Sherman Alexie’s “Influences”

After I wrote how much I liked Robert Penn Warren’s story about Chief Joseph, Mike sent me Sherman Alexie’s First Indian on the Moon, suggesting that Sherman, 13/16th Indian, saw the Indian’s world through very different eyes than Warren did.

I didn’t have to read further than the first poem:


We waited in the car
outside the bar
my sisters and I
“for just a couple drinks”
as we had heard it
so many times before
as Ramona said
like all Indian kids
have heard

from their parents, disappeared into the smoke and laughter of a reservation tavern, emerging every half-hour with Pepsi, potato chips, and more promises. And, like all Indians have learned, we never did trust those promises. We knew to believe something when it happened, learned to trust the source of a river and never its mouth. But this is not about sadness. This is about the stories

beneath the sleeping bags
between starts
to warm up the car
because my parents trusted me
with the keys.
This is about the stories
I told my sisters

to fill those long hours, waiting outside the bar, waiting for my mother, my father to knock on the window, asking Are you warm enough? Are you doing all right? Well be out soon, okay? Sometimes, we refused to open the locked doors for our parents, left them to gesture wildly and make all of us laugh because there was nothing else left to do. But this is not about sadness. This is about the stories

I created
how I built
landscapes and imaginary saviors.
Once, I dreamed a redheaded woman,
gave her name and weight
and told my sisters
she would rescue us
from our own love

for this mother and father who staggered from the bar always five minutes before closing, so they could tell us later At least we left before last call. But we did love them, held tightly to their alcoholic necks and arms as we drove back home, stole the six-pack they bought for the road and threw it out the window, counted mile markers and coyotes standing on the edge of the road. But this is not about sadness. This is about the stories, those rough drafts

that thundered the walls
of the HUD house
as my sisters and I lay awake
after we finally arrived home
and listened
to my mother and father dream
breathe deep
in their sleep, snore
like what you might want me to call drums
but in the reservation dark
it meant we were all alive
and that was enough.

to agree that Alexie was, indeed, offering a very different view of the Indian’s world than Warren was offering, though many of Warren’s early poems seemed to offer the same kind of gritty honesty that Alexie’s poems do.

Alexie’s poems didn’t come as a great surprise to me since I had worked with Indians as a former caseworker. Still, that was a long time ago, and his poems offer a unique view of this world.

I’m not overly fond of prose poems, and there are many of them in this volume, but some of the best poems, like this one, offer an interesting combination of traditional lines and prose. In fact, the book, like this particular poem, seems to be about half traditional poetry and half prose poems, though few of them combine these elements in exactly the same way that this poem does.

In some ways this book of poems reminds me more of Heller’s Catch-22 or Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle than any book of poetry I’ve read. For me, at least, it’s a powerful combination of sadness, humor, and hope.

The central image in this poem poignantly captures the central tragedy of modern Indian life, but it tempers that image with humor, love, and, finally, hope. The picture of the kids refusing to open the locked doors and throwing out the six-pack for the road come as delightful surprises in this description. Its obvious that the kids love the parents, though they realize just how empty their promises are. Finally, though, the ability to tell these stories seems to offer hope of escaping their parents’ fate. Without these elements, particularly the love, this book of poems wouldn’t have been as compelling as it is.

One thought on “Sherman Alexie’s “Influences””

  1. breathe Dee
    wow, um
    I am speechless
    and breathless
    AND full of hope
    and fire and ice
    and water
    Lake Victoria
    Ode to Alexie
    wanna slow dance
    and or fast dance
    I like to fast dance
    love you

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