Exploring Modern Magical Realism

Poetry Is a Way of Reaching Out
to What Is Reaching for You ¹

b y   m i c h e l l e   c l i f f   f o r   c e n t r u m

Editor's Note: At the Port Townsend Writers Conference last July, author and intellectual Michelle Cliff presented a lecture on Native American poetry before a broad audience of poets, story authors and educators. While the lecture was not explicitly about literary magical realism, it spoke to many of the concerns of those writers whose voices are usually pushed to the fringes of culture. Magical realism as a literary structure is often a necessary and viable option for these writers, many who are still working toward the "de-colonization" of their cultural identity through the writing of their own literature. Margin is proud to reprint her thought-provoking lecture here for our readers, with hopes they will be equally inspired by Cliff's sharp insight.


To begin: Before Contact, there were in the Western Hemisphere of this planet an estimated two thousand language groups.

When a people are annihilated where does their sound go? Where does the noise of their poetry escape to?

Whose dreams are cut into that rock—a spiral, a flute-player, a snakebird?

I can stare into the landscape of this country and not know what I am looking at.

I am watching the news on Memorial Day 1994. Amid the excitement of the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, the spectacle of now-old men scaling the bluffs along Omaha Beach, the anchorman offers his viewers a surprise. A new head is being dynamited into Mount Rushmore. The head is Crazy Horse; he will be completed by the turn of the century. Any irony—that this is Memorial Day, that the Omaha were among the two thousand, that Crazy Horse was one Indian who refused to have his image captured by the whiteman, that in Indian eyes the blasting into this particular landscape is sacrilege—is lost on this anchorman. The camera pans to the almost-finished head, where a generic redman looks out over the Black Hills. Ersatz Crazy Horse might as well be on a baseball cap, a football helmet, in the doorway of a tobacconist, cast in iron, as hood ornament. To add insult to injury, look who he's got for company.

Actual Crazy Horse believed that the world which is apparent to us, the world to which we wake, is not the real world at all. He believed that to enter the real world one had to enter one's dreams. He took the name Crazy Horse for himself because in the real world of his dreaming the horses were out-of-control, wild, unbroken—crazy.

Dreaming may be a glimpse into the Great Silence out of which we come, it may be a way into memory, past. Dreaming may be a way to wrap the imagination around an unimaginable history. The Indian writer needs to reckon with the past again and again. Re-enacting the past, descending into it, is part of the process of decolonization. To confront this history means only survival.

Simon Ortiz notes:

"There are still those pressures on Indian people to hide and not allow ourselves to see…. I know that when you tell the truth it's a political act. When you acknowledge history and point out such things as Sand Creek—maybe nobody wants to hear about Sand Creek—it is a political statement and the truth. It is necessary to talk about it because it is a political statement and the truth. It is necessary to talk about it because it's a part of how we are going to live, how we are going to fulfill ourselves on that journey…. If we don't, there will always be a black blot, a dark spot in our minds. There will be a continued sickness if you don't talk about it." (2)

When Ortiz casts his imagination back to Sand Creek, he places himself in the landscape and collapses time. Sand Creek is now and he is there.

At the Salvation Army
a clerk
caught me
among old spoons
                     and knives,
                     sweaters and shoes.
I couldn't have stolen anything;
my life was stolen already.
In protest though,
I should have stolen.
My life. My life.

She caught me;
Carson caught Indians,
secured them with his lies.
Bound them with his belief.

After winter,
our own lives fled.

I reassured her
what she believed.
Bought a sweater
and fled.

