, Research Paper
Review of The Business of FancyDancing and Old
Shirts & New Skins
by Kent Chadwick
Sherman Alexie . . . is the Jack Kerouac of reservation life, capturing its comedy,
tragedy, and Crazy Horse dreams—those are "the kind that don’t come true."
The Business of Fancydancing and Old Shirts & New Skins are companion
collections, which introduce Alexie’s broad skill, incandescent style and moral vision.
These are Alexie’s first two works, the sure foundation of a significant addition to
Through a brilliant use of interlocking characters, themes and phrases, Alexie crafts The
Business of Fancydancing’s 40 poems and five stories into a seamless, searing tribute
to the people of the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene reservations.
Alexie’s writing builds upon the naked realism and ironic wonder of Blackfeet/Gros
Ventre writer James Welch . . . [and] adds a surrealist twist to convey comparable irony
in his poem "Evolution" . . . . By the end of the poem, Buffalo Bill has taken
"everything the Indians have to offer" and then changes the shop’s sign from
pawn dealer to "THE MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES." . . .
Alexie unflinchingly documents the "halfway" existence the reservation
offers. In the story "Gravity" he notes that it is to the reservation "The
Indian, no matter how far he travels away, must come back, repeating, joining the reverse
exodus." . . .
Comedy abounds, though, in the survival responses of Alexie’s characters. In logic that
Jorge Luis Borges would be proud of, Thomas Builds-the-Fire loses control of his daily
story in "Special Delivery," the very story that has bored everyone on the
reservation for 23 years. . . .
Then there’s love, if not exactly then approximately, and Alexie knows both. He can
write the impudent "Reservation Love Song":
I can meet you
in Springdale buy you beer
& take you home
in my one-eyed Ford ..
and the tender series of "Indian Boy Love Songs." Song #2 ends with this
Indian women, forgive me.
I grew up distant
and always afraid.
Alexie reaches his deepest and most complex emotions when the father appears in the
poems and stories. In the poem "Love Hard," the speaker wants to know why,
"my wild pony of a father never died, never left to chase the tail of some Crazy
Horse dream?" Hookum answers
‘Your father always knew how to love hard,’
you tell me, crawling over broken glass, surviving
house fires and car wrecks, gather ash
for your garden, Hookum, and for the old stories
where the Indian never loses . . . .
In the title poem, "The Business of Fancydancing," Alexie makes striking use
of the classical sestina form of Dante and the French Provencal troubadours, in which the
end words are repeated in different orders through the stanzas. Alexie turns the sestina
to hard-edged purposes, to cut away romanticism from the powwow dances and reveal the
young men’s hunger and hope. They travel with their friend who can fancydance, who is
money in their pockets. "It’s business, a fancydance to fill where it’s empty."
. . .
In [Old Shirts & New Skins this second book, Alexie continues to create a
Crazy Horse poetry, a poetry built of anger and imagination. . . . Alexie's Crazy Horse
poetry is a view of America from the grave, a grave that can't hold the dead. Crazy Horse
keeps coming back to life. "How do you explain the survival of all of us who were
never meant to survive?" Alexie asks in the final, crescendoing poem
"Shoes." Crazy Horse stood when Custer fell; Native Americans have survived, but
Alexie knows that they are just "extras" without billing in the film that is
That distance gives pain and clarity. In "Horses," an incantatory poem our
grandchildren will be reading in their school literary anthologies, Alexie measures the
pain in ponies: 1,000 ponies of the Spokane Indians shot by the US Cavalry and only one
survived, survived to bear a colt who won the Kentucky Derby with the stolen name,
Spokane. In "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," a wonderful double exposure of horror
film and horrible history, Alexie rends with clarity:
I have seen it
and like it: The blood,
the way like Sand Creek
even its name brings fear,
because I am an American
Indian and have learned
words are another kind of violence.
This poetry speaks with a bleeding tongue because, as Crazy Horse says, "your
language cuts / tears holes in my tongue." Alexie explores how the English he uses,
the English that supplanted the language the old women spoke, has always been a weapon of
war. He knows how far to trust it: "Because you gave something a name / does not mean
your name is important."
