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from Sand Creek (Simon J. Ortiz)

March 6, 2010

This poetry collection, unlike Tapahonso’s, is tightly focused around one historical event and the way it has continued to play out for the people involved (and their descendants). In this case, it’s the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. Like I said, it’s focused around that event and its aftermath, but it continues through history to look additionally at the repercussions of the event as they play out in today’s world — which is where Native American veterans of the Vietnam war, for one example, come in. It’s a different approach to history than I’ve seen before — more of a collective approach in its interest in successive generations.

The unusual form of the collection — with a few spare lines of prose on the left-hand page and an entire poem on the right-hand page — focuses the reader’s attention rather successfully on individual aspects leading up to, during, and following the Sand Creek Massacre. By prefacing each poem with a few lines of almost-explanatory prose, Ortiz guides the reader, priming them to look for specific things in his poems. As I’ve admitted in previous posts, I’m not the most at-ease with poetry, and often feel as though I’m missing the point. However, these prose introductions to each poem helped me figure out what the general topic of the following poem was going to be, and because I went into each poem with a basic understanding of the subject matter, I was able to appreciate the form much more and enjoy the act of poetry on its own terms. Additionally, the visual appearance of the words on the page (with the few lines of prose at the very top of the left-hand page, leaving the rest of it blank…and the poem on the right-hand page in a bolder and larger font) lent a certain solemnity to the lonely words on the left side and a certain emphasis to the poetry on the right side.

This collection presents the reader with a specific take on history: the idea that there are histories in our nation’s past that have been swept under the rug, and that continue to inform and influence our present-day existence in ways that we are unaware of when we’re ignorant of the past. For someone who knew nothing of the Sand Creek Massacre or of the various Indian Removal processes that swept the continent from east to west, the subject matter itself would undoubtedly be enough to leave the reader pondering the grim and bloody past. For someone already familiar with these events, the poetry memorializes those who were murdered and condemns those who did the murdering. Perhaps most interestingly, it illuminates the ways the past continues to haunt the present in different and unanticipated ways.

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