I should have stolen.
My life. My life.
                                         ("Sand Creek")

Édouard Glissant speaks of the necessity that the writer engaged in a political struggle of imagination introduce temporarily a form of despair which is not resignation. Exhausting this despair… means reopening the wound… Therein does not lie pessimism, but the ultimate resource of whoever writes and wishes to fight on his [her] terrain. (3)

Sherman Alexie does what Glissant suggests. Alexie lays bare a terrain of reservation housing, commodity food, 7-11s, fancydancing, pick-up trucks, tequila, IHS casualities. He joins past with present, as does Ortiz, as do many Indian writers. Crazy Horse works in a 7-11, in Alexie's "Crazy Horse Dreams," returns to the reservation from Vietnam:

Crazy Horse asks the Bartender for a beer
free, because he's some color of hero
although he doesn't know if it's red or white
because there are no mirrors in the bush,
only eyes tracing paths through the air
eyes tearing into the chest, searching
for the heart. Crazy Horse sells his medals
when he goes broke, buys a dozen beers
and drinks them all, tells the Bartender
he's short on time now
                                         ("War All the Time")

Eyes in a firefight searching to tear the heart from the chest, searching for the heart buried in the frozen earth of Wounded Knee where ghostdancers waited for his spirit to rise in the spring.

Crazy Horse tries to sell a pint of blood. The nurse in charge of such transactions interviews him:

across from the white nurse holding pen and paper and she asks me
my name and I tell her
Crazy Horse and she asks my birthdate and I tell her it was probably
June 26 in 1876 and then she asks my ethnic origin and I tell her I'm an
Indian or Native American
depending on your view of historical accuracy and she asks me
my religious preference and I tell her I prefer to keep my religion entirely independent
of my economic activities
and then she asks me how many sexual partners I've had and
I say one or two
depending on your definition of what I did to Custer and then
she puts aside her pen and paper
and she gives me the most important question she asks me
if I still have enough heart…
                                        ("Giving Blood")

In the next Crazy Horse Dream, Alexie goes deeper into the despair of which Glissant speaks, stripping away the humor he uses in some of the other Dreams, stripping the wound to the heart.

I walk into the bar, after being gone for a while, and it's empty. The Bartender tells me all the Indians are gone, do I know where they went? I tell him I don't know, and I don't know, so he gives me a beer just for being Indian, small favors, and I wonder where all the Skins disappeared to, and after a while, I leave, searching the streets, searching storefronts, until I walk into a pawn shop, find a single heart beating under glass, and I know who it used to belong to, I know all of them.
                                        ("Pawn Shop")

Under severe conditions of existence the movement into dream, especially if dreaming is a behavior and resource of the people, may accelerate, and the people may find themselves more and more in dreamtime in order to endure—though not escape—the harsher, unreal world. The blankets of the Navaho people became more complex in design during the decade of the long walk, in the 1860s, when the Navaho were imprisoned in Bosque Redondo. One of their responses to the severity of the forced marches and imprisonment on the reservation was to expand the vision of the blanket, and their weaving exploded into beauty. This is dreaming as an act of survival. The dream gains a concreteness, something to hold. Something literally to wrap oneself in.

Dream may signify the beginning and the end of human life. Release. The following is a poem by Wendy Rose.


Truganinny, the last of the Tasmanians, had seen the stuffed and mounted body of her husband and it was her dying wish that she be buried in the outback or at sea for she did not wish her body to be subjected to the same indignities. Upon her death, she was nevertheless stuffed and mounted and put on display for over eighty years.
—Paul Coe, Australian Aboriginal Activist, 1972

You will need
to come closer
for little is left
of this tongue
and what I am saying
is important.

I am
the last one.

I whose nipples
wept white mist
and saw so many
dead daughters
their mouths empty and round
their breathing stopped
their eyes gone gray

Take my hand
black into black
as yellow clay
is a slow meld
to grass gold
of earth

and I am melting
back to the Dream

Do not leave
for I would speak,
I would sing
another song.

Your song.

They will take me.
Already they come;
even as I breathe
they are waiting for me
to finish my dying.

We old ones
take such
a long time.

take my body
to the source of night,
to the great black desert
where Dreaming was born.
Put me under
the bulk of a mountain
or in distant sea,
put me where
they will not
find me.

