, but writing eases fear a little since still my eyes can see these words take shape upon the page & so I write, as one would turn to exorcism. The passage speaks of the transformation from blindness to vision that can be effected through the arts. The blindness theme is continued in another variation of The Tempest motif which appears in part 3: Deep in the festering hold thy father lies, the corpse of mercy rots with him, rats eat love's rotten gelid eyes. In this passage the poet also decries the rotting bodies of his ancestors interred in the holds of slave ships. The contrast of "rotten" with what ought to be living thoughts--"mercy" an "love"--is reminiscent of yet another precedent set by Eliot in "The Wasteland," especially in "Burial of the Dead." Further reminiscent of "The Wasteland" is the use of several voices, some of them ghostly, including those of the poet-observer, of the praying sailor, of the old slaver, and of the attorneys who speak for the Spanish deponents. As in "The Wasteland," though to a lesser extent, Hayden shuffles history, past and present, in his depiction of the African's "coming to life upon these shores." Hart Crane's epic "The Bridge" also influenced the shaping of "Middle Passage." After announcing his vision of hope, which he contrasted to Eliot's negations, Crane attempted to create, through the use of history and folklore and of his key bridge symbol, the American identity, achievement, and future hopes. It is, certainly, a subject matter for a myth that could support an American epic. This is a vision similar to that of Hayden's poem--a vision that creates an Afro-American identity around the central metaphor of the "Middle Passage" and a vision that carries, indeed, a constructive note of hope. At the time he composed "Middle Passage," Hayden was a young man with certain identifiable ideas about Afro-American history, justice, and social change. He was, however, a poet who was making a search in himself for a new iconography that would inform his poetry along with the beliefs he had accepted. He was tossed up to rhetorical heights by his reckless faith in his poetic genius and scholarship; yet he was brought to a more even keel somewhat later by his stem sense of self-discipline and self-criticism. The true extent of these flights of optimism and the degree of his self-discipline and self-criticism cannot be known. Hayden said that the working sheets of "Middle Passage" are long since lost. Nonetheless, there are four published versions of the poem: version A, in Phylon (1941); version B, in Cross Section (1945); version C, in A Ballad of Remembrance (1962); and version D, in Selected Poems (1966). The painstaking revisions of "Middle Passage" from 1945 to 1966 produced a poem that won the acclaim of eminent critics and fellow-poets. A passage from the letter that Allen Tate wrote to him about the poem will indicate the measure of that approval: "I am especially moved by 'Middle Passage,' a beautifully written poem. The power is in the restraint and the purity of diction." More important is the fact that the poem was produced by a black poet speaking of black history and heritage in the most sophisticated traditions of twentieth-century western poetry.