A few years ago, during a trip out West, I discovered Sherman Alexie. An American Indian writer of verse, short stories, novels, screenplays and essays, his books were in just about every bookstore and souvenir shop west of the Mississippi. I saw his books so many times that I thought I’d better get one.
So glad I did. I bought “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” and felt like I’d read it before, as the stories seemed familiar. It was probably because I’d seen “Smoke Signals,” a movie Alexie based on this series of interconnected stories of life on the reservation. I liked what I read, and did some research on Alexie, finding essays here and poems there, finding myself touched or enlightened by every one I read.
So when I saw he had a new book out, I jumped on it. “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” is a memoir, peppered with poems (see below), making it a unique book in more ways than one.
I’ve always thought memoirs work best when, instead of recounting his or her life from birth to today, the author centers on a particular period in his or her life. Alexie centers this long (400+ pages) book on the year his mother died and he had a brain tumor removed.
If you’ve read anything else by Alexie, you’ll know that he doesn’t shy away from reality. He reveals the warts and sins of everyone, including himself. It’s such a wide ranging and honest book, you wonder how many people in his life don’t speak to him anymore.
Alexie’s mother was a recovered alcoholic who kept her family together while her charming, drunk husband went from job to job earning little money and bar to bar spending it. But this is not a portrait of a selfless, essentially single, poor mother: Lillian Alexie was abusive in every way that leaves scars and doesn’t, probably manic depressive and a liar of epic proportions who took her justified anger and unbearable sorrow out on her children and husband.
Sherman recounts his youth of grinding poverty, indifference from his mother, bullying at school from white teachers and from other Indians and any number of other daily tragedies that have shaped generations of his and other tribes. Which bring me to this poem, among the most eye-opening in the book.
As you read my brutal poems
About rape and murder
and assault and dangerous
From the earth
Like uranium — please
Remember as you read
These poems about
My dead mother
And my dead father
And all of my childhood
As I weep
That nearly every Indian Kid
had it worse.
At her funeral, Lillian is praised for her generosity by many people, and Alexie can’t reconcile that with the harsh, unloving woman who raised him. He grows to see her as a product of her environment — created by the mind-bogglingly inhumane U.S. policy toward its native people — and writes of wishing he could have been there when she was a child, so she would know some form of love that she could have passed on to her children.
Alexie doesn’t seem bitter, though sometimes he seems petty, as when he writes what he should have said to the relative at his mom’s funeral who told him his shirt was wrinkled or the white man at a reading of his work who told him his work “wasn’t Indian enough.”
Which brings me to this poem:
So we must forgive all those
Who trespass against us?
Fuck that shit.
I’m not some charitable trust.
There are people I will hate
Even after I’m ashes and dust.
The book is repetitive in both theme and in one story told over and over with different endings as he tries to get to its truth. But Alexie understands that and explains “Grief is cyclical.” The grieving can’t simply deal with issues then put them to the side as though ticking off a To Do List. The memories, good and bad, rise up just when they are least expected or wanted. It’s only after a long time that some of the demons can be put to rest. Others, Alexie writes, never will.
And that brings me to this poem, which gets to the depth of Alexie’s feelings. In the context of his book, it is heartbreaking and almost the polar opposite of the one above.
Ode in Reverse
This poem is for everyone in my life —
My sons, friends, mother, siblings, and my wife.
It’s a cuff to the head — a self-rebuff
Dear ones, I have not loved you well enough.
OK. This is getting too long, but I wanted to give you enough information to entice you to read this book, because I think it should be read widely.
I loved this book so much that after I listened to it on audiobook (Alexie reads it himself, his voice often choked with emotion, which the editors wisely left in) I checked it out from the library to read parts again and to copy down poems.
The brutal honesty and humor Alexie uses to relate the most awful events left me stunned, and in awe of the fortitude he needed to overcome enormous obstacles and carve out for himself some sort of a life most of us take for granted.
Most people don’t make it out of situations like Alexie was born into, let alone rise to the heights he has achieved.
And then there is his beautiful poetry. He is my new hero.