Last night I discovered that a poet I respect and whose work I adored passed away three months ago and I didn’t know. Today, I am questioning what the words “respect” and “adore” mean. Is respect possible in an out of sight/out of mind relationship, or is there a more fitting word for that crime?
Hold that thought like a beer while I enter today’s all-American barroom brawl, pulling up the video of a mob of mostly white students surrounding marchers at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington D.C., who took great pleasure in taunting and mocking the marchers. The marchers were drumming and chanting, and no matter which video angle you see it from, the exchange is gut-churning. Not an exchange of words or hands, mind you, but of eyes and sneers and prayers and knowing, depending on who’s holding the camera. More of that “boys will be boys” ethos on display we are rolling out as explanations instead of excuses these days.
But hold that thought as I hang my not-a-MAGA hat on the hat rack of progress we have not been paying attention to, which has been allowed to wrap itself in the raiment of The Future and decency while the wearers have been destroying everything and smiling like a white boy in a MAGA hat inches away from the drum of Nathan Phillips, an Omaha elder, Vietnam veteran and former director of the Native Youth Alliance. The word “disrespectful” has justifiably been thrown at the students, specifically the smirking one who stood in front of a man several generations older than him, and who fought to protect his right to be an asshole even though his people stole practically everything from people like Nathan Phillips. The cognitive dissonance of watching a white boy wearing a hat demanding observers “Make America Great Again” nose to nose with a man who has given the better part of his much longer life to doing just that even in the face of having lost so much before either of them were born almost cracked my skull. Nathan Phillips is still giving. He was wiping away tears as he spoke on the incident in another video and still giving.
Hold that thought while I tell you about my night, though. After catching wind of the MAGA jerk story late last night, I went on Facebook to see what Lovelock Paiute poet Adrian C. Louis might have to say about it. He is not one to keep his tongue still on matters concerning indigenous affairs. More, we are Facebook friends, but since that term means nothing real in 2019, I am compelled to clarify that we were slightly better than Facebook friends. We actually corresponded. Originally by email, but then later through more Russian-tappable means. How I came to him and how he came to me are two different stories.
I came to Adrian the way I come to most people: through poetry. I was looking for poets off the beaten path who had great work, and his poetry jumped out at me: conversational, wry, fearless, vulnerable. He came to me in 2008. I had just completed my second 24-hour solo poetry reading and received a non-descript email asking about the effort, if I had recorded it, and if a recording could be purchased, since I had apparently read a couple of the mystery author’s poems in my set. I couldn’t tell who had sent the email since they hadn’t signed it and their address was not forthcoming, but after a little detective work I figured out it was him. We traded a few more emails and that was it for a while until I found him on Facebook, we did the friending ritual, and then we would touch base here and there in messages based on what either of us might be posting. We had poems appearing in the same journal, Pouch, in late 2014, so we touched base on that, but later held slightly more substantial conversations and emojis about the first season of Stranger Things (thought it was good, but too long, and what was that ending?) and Longmire (which I was selling to him and he liked). He hipped me to the movie The Lesser Blessed (I liked). In 2016 we almost met up when I was in Minnesota at a writing retreat, but our schedules didn’t quite line up considering the still considerable in-state distance. I sent him a picture of Famous Writer’s bathroom and he got a kick out of that. So we had a connection beyond the fact that I found his poetry stunning and which gave me license to be more free in my own work. I don’t have a lot of poetry idols, and my style is more informed by other styles of writing than it is by poets, so Adrian was not inconsequential to my later development as a poet. I can point to several poems in my two books that come from having sat at the feet of his books. When I went to Adrian’s page, I noticed he hadn’t posted anything since September, and then I saw in comments to his last post that people were offering condolences.
And that was how I found out that one of my few poetry gods had passed away.