Crazy Horse poetry battles with the idolized biographies that pass for American
history. Columbus keeps sending postcards to Lester FallsApart, and he gets a few in
return. George Armstrong Custer indicts himself when given the chance to speak,
envisioning himself almost Christ chasing his twin, his "dark-skinned Lucifer,"
Crazy Horse, across the plains.
Crazy Horse poetry doesn't pander to sensitive, liberal readers. Alexie's "Nature
Poem" answers its epigraph - "If you're an Indian, why don't you write nature
poetry?"—with terse lines describing doomed Indian fire fighters caught in a
burning stand of pines. You want earth poetry? This is all that Alexie will provide:
she, who once was my sister
is now the dust
the soft edge of the earth
from "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
from Kent Chadwick, "Sherman Alexie's Crazy Horse Poetry." Washington Free
Press May 1993. http://www.speakeasy.org/wfp/02/Books.html
Reviews of The Summer of Black Widows and The
Business of Fancydancing
Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez
Alexie contrasts his most recent collections of poetry, The Summer of Black Widows,
with his earlier volume, The Business of Fancydancing. . . . The earlier collection
of stories and poems was very popular in Indian country, presenting direct and often raw
depictions of reservation life. Its realities are stark and troubling, guaranteed to
disturb any preconceived notions readers might have about Indian America. And the poems
and stories are told with engaging strategies of oral storytelling traditions, including
the humor and epigrammatic statements that sum up centuries of struggle. As Alexie writes
in the title poem, "A promise is just like money./ Something we can hold
. . ./ It’s business, a fancydance to fill where it’s empty." The pieces
in this book are orally driven and very accessible. In contrast, Alexie’s recent book
of poetry has been received more positively by the literary community than in Indian
country. He explains that the poems are more literary and less accessible to the broader
audience he wants to reach.
The title poem, "The Summer of Black Widows," is a tightly crafted work in
which Alexie uses repetition, meter, and alliteration to convey a story about the power to
survive and endure regardless of the extent to which people and cultures attempt to
silence them or twist them into lies. These are stories created by the woven webs of black
widow spiders. Alexie’s choice of naming these story weavers "black widows"
underscores the fact that the stories, like their creators, are venomous and dangerous.
And even though some might try to destroy ("poison" ) or contain
("capture") the stories, there is no power in this world ("nothing, neither
fire/ nor water, neither rock nor wind") that "can bring them
down"—not literally from the rafters where they are safely out of our reach, nor
metaphorically from their protected positions as harbingers of truth.
Alexie warns us that we fear the truths in these stories, so we try to capture them and
poison them. Like the "bundles of stories/ . . . Up in the corners of our old
houses," stories that previously fell like rain now must be protected from our reach
so that we will not destroy them. Perhaps this poem, in some ways, serves as a metaphor
for Alexie’s own writing as he grapples with the process of telling his stories and
truths in ways that compromise neither them, him, or his readers. Either way, the poem,
aimed at a literary audience, serves as a warning to his readers to respect both the
presences and absences of stories.
from Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez, "Fancy Dancer: A Profile of Sherman
Alexie." Poets and Writers January/February 1999: 54-59.
Robert L. Berner
In Sherman Alexie's title poem, black widow spiders, appearing on the Spokane
reservation in miraculous numbers, become a metaphor for stories. The summer is full of
spiders and thus rich in stories, and even after the spiders disappear, their evidence is
found in every corner of a place that remains rich in poetic possibility.
The Summer of Black Widows includes some of the most powerful poems in our
literature about the experience of living on an Indian reservation surrounded by the world
its tribe has lost. Consider three examples: a poem about Spokane Falls, "That Place
Where Ghosts of Salmon Jump," in which the loss of the salmon to urban and industrial
concrete relates to women mourning for children who cannot return home; "The
Exaggeration of Despair," a catalogue of horrific cases of social and cultural
disintegration; and "The Powwow at the End of the World," a denunciation of
crimes against the environment and against Alexie's tribe which succeeds as a poem even
though those who attempt to do this kind of thing usually fail.