II/Diversity Is to Sameness as Chaos Is to Order, as Crazy Horse Is to a Conquistador, as the Petroglyph Is to Mount Rushmore

On the American continents the Native writer, the Indian artist, inhabits what Glissant has called a cultural hinterland, an outpost of imagination at the edge of the mainstream. This cultural hinterland is dense, possessed of a Diversity which has always threatened the European, white version of things: for example, the sense of what makes art and who may be an artist; what makes poetry; what makes prose; what conditions are necessary for artistic creation; what controls may be applied to language, image, sound; who's available for colonization. (4)

Diversity is the basis of original American culture. This terrifies the European, the colonizer, who views Diversity as chaotic, disorderly, threatening, strange: a cultural landscape of crazy horses. The rattlesnake, unique to the New World becomes its cultural signifier, untameable, dangerous, with its patterned, camouflage skin, its noise— sudden and threatening.

Diversity celebrates wildness, disorder; it's dynamic, constantly changing. Diversity makes room. Cacophony is at home on the range: the noise made by two thousand language groups, two thousand ways of entering dreams.

The European worships Sameness. Sameness is his comfort; it makes the world a less frightening place, and places him at the center of it. Sameness leads to an ordered existence and mistakes itself for universality. Sameness requires, as Glissant puts it, the flesh of the world to feed its claim.

When the European encounters the Indian, he banishes Indian culture to the edges of the American continents. He relocates it to a reserved place. While the European seems to know no bounds, he is adept at boundaries. In a place outside Cheyenne, Wyoming called Little America (after Admiral Byrd's landfall at the South Pole), in a gift shop, I saw a piece of wood with several types of barbed wire attached to it. A souvenir, it bore the legend, The wire that fenced the West. Nearby, a baby rattler was encased inside a lucite paperweight. The phrase cultural hinterland becomes literal as well as metaphoric. The European tells the Indian not only is his culture savage, he himself, she herself, are, and both are vanishing even as we speak.

As the Indian was displaced, declared vanishing, a Diversity of image and idea was erased and painted over, whitewashed, while ideas and images hostile to Indian culture, pre-Contact American culture, were deployed across the continent, like the missiles deployed in the silos that dot the American prairie.

III/Everything has a quantum interconnectedness

The Indian becomes American ghost. American trademark. American billboard. Indian becomes missing link: somehow closer to paleolithic man than anyone else. The Indian as witness to prehistory; which makes one ask: whose history? The Indian as lone rider, painted on velvet at the end of the trail.

The Indian as acquiescent to white supremacy. The Indian as wily. The Indian as innocent.

The Indian as silent witness. The Indian as drunk, his spirit lost in spirits, his dreaming lost in blackout. The Indian as F.A.S. mother, her babies speechless and slow. Shall we round up all the pregnant Indian women?

The Indian crowding the ridge in the imagination of John Ford.

The Indian being sterilized without her consent at the I.H.S. clinic.

Then, always, the Indian as poet, singer, male and female. The Indian poet crafting what Kamau Brathwaite calls nation language, the language, the poetry emerging from underneath, outside, from where it's not supposed to come.

"The other thing about nation language is that it is part of what may be called total expression…. The oral tradition… makes demands not only on the poet but also on the audience to complete the community: the noise and sounds that the poets make are responded to by the audience and are returned to him [her]. Hence we have the creation of a continuum where the meaning truly resides. And this total expression comes about because people live in the open air, because people live in conditions of poverty, because people come from a historical experience where they had to rely on their own breath patterns rather than on paraphernalia like books and museums. They had to depend on immanence, the power within themselves, rather than the technology outside themselves." (5)

Too often the people of which Brathwaite speaks would become marginalia in books, exhibits in museums. Better to stay in the open air.

Joy Harjo, in a poem set among a group of prisoners in Anchorage:

And I think of the 6th Avenue jail, of mostly native
and Black men, where Henry told about being shot at
eight times outside a liquor store in L.A., but when
the car sped away he was surprised he was alive,
no bullet holes, and eight cartridges strewn
on the sidewalk
                     all around him.
Everyone laughed at the impossibility of it,
but also the truth. Because who would believe
the fantastic and terrible story of all of our survival
those who were never meant
                     to survive?

