Tackling Alexie

This is my second time studying Sherman Alexie this semester, and in terms of Whitmanian influence and/or response, he is a bit harder to crack.  Most of what I know about Alexie’s writing stems from our dissection of his book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, in my Ethnic American Literature class.  I know that much of his writing is, as he calls it, a “thinly veiled memior,” and he seeks to study the strange, metamorphosing line between one’s ancient heritage (as a Native American, in this case), and one’s roots as a citizen of the United States.  It is a peculiar and complex line to straddle, and many times can leave one with a bewildering sense of self and place, which can have negative effects on one’s psyche.

At first glance, Alexie’s poem “Defending Walt Whitman” reads much like a straightforward poem focusing on Whitman observing a game of basketball on the reservation.  Upon delving deeper, we see it is also a type of linking poem in which Alexie is attempting to point out that much of the themes in Whitman’s poetry and view of an optimistic America pertain to the Native American population as well, even though many people in the past have left them out of the American dream.   We see them as soldiers, warriors, those closer to the earth than just about anybody else, but there is a sadness in the poem with the realization that Whitman may be one of the few people who could see them in this light, as part of the America he dreamed about.  Whitman sees the beauty in this culture that has both preserved itself and melded to the country he loves.  However, Whitman is also portrayed as a bizzare addition to the reservation, adding an underlying note of uncertainty.

Like most of Alexie’s other works, this poem operates in levels upon levels.  One could spend hours writing about the ideas inherent in each stanza, and the complex situation that Alexie weaves to mirror the complexities of being a “Native American – American.”  That in itself is Whitmanian enough for me.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Tackling Alexie

  1. Joshua Goddard says:

    I basically agree with you that overall, Alexie’s poem appears to embrace an optimistic outlook that Whitman himself had concerning Native American society. However, Alexie also alludes to many complications that exist between Whitman and the gap Whitman may have been attempting to bridge between European-centric American culture and Native American culture. Even the title of the poem reflects this complex relationship, since we could construe double meanings from it. In one way, “Defending Walt Whitman” could be taken in the literal sense, or that Sherman meant to defend Whitman as an early champion who was attempting to speak for Native American society. Yet in another sense, when you defend someone in basketball, you prevent them from taking a shot or grabbing an opening for a pass. Hence, Sherman may have also intended the title to connote that it was time to start poetically blocking “Air Whitman” and to let Native Americans speak for themselves. Regardless of what Alexie intended the title to connote, in either sense I felt that he was not totally derisive of Whitman’s decision to write poems such as “Yollando;” therefore, Alexie was embracing Whitman in this sense.

    After rehashing this poem several times, I think it’s also important to note that Whitman not only observes the game, but he also participates in it. Yet for Alexie, Whitman does not appear to totally grasp the nuances of basketball on the reservation. For instance, when one of the kids throws him a pass, Whitman “wants to run,” but rather than running he seems to be more concerned with cataloging the attributes of the basketball and wondering what the score is. So Alexie seems to question Whitman’s skills as an active participant in this game. For me, the most visually striking image in this poem, was when Alexie wrote “Whitman dreams / of the first jump shot he will take, the ball arcing clumsily / from his fingers, striking the rim so hard that it sparks,” because it made me laugh—I pictured Whitman with his long beard wearing sweat bands and a pair of Nike’s as he laying up this shot in slow motion. Putting my absurd interpretation aside, even here Alexie illustrates how limited Whitman’s role seems to the game, the shot is merely a dream, not a reality. Yet despite Walt’s apparent clumsiness on the court, the boys on the reservation never pull him from the game, even though the smallest find him frightening and the older ones can laugh at him. So if Alexie intended the court to serve as a metaphor for Native American poetry, then his depiction of Whitman would lead me to believe that Alexie was questioning Whitman’s usefulness to the Native American players, without being dismissive of Whitman’s participation in the game.

Comments are closed.