by Erin Watson
Comprising selections from nearly 40 years of her poetry, Linda Hogan’s collection Dark. Sweet. is a comprehensive introduction to this Chickasaw poet. Hogan’s Native American identity and her work on wildlife rehabilitation shape her poems’ themes: the natural world, motherhood, political resistance, and indigenous identity.
To talk about the politics in this book, which are inextricable from its other themes, it first needs to be said that 2014, the year of Dark. Sweet.’s publication, was a hell of a year, politically, in America. Massive antiracist protests seem to be the only reasonable response to the interlocking systems of oppression that have always dictated the lives and deaths of nonwhite Americans. There’s no time like now to start paying close attention to marginalized voices; to see in their fullness the lives that are easy to ignore from the blinkered comfort of whiteness.
Throughout Hogan’s work, deep and minutely observed connections between human and animal life explode the assumed boundaries between species. In doing so, her poems set up the reminder that all forms of otherness should be questioned. The first poem in the collection, “Turtle,” from Hogan’s 1978 book Calling Myself Home, contains an image of women who are also turtles, traveling back through time:
We should open his soft parts,
pull his shells apart
and wear them on our backs
like old women who can see the years
back through his eyes.
Multiple boundaries dissolve: between the turtle and its “soft parts,” the women and the turtle, the poem’s time and the past. The repeated “back” reinforces the connection between time and the body.
“The Ritual Life of Animals,” a poem from the 1993 collection The Book of Medicines,” returns to these dissolving species borders, opening:
The animal walks beside me,
in a sacrificial dance.
It lies down on the land
as I walk upright
We lie down
In the long nights of their waking,
the world of animal law,
the house of pelvic truth.
The inversion is clear: the human is still animal, still bound by its law.
While making my way through Dark. Sweet. for this review, I also picked up Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Sometimes everything you read seems to be about everything else you read, particularly in this trying, inescapable political landscape. The body moving through space, time, and memory. The body in history. The body of an American woman.
“You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you.”
And from Hogan, in her introduction to the 2012 monologue/poem Indios:
“It is set in the timelessness of our lives. When we say that we crossed over the Trail of Tears, we did. It is in our Native memory. Time is different in the cell structure of bodies created from and on this continent.”
For both of these poetic speakers, time is stored in the body: in the body of the individual and in the collective body.
Indios stood out as the most engaging section of Hogan’s collection, for its hybrid form and for its attention to narrative, mythmaking detail. It retells the Medea story in a prison interview. The introduction announces the poem’s intent to serve both as a performance piece and as a long poem to be read silently or aloud, “to be thought about or wept over.” This dual purpose refuses the typical boundaries placed around poetry as a genre. In its hybridity, Indios also resembles Citizen, a collection that includes essay, art criticism, and cultural commentary despite its subtitle, “An American Lyric.” There is space for American lyrics to challenge these boundaries, and it’s exciting to see contemporary poets of color seizing the opportunities.
Hogan has received a Pulitzer nomination for her fiction, and the narrative thread in Indios compels, even as the thematic content gets somewhat oversold. Lines like “It turns out I am their savage, after all,” along with the repeated image of a house of cards that ends the last two sections of this poem, diminished some of its impact by relying on received metaphors and explanations. More inventive moments, ones that force questions of identity, are much stronger, as when the poem’s speaker tells her interviewer:
I was never a woman.
I was a city.
I was a country,
this ordinary woman you see before you.
I have more freedom in prison
Than when I was a country and still just a girl.
This “and” surprises – it does much more to illustrate the burden of expectation on a Native American girl attempting to assimilate than some of the poem’s more outwardly dramatic moments. To the speaker, there’s no contradiction in being both a country and a girl, but there’s also no freedom in this hybrid identity. (I also found resonant echoes of Sara Woods’ poem “City-Girl” in these lines.)
Hogan’s poetry is most compelling in its refusal: refusing to tell you what you expect, what you want to hear. Her speakers refuse to play to cultural tropes of the “noble savage” and draw the reader’s attention to this refusal.
The new poems in the collection begin strong in this mode of refusal: “If you think I am going to write about someone’s god, / that’s a mistake. I am sitting by wild strawberries…” opens “The Unseen.” But the collection closes by writing about someone’s god, after all, in “After Silence: Return”:
When Buddha went out on his own,
when Jesus remained in the wilderness,
did they learn the living web of the world?
While I always appreciate when a collection of poems concludes with questions, creating space for the reader to consider her own answers, it seemed that the answer here is too strongly implied. It’s clear that the speaker wants us to live more harmoniously in “the living web of the world.”
Throughout Dark. Sweet., I wanted to be trusted as a reader to do more interpretive work. At the same time, I examined my impulse to resist this didactic tone. It’s a resistance connected to the assumption that my way of doing interpretive work is valid for these poems. I challenged myself to read them differently, to be open to what Hogan is saying about her identity and her world.
The new poems are divided into four sections: “The Unseen,” “History,” “Sweetness,“ and “The Remedies.” These sections reinforce themes Hogan has returned to throughout her career, including motherhood and connections to the natural world.
Sweetness is a quality of the natural world, as in the ending of the title poem:
that dark, sweet moment
in the splendid planetary breathing
where I was walking on the path
here, near the water,
that brief time, everything as I said,
This moment of wildness and darkness is concentrated like a syrup. The poem describes walking in the woods during a total eclipse. Ending with “everything as I said” reminds me of the speaker in Robert Hass’s poem “The Problem of Describing Color” who repeats “if I said” with different ways of showing a color, finally just announcing “Sudden, red.”
There’s a narrative authority in these ending lines to “Dark. Sweet: The Full Eclipse” that’s demonstrated more subtly elsewhere in the collection, as in the speaker who says you’re mistaken to think she’ll write about someone’s god, or other speakers asking questions. “Can you keep me / here? Can you unharm me?” ends “Home in the Woods,” which appears in the “History” section. This variety in tone, from contemplative to instructive, moves the collection along briskly.
Despite my occasional reservations with her work, Hogan has a strong poetic voice, and Dark. Sweet. offers a worthy introduction to her work. Its recurring, evolving themes make it excellent for browsing. Hogan’s work adds a naturalist and often spiritual perspective to the contemporary lyric.
Dark. Sweet. is available from Coffee House Press
Erin Watson is a Southern person living in Chicago and on the internet at www.torridly.org. Her poems appear in Anthology of Chicago and in three self-published chapbooks. She was a finalist for the 2014 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award and one of New City’s best emerging poets in Chicago in 2014.