Alexie shows a variety of other strengths as well. He is, for one thing, a richly comic
poet. . . . But as always in the greatest comic art, the humor that makes us laugh is
always underlaid with a sad wisdom. . . .
In this, as always in the best American Indian writing, its relation to American
culture as a whole is a primary subject; but Alexie also suggests that the influences are
mutual, and in "Tourists" he suggests just why America needs Indian
traditional tribal culture. One of the "tourists" is Marilyn Monroe, who, to
become a person, something more than a beautiful piece of female flesh created by popular
culture, comes to the reservation, where she is stripped by the women and led into a sweat
lodge to become one with them, to be at last healed and made whole again, a person rather
than a cultural artifact: "Finally, she is no more naked than anyone else."
In previous collections Alexie has earned an important position among American Indian
poets, but the quality of almost all the poems in The Summer of Black Widows
suggests that his significance now must be more broadly defined.
from Robert L. Berner, Review of The Summer of Black Widows. World Literature
Today 71 (1997): 430-31.
[On The Summer of Black Widows]
For prolific poet and novelist Sherman Alexie . . . "Indian" culture is not a
frozen set-piece, but a field of vital, co-mingling influences that includes playing
basketball, watching for Sasquatch or admiring Fred Astaire. . . . Moving among sites of
personal and historical tragedy, as well as joy (the Spokane reservation in Washington
State, Brooklyn’s F Train, Dachau), the first-person speaker of these poems is shadowed by
remembrance and loss: "On the top of Wellpinit mountain, I watch for fires, listen to
a radio powered by the ghosts of 1,000 horses, shot by the United States Cavalry a century
ago, last week, yesterday." While lacking the raffish elegance of Frank O’Hara
(though engaging elegies for James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are included here) and with the
acknowledged influence of Ted Berrigan, Alexie, at his best, opens to us the complexity
and contradiction of a contemporary multicultural identity. Repeatedly invoking the liar
paradox (perhaps because "Indians…don’t believe in autobiography"), Alexie
poses a question for all of us: "Do these confused prayers mean/ we’ll live on
another reservation/ in that country called Heaven?"
from Publishers Weekly 30 Sept. 1996: 82-83.
[Review of First Indian on the Moon]
Reading this latest offering of poetry and short prose pieces from Native American
writer Alexie (The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven), it’s easy to see why
his work has garnered so much attention. Working from a carefully developed understanding
of his place in an oppressed culture, he focuses on the need to tear down obstacles before
nature tears them down. Fire is therefore a central metaphor: a sister and brother-in-law
killed, a burnt hand, cars aflame. Tongue in cheek, Alexie inserts images from popular
songs and movies, and catalogues aspects of traditional reservation life that have been
sacrificed in America’s melting pot. "After 500 years of continuous lies / I would
still sign treaties for you," he says in one of this volume’s many love poems–a love
so powerful it threatens to engulf readers as well. Alexie renews the nearly forgotten
sense of language equaling power. And the language in these sequential works is flawless,
each section picking up from and expanding upon the previous one, poetry and prose working
naturally together. "[I]magination is all we have as defense against capture and its
inevitable changes," he writes. And he proves his point.
from Publishers Weekly 8 Nov. 1993: 70.
Review of First Indian on the Moon
By Scott Kallstrom
As with his earlier work, the thematic center of First Indian on the Moon lies
within modern Indian life in and around Spokane—the city and Indian Reservation–as
well as those areas in between. Unlike many of his predecessors–writers of the so-called
Native American Renaissance, including Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch and N. Scott
Momaday—Alexie . . . grounds his work nearly exclusively in the present, a world of
drive-ins and Laundromats, HUD housing and 7-11s, and, of course, bars with names like the
Breakaway Bar and the Powwow Tavern.
