If I were Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, I would write a letter to Sherman Alexie. “Dear Sherman,” it would say, “If you are the voice of Native American fiction (and you are), then I am the voice of Native American poetry.”
“Why Native American?” Alexie would answer. “Make that American. Period. We’re right up there with the famous white-guy writers.”
After reading her new book (if he hasn’t already), Alexie would surely place Coke in the company of the celebrated poets with whom she belongs. For Streaming, with its iconic poem “America I Sing You Back,” is an American symphony, an encore to Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” and Hughes’ “I Too, Sing America.” Listen:
Before America began to sing, I sang her to sleep,
held her cradleboard, wept her into day.
My song gave her creation, prepared her delivery,
held her severed cord beautifully beaded.
Coke’s “America I Sing You Back” is a new riff on the notion of “singing” America. With this poem, Coke declares Whitman and Hughes to be her successors, in fact.
Like Whitman and Hughes, Coke grounds her poetry in the lives of ordinary people, replete with their historical and cultural contexts. Coke’s “songs” breathe her Native American and European ancestry, along with the vast geography of her experience. Streaming flows into seven distinct sections, three of which are named after musical forms: “Prelude,” “May Suite” and “Coda.”
These poems speak to nature’s patterns of air, water and wildlife, as the poet crosses great swaths of time and of place. Each poem sings its song beautifully, movingly. “Platte Mares,” which narrates the Sandhill crane’s annual return to Nebraska, rings with onomatopoeia. Reading it, you can feel the rhythmic propulsion of each image as surely as you can feel your own pulse:
Sandhill cranes rise into spiraled kettles, their
mares purring chortling kittling
A kettle, in the bird world, is the shape of a flock; to kittle is to tickle. And kettle and kittle we do, flying upward with the raucous pleasure of the gaggle. We then glide to a landing on sibilant “s” sounds, in “siege” and in “sedge”—with a slight tap of the brake by the soft “g” sound contained.
This poem draws us in like a wise griot’s song, carrying messages from the greater world to her tribe: Coke, as activist, environmentalist and poet, describes the birds’
Call & response,
Call & response. Call & response.
Call & response
A related poem shows us that Coke is not alone in her calling. The author dedicates “Ted’s Cranes” to former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, whose advocacy helped secure Nebraska’s protected habitat for the cranes. Belying the poets’ commitment is the dedication of Streaming: “For my mother/For our world.” And the collection makes good on that promise to the universe, reaching across bloodlines and peoples, territories and species, to create a welcoming celebration of life.
Erudite and complex, these connections of Coke’s require close reading. The poet herself encourages us to explore the book’s “cultural ideology, cosmogony, scientific phenomena, and historical and political events, as well as multiple inclusions of botanical, zoological, and geological terminology”—just as when reading any “world literature.” By doing the research, Coke suggests, we restore dignity to people and places whose existence has been overlooked. It is a call for consciousness-raising, and it works: I found that by actively studying Streaming, and not merely reading, Coke’s poetry morphed into performance art, at times. In having us work in order to understand these poems, Coke manages to enlist us as advocates for the cause.
l was moved personally when studying the poem “Steel,” set partly in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood. Having lived there (I ran a bookshop in Boerum Hill back in the day), I considered myself cued-in to its history, which includes the metal workers mentioned in the poem. But Coke, ever the activist, turned my attention to the longer arc of history. Called Little Caughnawaga by its first people, Boerum Hill has for centuries been home to Mohawk descendants. “Steel” goes on to remind us of Native Americans’ contributions to the city, from their work building skyscrapers, to their heroism as rescue workers during 9/11. (“Smokejumpers”—mostly members of the western Zuni tribe—we learn, are regularly called on to stanch forest fires. Coke tells us that Smokejumpers played their part at Ground Zero.) Again, the poet imparts knowledge that leads to understanding; to me, the poem “Steele” is itself a sort of phoenix, soaring up from the ashes, representing those we thought perished.
Streaming’s third section, “Where We Have Been,” is dedicated to the author’s father and his era. The poem “Dust: Dad’s Days” speaks of the Dust Bowl—an environmental trauma, caused by man, Coke suggests. Again, the poet harnesses language to make better citizens of us. Her subtext says: Think about droughts. Think about threats to sustainable farming. Think about Indigenous ways of planting and harvest, ways that conserve the earth’s natural state:
Shouldn’t have happened.
They’d lifted the herd sod.
Took the drumhead off the topsoil
Loosed it until it was rumble.
Reckless. Recklessness. Recklessness.
In the poem “Pando/Pando,” Coke expresses the man-versus-nature theme as well. This time, the setting is Pando, Bolivia, the town where Indigenous protestors lost their lives in an effort to protect natural resources. The echoing title conjures not only the place but the Pando tree, found in a national forest of Utah. A single Pando tree can grow into an elaborate root system, which extends across miles. Coke likens this to Indigenous values, which are shared across continents. Repeated throughout the poem, Pando/Pando works like a mantra, affirming the Indigenous belief in the kinship between humans and Pando trees, people and nature. The effect, for me, was a pure sense of oneness: oneness with peoples, oneness with nature. This poem gave me a feeling of hope.
I encourage you to buy this book and to read it, now. Let Coke’s activist poems speak to you, too. Do as I did: hear her environmentalist call. Let her language compel you. Let her knowledge convince you. And let yourself be a part of the family of things.