I finished this book for the first time weeks ago, and I finished it for the second time last Thursday. Sometimes I read books twice back-to-back because I didn’t want them to end in the first place. Sometimes I read books twice because I have no idea what I just read. Sometimes it’s a mixture of both. Regardless, it’s always on my second and third read-throughs that I begin to really see/hear/feel what makes the book itself, especially with books of poetry, which demand to be re-read time and time again in a way prose books don’t seem to (some of the time).
With Whereas, while there so many lines and images that I loved and fell head-first into, I reread this book mostly because when I got the end I wasn’t sure what I’d just experienced.
Many of the poems in this book are what, a year or more ago, I would have called “sushi lit” poems–a term invented in one of my high school poetry classes that essentially represents poetry that you could describe as “trendy, form-defying, buzz-word filled, sparse.” Obviously these qualities are all elements that could be utilized in a poem effectively and powerfully, but, in the open-mic, undergrad, enthusiastic (often white dude) way, they tend to produce bad spoken word, Instagram poems, and typewriter festivals. Which is not to say these types of poetry don’t have value or are lesser than any other type (which, I would perhaps also not have said a year or so ago); these are just where I’ve seen the greatest influx of “sushi lit” writers–those who seem to think of themselves and their writing as hot shit, no workshop or revision needed. “Hot shit” is actually a great other way to think of “sushi lit” poems–poems in the shape of whatever the poem is about; poems about poems; poems that read like a diary entry (again, time and place for everything)–all of these are poetic styles that have been rising in popularity, and are therefore easiest to produce mediocre works of.
So, when I was only three pages into Whereas and I found a poem in the outline of a square, about the speaker being boxed in, I thought, This is really a National Book Award Finalist? (It only took me a couple more pages to instead go, This is really only a finalist for the National Book Award?) Layli Long Solider is certainly form-defying and sparse; many poems in this book look nothing like what a consumer of “traditional” contemporary poetry (or, as it’s otherwise known, poetry by white guys) would expect. I’m used to free verse, but nothing quite this free verse. While elements of Solider’s work resembled what I’d mostly seen in sushi lit poems, they weren’t being used in a “trendy” or “please-retweet-me” way (just the suggestion of such now that I’ve read the whole book is laughable). Solider is, instead, very purposefully subverting these traditional ideas of contemporary poetry by visually and sonically examining the ways in which we (“we” here being mostly my fellow white and privileged people) talk about–and, more importantly, don’t talk about–the institutional marginalization and destruction of Native American people.
I learned a lot from this book, both about what Native American people were and are subjected to that was never brought up in any of my classrooms, and about how one utilizes form as a craft element. There was one poem in particular, “Diction”, that I must have spent a solid forty-five minutes grappling with–specifically the fourth section of it, which begins, “be / cause / when I / sweat”.
There are eight total sections in this poem, all of which are set on their own page as if they were own their poems (it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize the periods at the top of the pages weren’t an indication of a title-less poem, but rather a continuation of one), and “be / cause” is perhaps one of the most sparse poems in the entire collection, carefully using diction (yes, it’s a poem about diction titled “Diction”; I was skeptical at first) to leave out or re-arrange crucial words or elements to allow for a varied reading and, thus, interpretation of events. You get a strong “essence” of what’s being discussed in the poem (specifically, Wounded Knee), but no liner, narrative context, and almost no definitive tone. Take the entirety of this fourth stanza:
Wounded Knee. By / left in the continen- / on at the time the / By way of contrast, / were still coming. By / Knee, the population of / 0, there would be only / reservations in the west.
The repeated use of “by” is the agent rooting these lines into one concrete stanza, along with the deliberate break from standard grammar and punctuation to indicate missing elements (and, thus, indicating there is, in fact, connective tissue between them), such as the lowercase “the” at the end of the third line, leading into the capital “By” of a new sentence in the following line.
I read this poem so many different ways, assuming I was stupid, that there must have been some form I was missing that would bring all of these lines into true sentences that would tell me what I was supposed to feel. Poems are, in a lot of ways, like a scavenger hunt, but you have to let the clues tell you what they mean, not the other way around. I kept looking for the perfectly whole, no-questions-asked narrative that I was never going to find–that the Native American people will never have. That was what the poem was trying to tell me all along.
I had never considered before that a poem could do this. It’s certainly easier for this poem to stand on its own in the context of the rest of “Diction”, and in the rest of the book, but, nonetheless, finding such a sparse poem to not only be effective but so incredibly deliberate and tactful was something I hadn’t seen before. I’d seen attempts in the Twitter poems of the world (I’ve even written and had one published *cough* tweeted out by a Twitter-only journal *cough* myself), but haven’t seen many examples in acclaimed books.
Sure, a lot of that has to do with whom I have and haven’t read, and what I “like” and “dislike.” As I suggested, I had very different opinions on certain poetic styles until recently. I saw no value in spoken word, no value in poems of unusual form (like ROUSs, but POUFs–s/o Princess Bride fans). I know better now. Every “type” of poetry is flooded with poems both good and bad, writers both pretentious and otherwise. I realized, though, that I wasn’t thinking of some of most of these pieces as objectively “good” or “bad,” but really whether or not I “liked” them or not. Poetry and its various forms are not about whether you “like” or “dislike” a particular poem or its elements (entirely–our opinions as a reader are still absolutely of value; a poem, imo, needs a reader to truly be a poem), but should more so be about what is working well within a poem, what perhaps isn’t, and what you can learn from both. Yes, there’ll be those poems the rest of the world seems to love but that you simply just don’t like (“The Red Wheelbarrow” has almost ruined friend groups), and popular poets you just can’t understand the hype of (sorry, Billy Collins, but this isn’t going to work out between us), but there is something to be learned from every poem, maybe even especially from the poetry you don’t “like.”
There were times I had to remind myself of this while reading Whereas, encountering forms and other choices on the part of Solider’s that I wasn’t familiar with, and therefore wasn’t sure that I liked (like many a conqueror before me). But, in reading and parsing these poems, I learned and grew as a poet and, maybe more importantly, as as reader, so I’m glad that this was the first book I read from my 2019 list. And, just so we’re not ambiguous here, I really liked this book. I’m glad Solider is here and writing, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Up next: The Tradition by Jericho Brown.