How to Be an Indian in the 21st Century is a poetry memoir written by Louis V. Clark III. Clark, who also goes by the name Two Shoes (as in Goody), is an Oneida Indian from Wisconsin. His book tells the story of his life and the poetry he wrote as he lived it. He began writing poetry when he was in sixth grade and he is quick to point out that a young Indian who writes poetry in elementary school is just naturally going to get beat up a lot.

Clark is a warmhearted storyteller, full of kindness and human understanding. As a child of an Oneida woman and a Polish man, he got it from both sides as a child. He was often in trouble either as a victim of bullies or for defending himself from bullies. There was violence at home, too. He wishes he knew his mother before she married, when she was hopeful and full of life. He knows his father wants to show how much love he has for him, but describes being held by his father and “counting your fingers / like a convict / Counts the bars / of his cell / Waiting for the time / my sentence would end.”

He falls in love and marries his childhood sweetheart and writes love poems. He writes about work, about the casual racism and thoughtless bigotry he encounters. When he scores highest in the civil service test, he’s told promotions are based on seniority. When he’s worked so long he has the most seniority and the top score, they decided to promote based on an interview, one that leaves him behind again. A coworker tells him if there were an accident, he would be “one dead Indian” and a supposed friend explains that he can’t be as friendly with him when they’re around white people. As he expressed it in a poem, “I seem to do all right they say when I know my place.” The majority of his poems are about his life, story poems for children, poems about his wife putting him on a diet, and poems about chasing his grandchildren around.

He wrote several poems about mascots, giving him a bit of renown and notoriety, depending on the audience. He also wrote poems about appropriation, of white women in braids, dancing “the boogaloo with feathers on my head. Your ancestors would say I’m honoring you, if only they weren’t dead.”

3-stars

Clark’s story telling is interesting and full of humor and human empathy. The poems are varied, as though written by two different people. The more personal, familiar poems seem  old-fashioned. They rhyme, they have a cadence Clark says comes from the drums that are part of his heritage. They are casual poems of ordinary things and have a naturalism that makes them feel simple, though rhyming is not as easy as he makes it look. They are not the most interesting poems.

He acknowledges that poems that don’t rhyme are more respected, but there’s not his thing. However,  he does write poems that do not rhyme. Consider the lines about his father’s fingers. The thing is, when he’s not worried about rhyming, his imagery is so rich and alive. Think about that comparison of his father’s fingers to prison bars, a comparison with both visual and emotional truth. Or consider this, when he writes about a racist comment someone made at work, “There’s an aloneness, a feeling / of despair that creeps over me / like a shroud being sewn over / a corpse.”

I would have liked more of the latter poems and fewer of the familial poems. I also wish the editors would have persuaded Clark to drop the epilogue which is a collection of second-hand aphorisms and advice, stuff like “To get respect, give respect.” It’s the advice someone writes for their children, not for readers. It’s prosaic, unnecessary and banal. It drags down a good collection of poetry and enjoyable stories. Coming at the end compounds the error, leaving readers with writing that is unoriginal and banal compared to the rest of the book.

I received a copy of How to Be an Indian in the 21st Century from the publisher through Edelweiss.

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