Shapeshift: An Annotation
Bitsui, Sherwin. Shapeshift. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 2003. Print.
I came back to Shapeshift in an elementally coincidental kind of way; I first had a copy bought for me by a professor of (post)colonial lit, Vermonja Alston, at a reading Bitsui gave, when I was a poor undergrad. Somewhere I gave it away or lost it, and a year or two ago another (post)colonial lit professor of mine, Armelle Crouzières-Ingenthron, mailed me a poor grad student gift—her copy of Shapeshift. My first try at this book back when didn’t seem too easy or useful, but what Bitsui is doing—as a poet, as a linguist, and from his positionality within colonial contexts—is moreso now. As a critic, I would say this is uneven in the way an admirable first collection can be uneven. A few poems in particular are stunning.
I was early on confounded by the shiftiness of the title (is it noun? verb? imperative?), and by what Arthur Sze’s quoted as calling an “enact[ment of] a personal ceremony, restoring balance to his and our world”. I watched for the “opposing forces of the natural world and technology” Sze points to as central, and found a tension…but not a consistent, central problem. Moreso, I think I and Bitsui run up consistently against the genocide of a language marked in the murderous language. A few poems particularly caught me as making this book utterly worthwhile, and navigating such centuries of exploitation, murder, and undermining of language (as of land). “Asterisk” opens the collection with
and no one can pick it out of the lineup,
its rising action photographed
when the sign said: do not look
irises planted inside here.
something lurking in the mineshaft—
a message, ice in his cup,
third leg uprooted but still waking.
It peers over his shoulder at the dirt road dug into the mesa’s skirt,
where saguaro blossoms bloom nightfall at the tip of its dark snout,
and motor oil seeps through the broken white line of the teacher’s loom.
This sets up one of my favorite elements of this book—the genuinely easy and appropriate inclusion of literary terms like “rising action” into the text. Here, the rising action is the moment of first contact, the moments before contact, the beginning of the brutal experience of the meeting between people on the North American continent and the imminent colonizing peoples. This same action happens again in “Trickster”, when “He threw a blanket over the denouement slithering to shore/ and saw Indians”, where the word “denouement” embodies the colonizers and subsequent centuries in a physical, and unappetizing way. (Much like “eels asphyxiating in the fruit salad” do earlier, in “Asterisk”.) This approach to abstract concepts—and to literary terms which I usually find masturbatory in poetry—mixed with the surreal personification of landscapes and objects (“do not look/ irises planted inside here”, “third leg uprooted but still waking”, “the mesa’s skirt…its dark snout”), and the surreal mix of images in proximity (“…in the mineshaft…at the dirt road dug…and motor oil seeps through the broken white line of the teacher’s loom”), create an unparalleled poetic world that breaks us open, that breaks our expectation (and thus our reason) open, in the only way I can think would begin to accurately convey the complexity of colonization in its brutality and its ability to shapeshift its subjects. “Asterisk” ends with the devastating anger, and useless inability looking back at history, of how the “fragrant rocks in the snout remain/ unnoticed in the bedroom,/ because the bridegroom wanted in,/ Pioneers wanted in,/ and the ends of our feet yellowed to uranium at the edge of fear.”
Hilariously, the next poem, “1868”, is a blank page.
This book presents a loss of ritual, yes, but rather than perpetual despair at this, an equal reaching through and for new ritual…and I think this is found in the survival of natural languages, symbols of the natural world, transformed through the broken-open surrealism of the poet’s flashes of brilliance. “The Sun Rises and I Think of Your Bruised Larynx” gives us
blue like the larynx of rushing rainwater,
I think of you when I squeeze static from the river’s bent elbow.
I am counting:
ten to zero, zero to nothing
underneath the dawn oak
whose roots resemble your hair
after you’ve danced counterclockwise
around steel-rimmed America
and returned home
with back spasms and a foaming mouth.
