Reviews Of Sherman Alexie Poetry Collections Essay

, 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,

, 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

American literature.

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


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.

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

rewriting myth.

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).

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

volume’s impact.

from Publishers Weekly 1 Feb. 1993: 87.