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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 love.

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 blank paper.


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 silk-sheeted deathbed.


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 Republican darkness.

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.

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