In the summer
of 1965 Edward Dorn attended the Berkeley Poetry Conference, substituting
for LeRoi Jones. He addressed the audience on the occasion of his travel
with photographer Leroy Lucas through what is known geographically as
the Basin-Plateau, an area occupied by several of the western United States,
including Idaho, Oregon, Nevada and Utah. Beginning in Duck Valley, on
the Nevada-Idaho border and continuing west as far as Reno, both men documented
their experiences on long and often gravelly roads that led from boom
and gloom towns of western settlement to more desolate and isolate reservations.
The results of their journey were documented and published a year later
in The Shoshoneans.
"Okay. So there you are, right there with
the first, with the natives, with the first people, the first human beings¾on
this continent," Dorn told his Berkeley audience. "And you don't know
what to say to them. You can't say, 'Well look I'm a poet¾you can trust
me to be sympathetic. You can trust me to know that you're Indian and
that this man is a Negro. And we're not here to really¾shame you or take
bad pictures or anything like that'" (Views, 97).
Dorn's self-consciousness as a poet, an
intellectual and as white, in the eyes of those he would question, pushes
often to the surface of the finely written prose of The Shoshoneans.
In its first chapter, where he enters the home of Willie Dorsey, 102 years
old, and his wife, "the grim weight of bad condition" is displayed "more
heavy with despair than one could arrange with rubble." Here, the "curious
paleface" was "suddenly arrested" by the facts before him.
"I was looking at the scene," he said,
"and at myself, in a mirror, seeing the looking. The chair was covered
with spilled water and bits of debris from his eating. I sat down on it,
and without, I told myself, thinking to prove anything. It was difficult
to do it. I felt crossed by an embarrassed confusion: what and who I was
compressed all at once into one consideration, again I watched myself
as I might think of a god watching, and there was in me at the same moment
the hopelessly practical hesitation to soil my seat and the public willingness
to do so--followed by a self-censure for having thought of it in either
To his audience in Berkeley a few months
later, recalling this moment in the old couple's home, he asks: "How do
you get around being where you are? Even though you went to whatever you
did to get there. You may question what you did to get there but you're
there, alright" (Views, 110).
The circumstances of his being there are
curious, and form a discomfort in him that gives insight to the process
of reasoning that led him there in the first place. He saw himself by
virtue of art and a sensitive intelligence outside American culture and
alien to it. That, ostensibly, is why he is there, with an ancient relic
of a man, whose presence turns the questions back onto the younger poet.
He could see himself finding out in company with the old couple, and he
returned with some mercurial and surprising results. Dorn put himself
there with the Shoshoni because he felt that he didn't have a country
"any more than they" (Views, 107). He found in them too the active
consequences of that dispossession he sensed inside himself.
"I'm like part of the Fourth World too,"
he said. "I, of necessity I have to be part of the Fourth World to retain
any possible honor for myself. Which may be presumptuous, to want to honor
myself" (Views, 107).
That sense of dispossession can be heard
in his term, "Fourth World." To our ears it may carry a naïve tone,
as Dorn himself possibly sensed, especially once he penetrated beyond
the recognition of a mere condition of himself outside. From here he could
begin "seeing the looking." In that perceptive act, in the filth of the
old couple's home, an awareness formed in him, derived from a naked disposition
and a genuine reduction of intellect or western self. Not only was he
other in their home, he was sensing his own otherness, that transhuman
quality of the self. An inwardness moved out and made him subject to facts
accountable only to that moment. Dorn, Lucas, the old man, his wife--and
all that could be joined by place in these names--move into the prose
telling of a personally felt kind. The significant act is one of displacement,
but the converging dissonance brings into recognition a social outing
"And trying the sense of their relationship
with my own subjectivity," he writes, "at that moment it seemed to me
here was the contrary of my own Western notion that one goes through the
portal of death alone to greet some large blank which hopefully might
be an extension of a 'personality,' whether that be God or oneself as
a continued state. Thus wrapped in the service of their ritual antiquity,
they formed an effective edge of the real, an area of existence both life
and death, neither morbid nor quite quick. A substantial prayer of flesh,
plasma, spirit, all one fluid. And so, if this all sounds religion, I
hope it does in no orthodox sense, more religare--to tie back:
the nearly absolute briefness of ceremony, its power an intense spark,
renewable as each time it reconstitutes the entirety of creation, the
Every Thing" (12).
