Swallowed Light by Michael Wasson
This is a book of loss. The gun and the ghost dance in Wasson’s poetry, both reminders of a hollow, of a gap, of an erasure that cannot be stitched. There are spaces that cannot be filled in these poems, spaces that the speakers of his poems are always calling into, calling themselves back to, always aware that they carry these points of silence with them. If his speakers look in the rearview mirror they will see “a decade staring back,” see a blurred century trailing behind them. In the second poem of the collection, “Swallowed Prayers as Creation,” a poem that might be called a map of the book’s journey, Wasson writes:
The myth insists
for we might go back
to when we were seeing láw láw láw in our most gorgeous of
animal skins, before the jaws of ‘ilcwéew’cix devoured us, before the cities
vanished into cathedrals
of glittering bone
In these poems we are in the world of myth and story. History braids into the present movement and bends back to 1887, to the Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma in 1922, to the battlefields, to the stories of the Bible, to the gods and stories the Bible made to erase. A boy looking at his mother and at his father is also looking through the long nineteenth and twentieth centuries. All time is a mirror trying to tell you where you are, where you have been. These poems look backward through a colonial history of assimilation, desecration, and displacement, but not as a series of fact or document, not as he writes in “Self-Portrait as Collected Bones [Rejoice, Rejoice]”:
. . . for the massacre is only
a series of colorless photographs, arrives
of snow & nothing else: Mother, tell me
what you remember of another man’s hand
reaching into your throat
like a night frozen glove
The history of these poems is one that longs to be ever living: “breathing to find your way home,” as Wasson writes in the last words of the collection. These poems mourn the dead, but they do not bury them; they let the dead speak. They promise that history is not settled, not easily buried. They say history is living with us, it is watching, and it is speaking all the time.
Wasson’s language speaks through a history of violence, bodily and psychic. Here, the beautiful is beautiful despite the danger in every image. Here, we “[drown] in first light.” Here, we enter the “cutout tongue of winter.” Here, dusk is a blade held to the speaker’s throat in a “star- / spangled nation.” In this collection, the lyric image is bodily and haunted; it rings with pain even as it expands delicately “across my slow-fruiting tongue.”
And here it’s the English that hurts like this, that blooms its violence inside its beauty. Wasson writes in both English and Nimipuutímt, the language of the Nez Perce tribe, in a way that demonstrates the history of assimilation and language erasure, and explores the struggle of finding a voice. Always the mouth is opened, the mouth is filled, the mouth is harmed, the mouth is unsettled in these poems, even as the collection moves toward voice, even as the poems themselves prove Wasson’s powerful poetic vocalization.
A collection of thirty-five poems in three sections, Wasson’s collection can feel roving and hard to hold as it moves through the long memory of American history. But, at the very heart of the collection is a poem called “paq’qatát cilakátki” written entirely in Nimipuutímt. For an English-only reader, as I am, the heart of the book is a silence I do not know how to immediately understand, but it is also a remembrance and a reclamation. Nimipuutímt words thread throughout the collection and in this poem they converge. As a reader, you feel that this is the heart that radiates out into all the other poems of the collection, this is the root of meaning that all other poems are only translating. All Wasson’s language is always leading back to this poem. This poem is an invitation to learn, to trace these words, to find their meaning, to leave the book with questions you are responsible for researching, if you, like me, are not a native speaker of this language.
For all the pain of this collection, these poems are full of breath, of light. They open outward, they invite the reader in, they fill the dark corners of history with a tender gaze. In the last lines of “Swallowed Prayers as Creation,” the speaker feels all the horror, and still he arrives into the power of the human spirit, into this full and wild world:
In this story: you run until your hind legs lift
from the night sky
scraped onto the walls of this awful place, out beyond
the smoke & ruin, until you are human enough,
until the world is
the world at last.
LANDIS GRENVILLE received an MFA in poetry from the University of Virginia. She is currently a PhD student at Florida State University.