Yet throughout First Indian on the Moon, Alexie’s poetry and lyrical prose
continually "creates metaphors to compensate for what has been lost," the loss
of five hundred years that began with Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. Yet, despite the
dark and hopeless exterior of reservation life, poverty, alcoholism and powerlessness,
Alexie’s powerful voice goes beyond the pain and grief to those things which could not be
stolen; "smiles which are everything and a laughter that creates portraits in the
In what otherwise might be unbearably grim subject matter, Alexie’s uneasy yet honest
humor salvages what might otherwise be exhausted through repetition. The cast of
characters throughout this collection are as rich as any in literature, and even their
names, Dirty Joe, Ernie Game, Broken Nose, Little Dog and Lester FallsApart, reflect the
harshness or reservation life, while playfully hinting at an ironic sense of life that is
felt by both Victor, the narrator of most of these poems, and Alexie himself. The unifying
voice maintains this solemn, ironic humor that can laugh at the "stupid wonder of it
all," with the likes of Little Dog who "drowned when he passed out and fell face
down into a mud puddle, probably the only mud puddle left in that year of drought."
Lurking behind this uneasy humor, though, is an anger that most often resists leaping
directly onto the page, but sometimes escapes, as in the description of history and myth
in "A Reservation Table of Elements."
"Pick up a chair and smash it against the walls, swing
it so hard that your arms ache for days afterwards,
and when all you have left in your hands are splinters,
that’s what we call history. Pick up an aluminum can
and crush it in your fingers, squeeze it until blood is
drawn, and when you cannot crush the can into any
other shape, that’s what we call myth."
And although history is not immediately present within Alexie’s work, it is in this
anger, and the cruel images of Custer and Columbus, and even in the magical appearances of
Crazy Horse, that history is expressed, and with these poems and sketches Alexie is
Ultimately, though, as in the opening poem, "Influences," the body of
Alexie’s work "is not about sadness" but "the stories / imagined / beneath
the sleeping bags / between starts / to warm up the car . . . stories / I told my sisters
/ to fill those long hours waiting outside the bar, waiting for my mother, my father to
knock on the window." And these are stories which are sure to be repeated for
generations to come
from Scott Kallstrom, Review of First Indian on the Moon. Sycamore Review
6.1 (1994). http://www.sla.purdue.edu/sycamore/v61-b1.html
Review of Water Flowing Home
by Kelley Blewster
In truth, Sherman Alexie’s literary output can’t be circumscribed by a label focusing
on its racial themes. An elegant little chapbook of love poems titled Water Flowing
Home (1996) by itself belies such a description:
but I have salmon blood
from my mother and father
and always ignore barriers
and bridges, only follow
this simple and genetic map
that you have drawn
in my interior, this map
hat always leads back
to that exact place
where you are
(from "Exact Drums")
Accessible, lyrical, heartfelt, these are the kind of poems that do what poetry’s meant
to do: evoke and recall emotion rather than simply play with the language. No, Alexie
covers much, much richer terrain than just race relations; but it would be nearly
impossible for readers to come away from most of his works without feeling more
self-conscious about the color of their skin. Poems such as "Exact Drums" offer
a moment of grace amidst the gravity of much of his subject matter — they are welcomed
like the release of a pent-up breath.
from Kelley Blewster, "Tribal Visions." Biblio 4.3 (March 1999): 22.
Review of Old Shirts and New Skins
Alexie . . . here emerges as a Native poet of the first order. He captures the full
range of modern Native experience, writing both with anger and with great affection and
humor. Detailing the continuing deprivation and colonialism, the poet pointedly asks,
"Am I the garbageman of your dreams?" and defines Native "economics":
"risk" is playing poker with cash and then passing out at powwow. Focusing on
the Leonard Peltier case, Alexie exposes the ineffectualness of both white Indian-lovers
and some Native leaders in "The Marion Brando Memorial Swimming Pool":
"Peltier goes blind in Leavenworth. . . / and Brando sits, fat and naked, by the
Pacific ocean. There was never / any water in the damn thing." General Custer is
allowed to give an accounting of himself, as Alexie links genocide of America’s indigenous
peoples with Viemain, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and other acts of warfare and
destruction. Alexie writes comfortably in a variety of styles. Many of the poems turn on
grim irony, putting the author himself in the traditional role of the trickster. Adrian
Louis provides a powerful foreword, and Elizabeth Woody’s moody illustrations add to the
from Publishers Weekly 1 Feb. 1993: 87.