Ceremonies of the Damned

Aug 15th, 1998 | By | Category: 10-1: Teaching Math and Science, Media Reviews

Adrian C. Louis. Photo by Ricardo Bloch

By Adrian Louis
Published by University of Nevada Press, Reno, NV, 1997, $10.00.

Review by Woody Kipp

The twisty, turny road of the reservation Indian–besotted not only by cheap muscatel but by dreams incapable of flight–is the road Adrian Louis pushes and pulls us down in his ninth book of poetry. Ceremonies of the Damned never flinches, the very word euphemism apparently having been struck long ago from the lexicon of Louis. Given the choice of more of Louis’ poetry of this type or staring at the sun through a high powered telescope, I might take the telescope. The poetry is good, real good, but it hurts. Either way I would be hurt. There is hurt, however, for the post-colonial Indian that must be faced if he is to heal from the scarifying effects of having been drug head first by techno-man through his own landscape. The hurt comes because Louis’ poems zing so close to home for me, zing and resonate for hundreds of thousands of other Indians who, like Adrian Louis, like me, went head first into the swimming pool of whiskey, wine, drugs, a first class unreality that never congealed.

Any Indian who has ever lived in HUD housing, who has ever hitchhiked to get commodities, who has sat along a wintry reservation road waiting for somebody to come by so a gallon of gas could be siphoned from their gas tank, will see themselves reflected time and again in these harsh, bittersweet, elegiac poems. The poems in their sharp evocation of the irony of reservation life, pull meaning from small acts, but they are acts that are the native Zeitgeist of the late 20th century.

Louis’ wife has Alzheimer’s disease and is the subject of several of the poems. Louis’ wife, who can no longer remember daily tasks, has seemingly caused her husband to remember things for both of them. We become a part of the agony of watching someone we love deteriorate before our eyes; we become a part of the memory. Then, there is a remembering that is Louis’ alone, such as when he, in the confessional title poem of the book, tells us of the titillating shape of an Indian woman, a Methodist, standing in front of him at the post office, her lush body — hell, let Adrian tell you, he saw her:

“I knew she was a Methodist because she asked
for the mail for the Methodist Church.
No, don’t call me Sherlock or Mr. Lonely…
She was tall, light-hued for a Skin,
and wore polyester slacks.
Her upper half was slight, small breasts
and thin arms, but her backside
was out of a Ruben painting.”

That’s the second stanza. The first stanza starts out with Louis addressing his wife:

Almost two years now since your diagnosis.
This morning I sent you to the dumpster
in the back yard with a bag of newspapers.
Empty it, bring the bag back I said, but
you returned beaming, the bag still full.”

There is a great tenderness, a great heartbreaking sadness in the juxtaposition of the poem. It is the kind of poem that invites involvement, invites you to try your hand at being God, flinging the Alzheimer’s away, and she comes back bright-eyed from the dumpster, and suddenly the blockage is gone, and she remembers everything. Everything and then some. But she doesn’t. And the Methodist woman is gone without so much as a quick, flirtatious glance.

He tries a homemade miracle. He has always used mayo but zips to the grocery store to buy Miracle Whip. We need a miracle here. We have been reading Louis for 52 pages at this point, and a miracle is possible if miracles are in any way attached to human faith and human suffering. But he ends the poem by saying that ceremonies of the damned are useless. Maybe they are. But throughout the book we must decide who is really damned, the Indians surviving the 500 year act of terrorism known as Manifest Destiny or those who wrote and continue to act out the script.

Woody Kipp (Sun Chief) of the Pikuni Blackfoot Nation of Montana presently teaches Native History/Contemporary Issues and Native American Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is a graduate of the University of Montana with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism and a master of fine arts degree in creative writing.

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