Do you still want to bury your shoes
in the blue mountains west of the Rio Grande,
where white birds shout sunlight
and people don’t ask you to repeat your last name?
I tie my feet to the tinning hair of our old ones;
their eyes burn, staring into the headlight of passing cars;
they saw footpaths bloom into black-boned factories,
rivers into pipelines,
and children delivered by IHS doctors
without tongues, without the fifth finger.
I think of your cupped hands tucked into the petals of a mud-caked sun.
The raven browned by the winter moon’s breath
releases its wings,
stretches its neck,
resembles for a second
the silhouette of a horse’s head
carved from the nugget of coal
found in your grandmother’s clenched fist.
Over the course of the work, Bitsui finds ritual/ceremony through the poetic enactment of ceremony—each poem a creation of ceremony, each one a new ritual. In this poem, the speaker reaches for Sister in a ritual “counting:/ ten to zero, zero to nothing”, in response to her ritual—for counterclockwise is the direction of many (most? all?) sacred dances…and when Sister attempts to dance “counterclockwise/ around steel-rimmed America”, the new America, the defined, industrial America, the America of IHS doctors and BIA bureaucracy, she comes “home/ with back spasms and a foaming mouth.” It seems Sister is defeated by this monstrosity, that the dance cannot breach the steel border built by America. The transformation witnessed by “our old ones” is how Indians of all tribes across America are better known for the resources that can be extracted from under them, for the “nugget of coal/ found in your grandmother’s clenched fist”.
“Nahasdzáán” engages the undermining of language, as of land, with
First we will run, then we will walk.
She asked, “Do we ramble when we speak in tongues?…
…The dusk, the dawn, everything in between: a mistake…
“one big mistake”
In this language
she wasn’t asked to sing
because in this room
there was never a light switch,
never a search for the memory of onyx
collected against the rib
I think it is in this poem, and around this time in the book, that the connection between exploitation of resources—particularly the mining that leaves toxic uranium tailings behind—is connected to the cultural shapeshift imposed on the people. What is clearly pointed to as farcical, imposed legal and economic policies—the reservation doctors, hospitals, ineffectual IHS and BIA involvement—becomes subtle, painful, in Mother’s articulate observations. Her awareness of the language shift, of the useless nature of it, of that uselessness coming from an intentional inattention—an attempt to cover up, subvert attention from, sever all ties to—“the origin—/ iiná.” This Diné word which indicates not simply “life” but a balanced approach to life. (In Lakota, “ina” means mother and “inyan” means rock.) So the new language covers up the connection to what comes underneath, and before, all—it acculturates through severing.
“Chrysalis”, the final poem, the culmination of the reader’s/writer’s/book’s shapeshift, is a bit obvious as a title for a poem that does this work. However, it points to how such a poem breaks free in its ability to identify its own wounds and sorrow, where previously the wound had been riddle, encoded. Where an earlier poem seems to make a sudden, and brief, breakthrough by declaring “a plane arrives with mute passengers/ calling a nation to drink water from the river/ underneath the race barrier.”, the final poem ends the book with “This is not about the rejection of our skin;/ the mud dries as it is poured into our ears./ But the linguist still runs his hands up the length of our tongues,/ perplexed we even have a tongue at all.”
I believe that, as much as the shapeshift is the forced acculturation of people, land, and language—that which the “anthropologists” and “linguists” uncomprehendingly record—so the course of the poems over the whole work, and how they work in the reader, are the shafeshipt…as verb, imperative, and noun subject to imperative. It is a book that was experienced as it was written and must be experienced and lived through when read…and it is very possible that the reason those few “stunning” poems exist is because they had to break through, and that they are stunning to a reader for the same reason. They are earned poems.
There’s far more to talk of here, but I will stop with the a few lines to appreciate, here:
Last night a thorn flowered the imagination of a thorn;
a moth buried its tongue between my fingernails,
and a calf was dragged the length of my body.