The sound of the story, the sound of the gunfire in the story, the sounds of the men in the room, the telling by Harjo of the story, the making of the poem, and the reading of it, are all part of what Brathwaite calls nation language.

Those who originate in the Third World, whether inside or outside the United States, are weary of the evaluation of "oral tradition," by western measure. Nation language is a better term for the interrelationship between story, image, voice, memory; nation language is an active term, where oral tradition is descriptive. Oral tradition, with its sense of communality, the noise it represents, is always judged as less than written tradition; it's not even in the same league. But because art, like Harjo's poem, may originate in the noise of common experience, because it may need that experience in order to exist in the first place, does not mean that the poet does not possess a distinctive voice, and does not mean that each member of the group, each one of these men in the Anchorage jail, does not remain an individual, adding his own story, voice, image, memory—his immanence—to the poet's own. Diversity.

Nation language means also the honoring of the ordinary, the integration of art, the artist into the community. Art becomes an ordinary thing. Poetry takes as its subject everything, everyone. As Neruda spoke of a poetry as broad as the earth is broad. A poetry of the impurity of the body, rather than a "pure" poetry.

Duane Niatum speaks of the fragmentation of contemporary art with

"so many holes they can't be filled in by the imagination of the observer… it is not the same as the oral tradition. The oral tradition believed in the closing of the circle, the wholeness, that value, that social and aesthetic value was an absolute necessity for anything to be exchanged."

Simon Ortiz speaks of the Indian sense of art as a part of ordinary life, where in the outside world

"Art is something extracurricular. Art is something you hang up on the wall. You can enjoy it only if you can afford it. That's a separation from reality. The idea becomes: I don't have time to appreciate art, I don't have time to appreciate poetry, much less write it…. [Poetry is] suspect because it has nothing, supposedly, to do with your real life. Knowledge and intellect and aesthetic tastes are over here, removed, somewhere else, far removed…. I think the fact that Indian people are very artistic people… is evidence of art being part of life and not being separated. The act of living is art."

Linda Hogan speaks of poetry:

"… most Indians know time and space well enough from the heart to know that life is for living. Because we are short in our span here and we are not the most significant of lives on earth. We share the planet with plants and animals equal to ourselves, and we are small in the universe. So the daily strivings fall into place. I feel that poetry is a process of uncovering our real knowledge. To manipulate the language merely via the intellect takes away the strength of the poem."

A worldview that does not elevate the human above all forms of life is a worldview that is able to understand that art is an ordinary human activity, accessible and necessary. And if something is accessible and ordinary it does not follow that it is simplistic; it may still hold an appreciation for the mysteries of existence, a sense of awe in the face of them.

Lance Henson explores the nature of the whirlwind, "a microcosmic reflection of the universe."

hi vo di das so

whirlwinds of light

the earth's open hand is spinning them

the whirlwind is an ancestor

returned to look at you

a whirlwind is a red spider the white man
calls dust devil
because the white man said it
it became so

the whirlwind is the mirror of the great mystery
caught in the eye of the startled rabbit

whirlwinds of light

the earth's open hand is spinning them

A microcosm of the history of the New World as well. The red spider, spinner, renamed, demonized.

Roberta Hill Whiteman on quantum interconnectedness:

"I sense that Indian people have an awareness of… a different sort of time and a different sort of space…. [T]his connection of a moving, living, and alive time, an alive space, a sense of everything being alive is so much a part of what I know, what I sense, and I find it in a lot of Indian writers and a lot of Indian poets…. [O]ne of the connections that I sense is one which I find in a lot of contemporary writing on physics…. There's a man by the name of Bell, Bell's theorem that just came out in 1965. What he says is that everything has a quantum interconnectedness. Which is something Indian people have been saying all along. That things are instantaneous. That space between stars is not just empty space, that there's really no such thing as empty space, that it's all filled with something, dust or energy or whatever you want to call it. Indian people have an awareness of the earth and of the universe."

