Alexie’s “Tiny Treaties”

It’s not unusual for me to prefer later poems in a collection of poetry because many poets, like a good wine, seem to get better with age. That’s certainly true with Sherman Alexie’s First Indian on the Moon. I liked so many poems in the second half of this work that I was hard pressed to limit myself to just one poem.

Still, it seems to me that in many ways “Tiny Treaties,” like the earlier “Influences,” best represents the poems in this half of the book:

Tiny Treaties

What I remember most about loving you
that first year is the December night
I hitchhiked fifteen miles through a blizzard
after my reservation car finally threw a rod
on my way back home from touching

your white skin again. Wearing basketball shoes
and a U.S. Army Surplus jacket
my hair long, unbraided, and magnified
in headlights of passing cars, trucks, two snowplows
that forced me off the road, escaping

into the dormant wheat fields. I laughed
because I was afraid but I wasn’t afraid
of dying, just afraid of dying
in such a stupid manner. All the Skins
would laugh into their fists

at my wake. All the cousins would tell my story
for generations. I would be the perfect reservation metaphor:
a twentieth century Dull Knife
pulling his skinny ass and dreams
down the longest highway in tribal history.

What I imagine now
is the endless succession of white faces
hunched over steering wheels, illuminated
by cigarettes and dashboard lights, white faces
pressed against windows as cars passed by me

without hesitation. I waited seconds into years
for a brake light, that smallest possible treaty
and I made myself so many promises
that have since come true
but I never had the courage to keep

my last promise, whispered
just before I topped a small hill
and saw the 24-hour lights
of the most beautiful 7-11 in the world.
With my lungs aching, my hands and feet

frozen and disappearing, I promised
to ask if you would have stopped
and picked me up if you didn’t know me
a stranger Indian who would have fallen in love
with the warmth of your car, the radio

and the steady rhythm
of windshield wipers over glass, of tires
slicing through ice and snow. I promised
to ask you that question every day
for the rest of our lives

but I won’t ask you even
once. I’ll just remain quiet
when memories of that first year
come roaring through my thin walls
and shake newspapers and skin.

I’ll just wrap myself
in old blankets, build fires
from bald tires and abandoned houses
and I won’t ask you the question
because I don’t want to know the answer.

Although I’ve been terrified when I lost myself and my kids while cross country skiing and had to trudge hours in the dark to avoid freezing to death, thank God I didn’t have to suffer the degradation and frustration of being passed by motorists throughout the whole event. Part of what I enjoyed about this poem, though, is the narrator’s sense of humor, worrying not about dying but about how his friends would laugh at him at his funeral. Perhaps it merely reminds me of the kind of humor we used to survive in Vietnam.

It’s hard to believe that people would actually drive past someone forced to hitchhike in a blizzard but if I were Indian and had suffered the humiliations described throughout the book I might have expected nothing else. Hopefully reading this book would help readers to better understand one of many reasons why Indians find it so difficult to thrive in the White Man’s world.

As a Vietnam Viet, as a divorc”, as a confirmed introvert, and, perhaps, simply, as a modern man, I cannot help but identify with the sense of alienation found in the last four stanzas ” though I doubt I have ever been as alienated as the narrator of the poem has been. It is natural to wonder how much another person really loves us, but seems equally natural to be afraid to ask the questions that would provide an answer for fear of what the answer might be.

Although you can find a lot of material on the web about Alexie, including his own site, my favorite site is at Modern American Poetry.

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.

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