Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Alexie's Public Blasphemy. On-line Floricanto Penultimate of July.

Review: Sherman Alexie. Blasphemy. NY: Grove, 2012.
ISBN 9780802120397 : 0802120393

Michael Sedano

One of the book groups I belong to has a rule: no short fiction collections. The prejudice grows in part from preference for the long form, for its elaboration of character, scene and narrative. I suspect also attention deficit, because well-crafted short stories demand a reader’s focus, rewards it with intense detail and art. With the reader fully involved in a story and prepared for more, the writer ends the story. Turn the page and it’s a different character, time, place, scene.

Sherman Alexie’s 2012 collection of new and selected stories, Blasphemy, will drive long-form devotees mad, with thirty-one starts and stops, stories recited in male, female, homeless, middle class, reservation, city voices.

Covering 464 pages in hardbound, the 31 stories come upon ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Each pulls together what resources come to hand. After this it’s a struggle to return to being an ordinary Indian. Alexie isn’t bad-mouthing alcoholics, mentally ill, desperately poor, conflicted, people. He’s assembled his stories because they are about ordinary people with more-or-less ordinary problems. There's the blasphemy, Indians are just any other guy named Joe. Some of them make it up as they go along. Some of them know all the songs.

There's no blasphemy in writing that’s extraordinary. Devotees of good writing and arresting stories will welcome the 31 times Alexie launches into a new story. There's never enough, no, always the lure of “what’s he going to come up with next?”

There’s the nostalgic story of faded basketball star, Frank Snake Church. He works himself into shape, holds his own in a garbage-talking challenge scrimmage against Varsity players. Here the author captures a warm moment between generations,

the aboriginal hook shot, belonged to Frank, and he danced in fast circles around the court, whooping and celebrating like a spastic idiot. I sound like some Boy Scout's idea of an Indian warrior, Frank thought, like I'm a parody, but a happy parody. . . . . The old man and the young man hugged each other and laughed. "I beat you," Frank said. "Old man," said Double 0, "you gave me a trip on your time machine."

Later in the story, “What Ever Happened To Frank Snake Church?” Alexie shows Indian people connecting not because they are Indians but because they are poor:

She reached beneath the counter again, pulled out another stack of paper, and set it beside the other stack of paper. So much paper, so much work. He didn't know why he was here; he'd come here only because his therapist had suggested it. Frank felt stupid and inadequate. He'd made a huge mistake by quitting his Forest Service job, but he could probably go back. He didn't want to go to college; he wanted to walk the quiet forests and think about nothing as often as he could. "Hey, listen," Frank said, "I've got another thing to go to. I'll come back later." "No, listen," she said, because she was poor and smart and had been poorer and was now smarter than people assumed she was. “I know this is scary. I was scared to come here. I’ll help you. I’ll take you to Stephanie.”

Poverty impacts not only individuals but entire families. Family matters occupy a preponderance of the stories in Blasphemy, including stories for single parent mothers, father-son understanding, the praxis of marriage. In “Because My Father Always Said. . . “ Alexie evokes one mother’s longing wrought by separation tempered by reason, “She'd get that look on her face that I knew meant she missed my father. Not enough to want him back. She missed him just enough for it to hurt.”

In “Do You Know Where I Am”, a couple confronts her cheating on him. This is a culmination of a lifelong lie and a bad decision. He demands to know the orifices she employed, arguing, "You don't get to feel as much pain as me. Now say it. Tell me exactly." She closed her eyes and moaned like some tortured animal, like she was the first animal feeling the first pain. I heard that sound again when she buried her mother and, thirteen months later, her father.

Indian Personhood runs throughout the stories as the linking element for these otherwise ordinary people. The ambiguity of identity itself creates provocative moments for Alexie’s characters. For example, Corliss, in “The Search Engine,” struggles to fit in as a student at Washington State.

White people, no matter how smart, were too romantic about Indians. White people looked at the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the full moon, newborn babies, and Indians with the same goofy sentimentalism. Being a smart Indian, Corliss had always taken advantage of this romanticism, but that didn't mean she wanted to share the refrigerator with it. . . . . If she lived with a white person, Corliss knew she'd quickly be seen as ordinary, because she was ordinary. It's tough to share a bathroom with an Indian and continue to romanticize her.

Adjusting what she thinks she knows, and what she’s experienced, keeps Corliss’ identification processes in perpetual agitation, and because she's smart she's focused on the ambiguities:

Because she was Indian, she'd been taught to fear and hate white people. Sure, she hated all sorts of white people-the arrogant white businessmen in their wool suits, the illiterate white cheerleaders in their convertibles, the thousands of flannel-shirted rednecks who roamed the streets of Spokane-but she knew they represented the worst of whiteness. It was easy to hate white vanity and white rage and white ignorance, but what about white compassion and white genius and white poetry?

