by Sherwin Bitsui
Copper Canyon Press 2009
Reviewed by Vernon Lallman
“its owner — a leash without a hand — “
Sherwin Bitsui’s collection Flood Songs is the kind of book one carries in a picnic basket to Central Park on a tranquil summer afternoon before beginning to negotiate a seeming balance between the natural world and the human-constructed world. Bitsui is originally from a Navajo reservation in White Pine, Arizona, and his elegant poetry compares and contrasts his native Navajo myths, customs and traditions with urban American life. The poet creates a diverse and rich poetic landscape by interweaving open imagery, time and thought, as in these lines:
You trace deboned wings of ospreys with hawk talons
in the grocery line where the Navajo name for Pheiades
is pinched and shredded,
and we dart away thinking: This is escape, it’ll be over soon,
we have never bothered to grieve, over… soon…
The speaker alludes to the fact that a culture is losing its identity to modern American life. Now the tribe goes to the supermarket to buy “deboned wings of ospreys with hawk talons” instead of hunting for it themselves. Yet the grocery line isn’t entirely villainized; the individual is as culpable.
Flood Songs is a series of untitled poems. Each page contains an independent poem. The poems vary from just one to more than 20 lines per page. There are a few blank pages throughout; as Bitui writes: “I bite my eye shut between these songs” (4). Yet the book progresses with the inevitability of the wind and time it depicts. Its iconography ranges from alarm clocks, corn and bluebirds, to red-tail hawks paired with gasoline. In addition, the poet’s use of native language (in this passage, “Dinetah,” the native homeland) contributes to an open, chant-like rhythm:
from the eye with juniper bark—
hunches with engine sweat
curling out of its collar,
its owner—a leash without a hand—
when lathered with a blur of red bricks.
The narrator speaks with much sincerity about the implications of modern life on his culture; however, his imagery — skies, birds, development — is his hopeful origin. He suggets an abstract loyalty in his last line: “The [grocery] line was busy when I picked that ax and chose the first tree to chop down” (71). Generally, his metaphorical birds, open cliffs and broad vision of human destruction leave the reader in a state of serenity.