Why I Chose Linda Hogan’s Indios for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club

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Rumpus Poetry Book Club Board Member Camille Dungy on why she chose Linda Hogan’s Indios as March’s selection.

Sometimes a book teaches me more than I knew I needed to know. Linda Hogan’s Indios is such a book. The horror here is greater than I would have ever imagined, but Hogan has written this long poem with such compassion and grace that I could not help but read on and on. And as I read, I learned an ancient story. Though the old tale had been warped and changed and watered down, Hogan’s Indios reclaimed and renewed it, reinforcing a true history and giving me new language to describe an old grief.

In Indios, without dulling any edges or softening the impact, Linda Hogan re- presents the awful beauty of the Medea story. She reframes its lessons, returning to an original story and thus redefining what it is we know. In the Author’s Preface, Hogan reveals the source of the story she conveys in her long poem:

“When I researched the story I found that her children–
not the ones of the later rendering of the Greek tragedy-
-had been stoned by those who feared a mixed-blood
child would come to power in their land. But the story of
that time was changed for the sake of politics so that in
the Greek tragedy Medea, the queen was recorded as the
one who killed her children.” (XV)

Hogan reframes the Medea narrative, using as her source the unpolished horror that originally seeded the myth. In doing so, she releases the original hero from a prison of neglect.

When I have loved the Medea story it is because of the way it reveals the depths to which we might sink in order to reap revenge, and the heartache that might come of such anger. No one was clean in the tale, and no one got out unscathed. Medea was the opposite of the Disney narratives that were vying to be the dominate narratives of my youth. Medea, with its horror and its unbridled hatred, felt much more real to me. But Hogan’s retelling reconfigures the focus of the story in a way that makes it even more relevant than it had been before. I see the story now as much more than a love triangle gone wrong. Hogan’s version is so much richer in depth and even more revealing about the horrors we visit on each other because of lust for power, mistrust of difference, indifference to the needs of those who don’t resemble us in custom or appearance.

Indios recasts the conventional Medea story through the voice of an indigenous woman who suffers the loss of home and family and trees and love as a result of merciless colonizing forces. Hogan’s Indios is the original woman, beautiful and powerful and vilified and castigated. Before we were invited into the prison from which she narrates, she had lost control over even her story. But she has not lost her memory, she has not lost her mind, and she has not lost her ability to speak. This poem, “A performance” as it is called on the title page, is the record of that speech.

The language in this book is crisp as an apple and sharp as a scythe. It is also very sad, and very lonesome. With her spare diction and direct statements, Hogan helps us hear her hero’s every gasp and groan.This is not a book of acquiescent resignation, nor is it a book about turning away. There is, in fact, a refusal to turn away, an acknowledgment that the story has been ignored for too long. “In here the women cry at night,” Indios says about her prison.

“They talk in their sleep
The forgotten ones
Falling as if there is no bottom to their fall.

In our stories, the world grew from songs and love.
Now I wake to find tears falling from my eyes.
How I want to go to the high place in the mountains
Or to the water that is in my blood.
I want to go to the beautiful world
Where we loved even the spiders.

Hogan weaves the very flora and fauna of a remembered world into every page of this poem, creating a song that is too beautiful to ignore and too heartbreaking to forget. Listening to this “performance” I understand newly and more completely what it means to love and lose. I understand America and history and hope. I understand horror, and I understand grief.

When Ezra Pound said, “Make it new,” I’m pretty sure this book wasn’t what he had in mind. But this isn’t about Pound. This isn’t even really about anything new. This is about an old old story, an old old truth. This is about the story before the story we all know. The story beyond the story we all know. The story beneath the story we all know. I chose Indios for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club because in this book Linda Hogan has found a new way to tell me something I already and always knew.

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Camille T. Dungy is author of Smith Blue; Suck on the Marrow; and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. She is also editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, co-editor of From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great, and assistant editor of Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade. Dungy has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, Cave Canem, the Dana Award, and Bread Loaf, is the winner of the 2011 American Book Award, a two-time recipient of the Northern California Book Award, and silver medal winner in the 2011 California Book Award. A two-time NAACP Image Award nominee, she has been shortlisted for the 2011 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award, the 2011 Balcones Poetry Prize, the PEN Center USA 2007 Literary Award, and the Library of Virginia 2007 Literary Award. Dungy is currently a professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University. Her poems and essays have been published widely in anthologies and print and online journals. http://www.camilledungy.com/ More from this author →