In “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” a homeless alcoholic dreams of redemption. But he's a wino. He sets on a quest to honor his family’s memory. It’s a frustrating story of noble ideals pissed away in drink and conviviality, Bukowski without the alkie's acerbity.

I told him about my grandmother's powwow regalia and how much money I needed to buy it back. "We should call the police," he said. "I don't want to do that," I said. "It's a quest now. I need to win it back by myself."
"Can you lend me some money?" "I can't do that," he said. "If I lend you money, I have to lend money to everybody." "What can you do?" "I'll give you fifty papers for free. But don't tell anybody I did it." "Okay," I said. He gathered up the newspapers and handed them to me. I held them to my chest. He hugged me. I carried the newspapers back toward the water.

He sells a few papers, enough to buy a bottle, and dumps the unsold. When you’re a loser, redemption is an active verb, it doesn’t happen along by itself. Alexie chooses this story, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” as the book’s final piece.

For me, the masterpiece of the collection is the book’s penultimate title, “Basic Training,” a moving account of a highway accident, a man forced to shoot his trained donkeys. Juxtaposing the story of compassion against donkey basketball, Alexie conducts a seminar on ethos, the character:

So, yes, Deuce was the Socrates of the Carter clan. But even Deuce knew that wasn't saying much because the Carter clan currently consisted of himself, the elder Emery, and twelve donkeys. Emery Sr. and Emery Jr. were the president and vice president of Carter & Sons, one of two Donkey Basketball outfits in the Pacific Northwest and one of only ten still operating in the United States.

Each of the animals has a golfer’s name. Some have cute characteristics, like George Mikan, who drives for the basket every time. There’s Bob Cousy, a basketball dud, who survives the roll-over, but screams with agony under twisted wreckage.

Man and donkey had known each other for fifteen years. And they stared into each other’s eyes with a man’s regret and a donkey’s primal pain. But Deuce could see that Bob Cousy wanted to live. Considering how slow and clueless Bob had been as a basketball player, it was surprising to see strength in him now.

It's a brilliant example of pathos, wrenching emotion from readers in the vivid moments of truth as Deuce kills the donkeys.

Sherman Alexie’s thirty-one stories can be read serendipitously, open the book and start reading. Readers who demand the long form or have low tolerance for short fiction should read “Basic Training,” the donkey basketball story. When it ends, that reader’s turning to page one and discovering the reward of enjoying this rich collection of literary gems.

On-line Floricanto Penultimate of July.

Prejudiced Aggression by Raúl Sánchez
A Poem for All Our Murdered Youth by Jesus Cortez
Untitled by Karina Oliva
Verdict by Maritza Rivera
Trayvon In All of Us by Frank de Jesus Acosta

Prejudiced Aggression
by Raúl Sánchez

Somewhere a mother weeps
a father laments the loss
of their son, a teenager named Trayvon

profiled, haunted like a beast
because he “looked” like he was

followed by a trigger happy hunter
whose obsession with guns
whose lack of authority

chased a young kid with a hoodie on
to keep the rain off his head
walking to the closest store

to buy candy and a bottle of tea
suspicious looking in the eye
of the hunter who approached

his prey in the dark.
In the dark all cats are black
some run and hide when chased

this boy looked dark against
the pavement, the asphalt on that
moonless night

he defended himself
he fought his aggressor
he lost the fight

against leaded fire
from a coward who did not know
how to fight

but used a gun to claim
he stood his ground
meanwhile the body of Trayvon

lays below the ground

Raúl comes from a place south where the sun shines fiercely, where Indigenous and European cultures collided. An avid collector of poetry books proclaimed himself a “thrift store junkie” who occasionally volunteers as a DJ for KBCS 91.3 FM. He conducts workshops on The Day of the Dead. Featured in the program for the 2011 Burning Word Poetry Festival in Leavenworth WA He is also a Translator. His most recent work is the translation of John Burgess’ Punk Poems in his book Graffito and his ardent inaugural collection “All Our Brown-Skinned Angels” published by MoonPath Press out of Kingston WA is filled with poems of cultural identity, familial and personal, a civil protest, personal celebration, completely impassioned. His book has been nominated for the Washington State Book Award in Poetry for 2013 and available on line through the big A. or: http://moonpathpress.com additional information at: http://beyondaztlan.com

A Poem for All Our Murdered Youth
by Jesus Cortez

Home of the Brave

Here lie the bodies of our children
your children, my children,
laying next to fences,
bodies with bullets,
hungry bellies
border patrol with guns
children with hungry mouths

Here lie the remains of
a body, a child,
somebody’s daughter,
bombs made in America
paid with your money
dropped by your heroes
innocence murdered

Here lie the bodies of children
rocks in hands, last defense
no options behind walls
of shame, walls of apartheid
in the name of freedom
in the name of protecting
Israeli democracy

Here lie the hopes of a world
from Oakland to Anaheim,
California to Sanford, Florida,
to the Arizona border,
to Iraq, to Afghanistan,
to Palestine, to Chiapas,
to Guerrero, Mexico

death will be our freedom
in this home of the brave.