Hold that thought, as I try to process what we keep calling disrespect in this MAGA face-off video. Disrespect suggests that the person offering it has enough knowledge of who or what they are offending to make it a conscious effort to strip away what respect the subject deserves. I am sure one or two basic levels of awareness were present in the brain of that miscreant child, but now all I want to know is what did his father or grandfather do while Vietnam was happening. What sacrifices has his family made that might embolden such sorely misplaced pride? Of course, sacrifice isn’t a currency being traded for the freedom to express one’s ignorance these days. The fact that a President Trump exists proves that you don’t have to have sacrificed anything to be able to engage in the American way of life or its resultant nightmares.
Hold that thought. Just hold it. Turn it over in your hand and ponder it for a while, the way it curves to your palm like a gun butt or a nightstick. Notice how easily it conforms to the action of your wrist when you wield and whip it, how it feels like air, less than air when you hold it up – not aiming, not meaning harm – just feeling it extend you. Look how the thought seems natural because at the end of the day, it is the real American Way. Not the promise, not the deal, not the dream, not the paperwork…the way it is. The way it has always been. It knows how to manipulate itself when you hold it like all good definitions. And when you say “American”, it means this. When you say “patriot”, it doesn’t look like a wizened indigenous man with wartime dreams and a drum for a voice. It looks like a white child in a hat, smirking at hundreds of years of resiliency in the actual face of America, not the field trip version. Isn’t that what we really mean when we say those things, if we’re honest?
Table that question while I tell you about anger. I did a social media search for Adrian C. Louis to see if anyone I knew had posted or mentioned his passing back in September, or since. No one I know posted about it. I went on Twitter and found a couple of references, but no real spread or outcry or wail. At first I was just mad at myself for having been so out of the loop but as I kept digging – kept HAVING to dig – I was becoming furious with the poetry world itself.
Two days after what seemed like the entire world was mourning the passing of poet Mary Oliver, I was mourning Adrian C. Louis by myself. Adrian was better than most poets, period, and no one I know either knew him or knew he died. He was not a minor poet. He had books and a film made from his work. He was a professor. He had accomplishments. He mattered. And yet, in all the years the poetry industry was holding up Sherman Alexie as the voice of not only his generation, but the entire indigenous poetry world, I was reading Adrian. When he died, I could find little to mark his passing. It is one thing to die and be forgotten. It is another for people to not know you died. And here I am, paying respects for him three months late and in the wake of a video of America – not a boy, not an America, but America by way of avatar – attempting to erase a man. The Venn diagram of indigenous erasure in so short a period of time was too much for me to process squarely. It all makes me cry and hate poets and fame and all of the things that we claim are important when, at the end of the day, if no one knows you died, does it mean you haven’t died or that you haven’t lived? Adrian lived, of that there is no question, but I am questioning his death when perhaps I should be questioning my life. After all, he lived and died and I was late but I hold him up in my work and now, in my heart. He never struck me as the kind of man who would ask for even that much of someone, but Lord knows he deserves it.
Now hold that thought as I show you some magic.
This is a poem by Adrian that fits this MAGA moment. Like all incredible poetry, it fits a moment even when its time and original subject has passed. This one fits the MAGA moment to a tee.
My pasty disciple
had never traveled
in the world of real
men & knew nothing
of a blood-gushing nose
given solely for a pale-eyed
stare so I punched him, hard
& somewhat metaphorically
& as he writhed upon the dirt
road, I oiled him kindly & then
helped him to his puzzled feet.
“Expect the unexpected, Judas,”
I said & he laughed with me, but
his laughter seemed so contrived
that I deemed it self-published sound.
– Collected in Random Exorcisms, 2016
Normally, I would implore you to listen to the most oppressed people among us to know what the world – your world – is capable of. Adrian’s work is full of that kind of insight, that tone that knows what America is about, the sigh that comes before the inevitable fight.
And yet, in reading that poem I am not entirely convinced that Adrian has left us. This is so on the money that I should watch those videos again to see if he is in the crowd, surrounded by those jamming, chanting Village of the Damned rejects, scribbling away and somehow sending the poem back to us, or whispering it into Nathan Phillips’ ear, not having died at all, if ever he could.