Where do I start with this poem?
I mean literally where does one start to read this third section of Layli Long Soldier’s “Ȟe Sápa”?
This seemingly simple page—a square created by four lines with the same repeating internal rhymes—creates so much room for consideration.
One of my two favorite ways to read it is: “To see this space / is this place / The space in me you see / see how you place me in you / This is how you see me the space in which to place me / This is how to place you in the space in which to see”. The other is to simply stare at the middle of the square made by these lines and be overwhelmed by its space, asking myself about the place the poem puts me in.
The first time I read this section of poem over a year ago, I simply didn’t get it. It made me empathize with the people who “just don’t get poetry.” I felt at first as if I was being toyed with. It struck me only recently, that this poem had been serving as a container for my ego and that I couldn’t get past that. I spent so long asking of it what it could be telling me that I neglected to see what this form or this particular arrangement of lines is showing me.
The act of reading poetry is an exercise in the stripping of cynicism. It is a confrontation of the words themselves as they’re arranged on the page. What meaning we derive from them is inherently personal—after all, we can only carry our own unique constellation of experiences. In making meaning, however, we draw connection—to not just the poem or the writer, but to the broader work of humanity.
This poem, as much as anything else, is a poem about how we read. It asks what we’re willing to see and how we choose to see it. The moment I let go of my own conception of what a poem is supposed to be or how one is supposed to look—in short, my cynicism—the poem began to unfold endless meaning.
Of course, more context helps. It might help to know that Long Soldier’s poem is a dedication to the Black Hills mountain range that stretches from South Dakota to Wyoming. Perhaps if we knew that, we could say something clever about the shape of this section of poem mirroring the shapes of those states and the nature of arbitrary boundaries. If you knew that the Black Hills were wrenched from the Lakota Nation, of which Long Soldier belongs, you might even say something incisive about what the form of this poem says about the relationship white folks have with land and putting up boundaries—or the humanitarian atrocity of rounding up Indigenous folks and confining them to reservations, hidden from view and erased from public and political discourse.
Any and all of that is probably be true.
To me, these four lines are about the words on the page. They are, in equal measure, about everything that’s been deliberately left out. I see rhymes and the repetition of the same rhymes, too—an elegant, self-referential trick reminding us to look within.
Yours in words,