The Verdict
by Karina Oliva

This injustice stabs my body, hurts my consciousness, almost unbearable
How many black men have served time, have had their lives stolen, on less
Than circumstantial evidence?
To be proven innocent too late
And here again a murdered child on trial
Remember too, Latasha Harlins.

How many tears cried, lives broken?
We asked for justice again, and again justice is denied
With the same foolery. We are supposed to just buy into this
That this is somehow not anti-black
Yet, a child profiled and assumed guilty for being
Tears burst from my body driven by the memory of every mother who asked for justice;
I am Trayvon Martin

If it bothers that I may say this, ask yourself why
We are Trayvon Martin

If the jurors had seen him as their son too, maybe justice would have been granted
The way the people wanted
To give his parents justice
Forced to hear their son wailing for help with his last breath
Instead of cradling his first cry into this world, trusting
Trusting us, this world, in trust
We failed Trayvon Martin

An injustice committed before even stalked while walking home
With the double talk
When we tell our children to run when approached by an aggressor and if caught, to fight
To save their lives
Unless we are like Trayvon Martin

This ache inflicted by their verdict
Will not be buried away
Cannot ever be again
For the sake of us all
And the memory of Trayvon Martin.

Karina Oliva has published in Mujeres de Maiz Zine, hispanicLA.com, La Bloga, and Poets Responding to SB1070. She is an original member of the poetry collective EndDependence, and edited an anthology of poetry, Desde el epicentro in 2007. Her books of poems is titled, Transverse (2009) published by Izote Press. Most recently, her poems are part of the ¡Ban This! The BSP Anthology of Xicana/o Literature (2012). She currently teaches on U.S. Central American and Chicana/o topics in the Chicana and Chicano Studies Department at UCLA. You can reach her on fb or at karinaoliva@ucla.edu.

by Maritza Rivera

Wearing a hoodie
anywhere in this country
should not cost your life!

Maritza Rivera (aka Mariposa) is a Puerto Rican poet who lives in Rockville, MD. She has been writing poetry for over forty years and is the creator of a short form of poetry called Blackjack. Maritza is the author of About You; A Mother’s War, written during her son’s two tours in Iraq; Baker’s Dozen; Twenty-One: Blackjack Poems and her work appears in literary magazines, anthologies and online publications. Maritza is a contributor to Poets Responding to SB1070, a supporter of the Memorial Day Writers Project (MDWP) and participates in the Warrior Poetry Project at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. She was the recipient of a 2012 BID International Writing Fellowship in Bahia, Brazil and has been accepted to attend the 2013 Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Sicily. Maritza also serves on the Board of Directors of Split This Rock in Washington, DC and hosts the annual Mariposa Poetry Retreat at the Capital Retreat Center in Waynesboro, PA.

Trayvon In All of Us
by Frank de Jesus Acosta

Trayvon in you, Trayvon in me; yearning for justice that leads to peace
Everyone’s child, beautiful ancient bloodline prince; taken from us all too soon
The malevolent hand of racism, cloaked in the veil of the vanguard creed
Born suspect, tried, convicted, and killed for the crime of being you
To be Black and hues of Brown in America is to be devalued as a human-being
Yes! Arrest the killer, but also arrest the disease; for bigotry unchecked is contagious
Wake up America, bear witness in truth to the color of poverty and privilege
The pendulum of justice is a sledgehammer on some, a larceny license for others
Prison plantations smack of Antebellum, deportations south, a new trail of tears
The “hood” has risen as the symbol of justice under a banner of solidarity
Trayvon’s tragic murder, is emblematic of what ails this promise land
Trayvon in you, Trayvon in me must manifest as the power of love
Violence begets violence, hate begets hate; the good road is virtue, dignity, & truth
No bullets of vengeance, nor making of another martyr, shall heal these open wounds
Ancient bloodline prince clutched the sweetness of many colors in his hands
Trayvon in you, Trayvon in me; the sweetness of many colors is Trayvon in us

Frank de Jesus Acosta is a writer and the principal strategist of Acosta & Associates, a California-based consultant group that specializes in community change ventures facilitated by non-profit management, organization capacity-building, fund development, project research/planning/development, and initiative management activities targeting philanthropic, non-profit, government institutions. Acosta is a graduate of University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Acosta’s professional experience includes serving as a Sr. Program Officer with The California Wellness Foundation, as well as executive leadership tenures with the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), Downtown Immigrant Advocates (DIA), National Center for Community Change, and the UCLA Community Programs Office. In 2007, Acosta authored a book published by the Arte Publico Press Hispanic Civil Rights Series, University of Houston, “The History of Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos, Cultura Es Cura, Healing Community Violence.”

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