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Reseñas, Issue 9 | March 2013


Leaving Tulsa

Reviewed by BOJAN LEWIS


Most of the present day canon of Indigenous Literature—true Indigenous Literature and not the midlife crisis musings of a gringo who’s discovered a couple of Indian blood cells beneath a microscope—is filled with the scattered artifacts and disturbed and disinterred remains of our ancestors, the poetics of mapped and woven connections, the violent collision of Western systems and religions with that of Indigenous ideologies, stories, and ancestral lands.  We are, or have become and exist against being displaced in our own home lands: Manifest Destiny and the annihilating campaigns of the US Military, the greed of vicious men out to procure that which has been deemed valuable by banks, government, and the wealthy: scalps, pelts, hides, gold, copper, coal, oil, natural gas, uranium, and water.

It’s been surmised—by many academics fattened on the side dish of Magical Realism—that Indigenous Literature exists, or has existed, in a state of lucid dreaming.  But that’s all too nostalgic and sentimental, somewhat escapist, and fitting for the trope of a vision quest.  Our imaginations do indeed run akin to the beautiful and frightful world of chimeras that Mexican director Guillermo del Toro manages to create in his films; a bridge for the myths of the Indigenous inhabitants of both the European and American continents to cross and intermix; a place for the gods, deities, and creatures, both real and fantastic, to tread; a place where our ideologies are mired in the past.  But what is dismissed and not often understood is that these concerns, beliefs, and traditions all lead, and have led, to the future.

Leaving Tulsa
by Jennifer Elise Foerster
The University of Arizona Press, 2013
88 pp. $15.95 (paper) 
Buy it from the press

Jennifer Elise Foerster, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma with German and Dutch descent, is a relatively new voice to Indigenous Literature.  I say, relatively, because she’s been publishing in journals for years, doing the work, and has received numerous fellowships for her poetry:  Soul Mountain Retreat, Vermont Studio Center, and a two-year stint as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, among others.  She is of that new school of poets emerging out of the BFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which has been the launching ground for many of the voices of Contemporary Indigenous Poetics: Santee Frazier, Sherwin Bitsui, Orlando White, and dg nanouk okpik to name a few.  IAIA recently announced its first run of faculty for their new Low-Residency MFA program, a place decolonized with a wide aperture that will leave nothing undefined in the dominate literary darkness.

Foerster begins, Leaving Tulsa, with the poem, “Relic,” which acts as both section header and title:

An atlas
on the underside of my dream.

My half-shut eyelid—
a black wing.

I dipped sharp quills
in the night’s mouth—

moths swarmed
from my throat.

These opening couplets create the map our imaginations will use as Foerster guides us through landscapes steeped in a past that seems surreal, perhaps because of its violence and uncertainty of that violence, and scattered with the stark images of fall-out, near apocalyptic.  But the poems, as well as the collection itself, are not verses for apocalypse, rather, they remind and recall in our minds the need, the desire, to search, to remap the future from pasts gone dim and rendered desolate.  In “American Coma” she writes

That stars on the undersides of our skulls
can spell the way home
even when the lights have gone out,
the maps again erased.

The poems chronicle a girl growing or changing into a woman who is aware of her personal history to the Muscogee/Creek, German, and Dutch people.  A woman of a half-asleep America where the rift between the dream world and reality is obscured by the dominant corporate-and-war-idolizing culture with that of its ever present and ever expanding Indigenous population.  Leaving Tulsa is a continuous departure and return to those elements, to that blood; it’s a reclaiming of a culture, as well as cultures, nearly decimated and demanded to coexist with their occupier’s version of history.

I had been sleeping in the spine of the turtle,
stones in my mouth.
Hadn’t wanted to remember the language
of spilled things, the earthquake
rumbling beneath us:

how we were wrested from our dreams,
walked from the Great Divide, east
to the delta, following seeds, the dropping sun,
then walked again, halfway back,
trapped by our shadows in front of us.

This opening section from the sequence poem, “Genesis,” follows poems where a grandmother passes away, pottery lessons become moments for conversing in Muscogee, and a woman’s future, mapping her past to that of her ancestors.  Moving along the American landscape and through its blackout memory, Foerster offers her answers and her version of what a Creek woman sees and how she remembers.

For the Indigenous, the apocalypse has already come, and we have already survived.  And if there is to be a second-coming­, for us, it’ll be the third, and we will survive that too.  Foerster has shown us this in Leaving Tulsa—our aberrant wounds, memories for mapping our own inner and outer territories, and the necessary desire to wander.

This is not God’s 
country.  Our story:

scrolled on leaves,
buried under cedars—

with a thread of smoke
I sew a forest
along the rim of my ashen dress.

What leads Indigenous Literature forward is not what leads the rest of, or other literatures, forward.  We have, each, our own voices and histories.  There is no, and shouldn’t be, Pan-Tribalism—a dissolution, homogenization—for to take away the particulars, the constellations, the creation stories, the massacres, and the atoms of each Indigenous people’s map and terrain is to gather them beneath a single and inadequate umbrella against a storm with no abatement on the horizon.  There is no need to fight against one another for dryness or well-being.  I am not Creek, their experience or stories do not belong to me.  I am from a different place on a different map of earth.  This is what Foerster’s debut shows us.

Leaving Tulsa