Everything Is In the Language We Use: A Review of Whereas by Layli Long Soldier

Emilia Phillips

Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2017. 120 pages. $16.00.

Brutalities attend the English language, attests Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, a collection of poetry that makes known the systemic violence against and cultural erasure of native tribes in the United States. In doing so, Long Soldier dismantles the language that has long justified and euphemized the violent actions perpetrated by the US government through restrictive legislation, broken treaties, and formal apologies, as well as its cultural “threat // of re- // ductive // [thinking].” Through her extended meditations and volatile forms, Long Soldier gestures at the divide possible and, in some cases, devastatingly realized between what’s said, what’s meant, and what’s enacted even today against native peoples by this oppressive and colonizing institution. The book is divided into two distinct parts that, in their arc, mimic the progression of a legislative argument—from Part I, “These Being the Concerns,” made up of personal and historical lyrics that establish the speaker’s motivations for and the urgency of this argument, to Part II, “Whereas,” a long poem that investigates how a complex peoplehood, its autonomous cultures, and its communities’ diverse socioeconomic challenges are misrepresented and simplified in American history and popular imagination.

The collection’s first poem features three untitled lines just above center on a blank page—an especially overwhelming presence due to the book’s wide format, a textual experience I can only allude to here. Long Soldier writes:

make room in the mouth
for grassesgrassesgrasses

For some readers, these lines initially recall the poetic tradition of “calling down the Muse,” but more moves in these “grasses” than mere lyric eurekas. For one, we must remember that the figures of the Muses, as a part of the Ancient Greek mythologies, are European, and any suggestion of their presence here feels like a kind of colonization of Long Soldier’s poetry. Rather, the susurrus of “grassesgrassesgrasses” abstracts the repeated word from the object it signifies, rendering it ambient, even incantatory, charged by breath. Long Soldier dismantles English by making it sound again, by returning it to noise.

Although the first poem is entirely in English, Long Soldier sets a place at the book’s table for the Lakota language on the next page. “Ȟe Sápa,” the Lakota word for the Black Hills, is a long poem in five distinct sections, each with a unique form on the page. The first section begins:

Ȟe is a mountain as hé is a horn that comes from a shift in the river, throat to mouth. Followed by sápa, a kind of black sleek in the rise of both.

Part semantic exploration, part imagistic conjuring, the poem attempts to render and rerender place through the language(s) used to describe it, while also acknowledging the way that memory—and, indeed, history, that public and violently political kind of memory—also changes it: “When it lives in past tense, one would say it was not Red Horn either; was not a rider on horse on mount and did not lead a cavalry down the river and bend, not decoy to ambush and knee buckle.” This poem likewise teaches the reader about how important textual formatting is to Long Soldier and the way that she approaches the act of making meaning. Here’s the opening of the poem’s second section, where we see the speaker meditating upon the English verb “drag”:

Because drag changes when spoken of in the past i.e. he was dragged or they drug him down the long road, the pale rock and brown. Down dust, a knocking path. And to drag has a begin point (though two are considered): begins when man is bound; begins also with one first tug.

The convention is that words from other languages should be italicized, thereby othering that language from that which is the language of the poem. Long Soldier reverses this convention, at least when she’s considering language semantics, so that English “is other, is invader. white.”

Long Soldier enters narratives of explicit violence against native peoples often through an investigation into language. In “38,” a poem about the execution of the “thirty-eight Dakota men who were executed by hanging, under orders from President Abraham Lincoln,” Long Soldier begins by saying how she will approach her subject matter through her language, her syntax specifically:

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.

These statements seem especially loaded when one thinks about alternative meanings for some of the diction here: “sentence” (a punishment defined by a court of law) and “capital” (related to the death penalty). There’s a relationship between the use of “correct” English and the control an English-speaking population has over another group, their history, and their lives.

Long Soldier goes on to tell the story of the Dakota 38, insisting that she’s “not a historian” and admitting, “I’ve had difficulty unraveling the terms of these treaties, given the legal speak and congressional language.” These documents, she writes, are “a muddy, switchback trail to follow.” This poem most explicitly makes its argument about language as a violence unto itself. “Everything is in the language we use,” she says, a statement that is at once an indictment and a moment of ars poetica, a provocation as much as a defense.

At nearly a hundred pages, the collection offers diverse dramatic situations, from a narrative about a baby’s birth to reading the Bible when the speaker “was not a Christian,” from “grass songs / a grass chorus moves shhhhh” to the well-meaning but ultimately privileged oblivion of white people that the speaker encounters on a trip to the airport:

WHEREAS we ride to the airport in a van they swivel their necks and shoulders around to speak to me sugar and lilt in their voices something like nurses their nursely kindness through my hair then engage me as comrades in a fight together. Well what we want to know one lady asks is why they don’t have schools there? Her outrage empathy her furrowed brow. There are schools there I reply. Grade schools high schools colleges. But why aren’t there any stores there? There are stores there.

It’s within a dual citizenship, as “a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe,” that Long Soldier’s Whereas also naturally lives—between the Lakota and English languages, between history and the present moment, between what’s said and unsaid, between poetic traditions. This book feels groundbreaking, from the way that it reckons with different notions about American identity and “ownership,” poetic and private autonomy, to the way that the poems assert themselves through language, grammar, and formatting. There is no way to accurately or adequately catalog all of the book’s moves, and it’s a collection that, like the language it takes on, rejects ease of meaning, of straightforwardness. In one of the “Whereas Statements,” Long Soldier asks, “how do I language a collision arrived at through separation?” And she answers this question in this, her incredible first book.

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