Thursday Poem: 38 by Layli Long Soldier

I do not know how to introduce this poem. In fact, I’m not even sure how to talk about it at all, to provide my usual preamble. I’ve decided, then, to take my tack from the work itself and state things simply and plainly. This is called “38” and it is by Layli Long Soldier. It is a poem about the Dakota 38, men who were executed by hanging on the order of President Lincoln for their part in the Sioux Uprising. It is as much non-fiction as it is poetic, no matter the lengths Layli disavows the latter element, the creative license she has taken.

In my last Thursday Poem entry, I spoke about Carolyn Forché’s ‘The Colonel’, and poetry of witness, the expression she coined. How it was an example of the power of reportage, of the basic bleached language of journalism employed with brutal impact. Even her form, the prose poem, the block of text, was a way of disavowing the very act of poeticising a moment of significance, a moment of horror – political, social, domestic. In 38, Layli takes a different approach. Her sentences are spare and clean and separate, divided by plenty of white space, so it could easily be mistaken for a poem at first glance. It may look the part, she is saying, but it is altogether different to what you are expecting. The form is a lie.

It begins:

Here, the sentence will be respected.

I will compose each sentence with care by minding what the rules of writing dictate.

For example, all sentences will begin with capital letters.

That’s an ambiguous enough opening, which we’ll get back to in a little bit, but immediately the poet is telling us to pay attention to the language being employed – her focus is clinical to an almost comical degree. Language matters. This looks like a poem but it is not.

You may like to know, I do not consider this a “creative piece.”

More than that, the poet is actively commenting on her process as she goes. She is taking you along for the ride, so to speak, almost as a reflexive act to preempt guilt — look, I am not doing this for art, she seems to say, look, see my thoughts as I go. See the lie, if lie there is. Many artists feel this way, wary of turning pain into art, be it historical or personal or a mesh of both. Generally, I’d say it’s always a good idea to interrogate your motivations for tackling a certain subject, and this is as good a way as any of dealing with that – incorporating it into the work. However, I do think this act of meta-writing is taken a little too far at times, but the moments when it is pulled off to great affect make it all worthwhile. Consider:

The hanging took place on December 26th, 1862—the day after Christmas.

This was the same week that President Lincoln signed The Emancipation Proclamation.

In the preceding sentence, I italicize “same week” for emphasis.

(I had to bold it, since block quotes italicise everything, but you get the point). Here, that meta-commentary provided by the last sentence is seemingly pointless. Later in the poem, however, we get the pay-off to this set-up:

The Dakota people were starving.

The Dakota people starved.

In the preceding sentence, the word “starved” does not need italics for emphasis.

You know, it is somewhat ironic, given the self-analysis employed within the poem, that I am couching it within my own examination. Nonetheless, I think both our points come across. Hers, with the unexpected twist that commentary can provide, giving added depth to a line, forcing you to return to it and read it again. Mine, that although some elements of it can seem unnecessary, Layli is supremely aware of what she’s doing.

These amended and broken treaties are often referred to as The Minnesota Treaties.

The word Minnesota comes from mni which means water; sota which means turbid.

Synonyms for turbid include muddy, unclear, cloudy, confused and smoky.

Everything is in the language we use.

So, let me return to the opening line, and the meaning of this poem, the intersection of form and function. Remember, the poem opens: “Here, the sentence will be respected.” In direct contrast to the many broken treaties referenced in the poem, and indeed in history – here, her language matters. In direct contrast to the legalese and the deliberately convoluted nonsense employed in contracts, here, her words are simple. Her meaning plain. She will tell you what she is doing and why, as she does so.

It reminds me, in fact, of an Indigenous author I interviewed recently. She was talking about governments and said that – in response to their fickleness and the seeming whimsy that saw laws change constantly and old agreements get thrown out – Indigenous elders always had the same response: ‘Our law is strong.’ Meaning, unchanged. Meaning, what we say matters. This poem, every word and every line, shouts this aloud.

If that’s all it did, it would still be an excellent poem. If all it did were teach us about a moment in history too often overlooked, it would still be an excellent poem. That it does this, and is emotionally evocative as well, unfolding at last in those truly spectacular last lines, makes it a remarkable poem and well worth your time.

Go. Read it.

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