Adrian C. Louis
Escorted down an Ivy League college hallway by beaming graduate
students, I was introduced to one of those simple pudding "language"
poets one encounters in such places. He was a callow though tenured nerd
of indeterminate sex. I could've squashed his soul like a bug, but an
unasked for rush of kindness made me listen to him for a few minutes.
When I stripped off the flying fur of his words, I discovered that he
had no heart and thus his wail was only an aria for the lack of true
He was young and loved poetry. I was middle-aged and considered it a
curse. We had absolutely nothing to hold hands about except for the fact
he was Minnesota born and I worked in that immaculate toilet of a state.
He said Bly, and I bit my tongue until it bled cheap, liberal
blood. He said McGrath, and I knew that I must smoke away such
breathless banality, so I coughed, pulled out a Marlboro, and briskly
walked away. Were I his age, I would have prayed for someone to grab my
tongue and make me bleat rainbows of wet-scented shimmer. Were he my
age, he would have wept, scurried back into the nearest wordless cave,
drawn horses on the walls, and waited ten thousand years to speak.
For me, poetry is poverty. All my life I have lived day to
day, paycheck to paycheck, poem to poem, no rhyme or reason. Many of my
students have had grotesquely romantic notions of crap unto craft unto
fame, but I've no idea what they thought or if they thought
at all, and I lack energy to lie for them here. Too many were
technological tadpoles addicted to cable TV and the computer, those
gifts given by the Roswell aliens to subvert common sense, human
compassion, and history. Thus, I did not recommend poetry to them. Nor
did I recommend them to poetry. Let them eat corn, I thought. Let them
fall under the spell of the dead white poets who dance and drum in the
deep, goofy woods of the bloodless mind. Better yet, let them sweat for
years at a job they despise, but a job that their education had
guaranteed. Then that gaseous thing they call poetry would either
die or transform to stallions of flame igniting the blinding snow of
There you stood, on the edge of your feather, expecting to fly .
. . Historically, his taking of poems seemed in direct proportion to
penile function. Once, he saw poems everywhere and plundered them at
will, eating only their tongues and livers. In the greasy glow of his
faceless mind, he seduced many a young love and then lost focus. In the
years that passed, their skulls and carcasses littered his landscape and
made little sense.
In his youth he had brain-sucked too many skulls that were not his to
eat: three hundred at Wounded Knee, thirty-eight at Mankato, the four
dead in Ohio . . . In middle age he became so ashamed of his trade that
he dug a hole into the side of a small hill like he'd seen the farming
invaders do. He grew gray and misshapen. Many hard winters he passed on
a diet of remorse and guilt. His hunting rifle rusted and rotted beyond
recognition. His flaccid pecker refused to acknowledge the love of his
own tender hand. Centuries passed.
Now, he sees an occasional poem ghosting through the mists of
dawn, but he holds his breath, and lets it pass in peace. It's better
that way. Anything spawned by the adulation of romantic losers, by the
memory of memories, is better left unborn.
"Know this now, you are killing a man."
—Ernesto "Che" Guevara
You could call it grabbing the bull by the horns if you were
ironic. No trumpets, no picadors, no banderillas. No muleta, no cape or
sweet-stinking sinking of shining saber. The bull merely sashays into
the arena, snorts the foul human air, and at the instant his eyes meet
mine, I empty the clip of my .45 into his forlorn skull. Filet mignon or
fecal-scented tripe, it all tastes the same in the unwashed dark. Oh
pinche gringos—continue to plow the fields of the earth. Bury the
shadows of anything tribal in the furrows. It's what you pray for.
Jesus, it's what we pray for too.
Small print at the bottom of a creative writing syllabus: Tell the
truth, always tell the truth. Listen. Even though this is Christian
Middle America, I know you've all dislodged a green booger, rolled it in
your fingers and admired it. It was and is a beautifully ugly poem—the
sad world in miniature—but if such wisdom seems beyond you, I hereby
give you permission to hide those invisible snot-balls between the pages
of the book you'll never have the groin to write. Don't look so sad,
I've already written it for you. And of course, you'll all pass this
course. So bless me, and bless me doubly in your course evaluations!
They are only read, if read at all, by those self-gilded and transitory
automatons we call administrators. But, should you pass my house late at
night, bring the sweet and greasy marrow of your bones to the horndog
corpse that I was and maybe will be again.
My increasingly fat cat Gerbit is on the windowsill chattering his
teeth at a neurotic, brown dove preening on the front lawn. At the same
instant, in North Africa (on the Discovery Channel) a caracal lynx is
fighting with a black eagle. Oh, the zany Zen of it all, this skewed
duplication upon my weary eyes. Outside the sun is setting and all I
say, have ever said, is covered with the soft sauce of confession, my
mundane madness of tattling on the world and on myself. In desperate
revolt I open the front door and the dove flies away. I turn off the
tube, and my mind flies back in. I shiver and shake in grateful
appreciation of such silence. I know it won't last long. I want to
whisper of other sweet doves I've shot with a .410, how I softly plucked
and gently fried their sad-singing flesh. I want to tell you the story
of how I was born to the bone-singing sun of the desert, but that tale
is best left for the posse of clowns who will dismember me on my
I suppose even a half-honest artist can create a true bonfire of
vanities. With just the tiniest squirt of kerosene (and ten squirts of
Jack Daniel's) I once watched a box of my books blaze beautifully,
illuminating the smirking, sweating face of God. Under the drunken South
Dakota stars I was thinking that the fact I graduated from an Ivy League
writing program did not really make me a poet. I was thinking that the
fact that some idiots thought my poems were delicious fruits and
published books of my syllabic jism still did not make me a poet. For
Christ's sake or ache, there are only a handful of real poets in this
country, I reasoned, and they keep a low, skulking criminal profile. And
sometimes they secretly burned their own books. I was thinking all this
silly crap one night when the true love of my life locked me outside to
contemplate my firewater epiphanies. And now, nearly sixteen years
later, I pray that I can maintain my present irony, this sad
exaggeration of the importance of poetry. I need to keep those paychecks
rolling in while I thrash and shudder in true fear of the oily
Adrian C. Louis is the author of ten volumes of poetry and two works
of fiction including the novel Skins, which was filmed in 2002.
An enrolled member of the Lovelock Paiute tribe and a native of Nevada,
he taught for many years at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge
Indian Reservation of South Dakota. A former journalist, he has edited
four Native newspapers including America’s largest, Indian Country
Today. Since 1999 he has been an English professor in the Minnesota
State University system.