IV/"I have balanced my bones between the petroglyph and the mobile home"—Wendy Rose

Everything is contiguous. Everything is connected in time, space. No boundaries. The petroglyph coexists with the mobile home.

Gerald Vizenor, "Auras on the Interstate"

follow the truckroutes
homewardbound in darkness

noise tired
from the interstates

trucks whine through our families
places of conception

governments raze
half the corners we have known

houses uprooted
sacred trees deposed
municipal machines
plow down our generation vines
tribal doorsteps

condominium cultures
foam low
stain the rivers overnight

thin auras
hold our space in dreams
cut the interstates
from the stoop
bedroom window ruins

noise tired
we are laced in dark arms
until morning

The interstates slice relentlessly across the continent. Nothing sacred in their path. In almost every line in this poem the past and present witness each other. Contact, the collision of the natural and the technological, is an ongoing thing. The concept of a world where time and space flow into each other is interrupted by the concept of a world of boundaries, from which the only release is into dream, immanence.

Glissant believes that the western notion of realism—"the theory or technique of literal or 'total' representation"—is

"not inscribed in the cultural reflex of African or American peoples…. The misery of our lands is not only present, obvious. It contains a historical dimension (of not obvious history) that realism alone cannot account for." (6)

Indeed. Landscape in Indian writing is alive, is character. Landscape has dream. Spirit. Landscape drowns in history, remembers.

Whitemen entered the landscape of Linda Hogan's ancestors.

And the men so quietly moved
black walnut trunks
to the edge of the world,
transformed the dark wood
into the sleek handles of rifles.

Trees whose wood flash
light. Trees, beautiful trees
who can kill a man
like the fallen wings of crows.

Landscape is as alive as the human beings who inhabit it. Again, Glissant:

"The individual, the community, the land are inextricable in the process of creating history. Landscape is a character in this process. Its deepest meanings must be understood." (6)

And with these meanings one must reckon with damage, violence, what Glissant calls the "misery of our lands." As writers it is our task to translate the landscape.

What happens when the trunks of black walnut trees become gunstocks? To the trees themselves? To the people on whom these guns are trained, witnessing

Vacant spaces where the dark
vertebraes of trees
pushed sugar
rising up from trunks.

On the American continent we are poised at the edge of something. The past crowds the present, future.

Linda Hogan:

"All cruelty is needless. All fighting…. Now do we need to build real estate in the Everglades or on the migration lands or drill the earth? We have everything available to us for full, good lives, for peace. We must just simply step into it…. I just started thinking that being silent was in some way not being honest and that I did not want to be silent about the things that were very important and that our survival is very important. We've gone on—this progression is a very straight line into total destruction, and we're just on the border now. Like the earth is square again and we stand on her edge."

The poet speaks not only to Indian survival, but to the survival of the rest of us.


(1) Title quote from Simon Ortiz, in Survival This Way, Joseph Bruchac, ed., University of Arizona Press, 1987.

(2) The Sand Creek Massacre of November 27, 1884, in which American soldiers murdered and mutilated hundreds of Cheyenne men, women, and children as they waited for word from the governor of the Colorado Territory to whom the Cheyenne had petitioned for peace. In a precaution Chief Black Kettle had raised the white flag over the camp. See Helen Hunt Jackson, A Century of Dishonor, Roberts Brothers, 1885.

(3) Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse, University of Virginia, 1989, p. 104.

(4) The capitalization of Diversity and its opposite Sameness is Glissant's. See Caribbean Discourse, p. 97.

(5) Kamau Brathwaite, "History of the Voice," Roots, University of Michigan, 1993, p. 273.

(6) Glissant, Caribbean Discourse, p. 105; 105-6.

The words of the poets are from Joseph Bruchac, ed., Survival This Way, University of Arizona Press, 1987.



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