Here the prose goes far to lift up to the
reader an experience alien for the most part to any contemporary situation
of that which is generally reckoned American. This visitation from one
outsider to another completes itself in what is recognized by Dorn as
something best described only as prayer. That which is precarious to prayer,
at its root, presents itself to him, whose reenactment of it in language
serves as an answer, in a sense, to whatever unspoken request carried
through the event itself. To go from wanting to find something out to
suddenly "seeing the looking" turns out to be a kind of orison, and it
exposes the preconceptions of the questioner. An afternoon in an old couple's
home becomes a meditation on death itself, and on the very fabric of reality.
Gone are the sure reliances of the American states; so too the "Fourth
World" conceptualization of one's dispossession. To be out, to be really
outside of it, and for it you can plug in any number of
those occasions of mind that normally keep the roof from leaking, you
suddenly are into something very much unknown.
"I had a great desire to be off," Dorn
writes, "to not take any more, or give any more, to let the spiritual
fact be the function of its instant and not an exposure, not a continuum.
A Heathenism, of course, entirely of my own origin. For I will say it,
at the risk of blunder: It is impossible for myself and my people to offer
themselves in any but the standard senses. The minute there are human
implications we back off. It was painful to¾ reconsider the social and
economic configurations that rise inevitably like specters in the eye
of an enlightened Western mentality; not to do all that was then a problem,
the cross-telling in the busy circuits of the mind in the oppressive heat
for which we are the fuel" (14-15).
What came to reason, he continues, were
not the "pop-ritual of medical deodorization" but the possibility of cooling
the old man, relieving him of the desert heat.
"That seemed reasonable," he continues.
"But was it? It was I who objected to the heat and stillness of the air.
Not him ¾. That meliorism, strong in me, tinged with the Methodism of
my youth, I put down. I left their house. Again, his song as I first heard
it, the high Shoshonean vibration and cadence."
# # #
I met Dorn in 1997, at his home in Denver, Colorado, where I had traveled
to interview him for my poetry magazine. Over time I grew close to his
work, the body of it sustaining my curiosity generally in the American
West and in poetry. The Shoshoneans came to me as an extension
of ideas developed in other books, such as the novel By The Sound,
the short stories collected in Some Business Recently Transacted in
the White World, and the poems in Recollections of Gran Apacheria.
I needed to look closely to find out what was at stake for him, and for
what I feel continues to be a necessary preoccupation for poets and students
of North America.
cities of the West like Las Vegas bloomed out of the Mojave Desert, creating
fortunes on consolidated empires of finance, government and crime syndication,
Dorn as poetic figure and researcher studied the ground at his feet. With
Leroy Lucas he conducted research of a curious kind. Neither a book of
journalism, nor a work of poetry, The Shoshoneans is a document
of a poverty of spirit that is ubiquitous in the West even today. But
for my own uses I found a measure for reading the animist presence in
the geography Dorn notes. Whether Native American, or extended through
European or African Americans, thereþs a paleolithic root at the heart
of American transaction. Reno and Las Vegas are outer growths of that
distinction. But the reservations, where Dorn turned most of his attention,
held the living embodiment few ever contact, myself included. By making
himself available to that experience in the Basin-Plateau, he retrieved
vital insight to our geographic legacy.
Shoshoneans, first published in 1966 by William Morrow, today remains
out of print. As an early document of the geography and social history
of the peoples of the Basin-Plateau, it was in some ways a prelude to
"a fashionable concern for the social and cultural appurtenances of native
american life" (Views 93). While it's certainly informed by anthropology
and geography, Dorn's work here differs greatly from books like Frank
Waters' Book of the Hopi, or other more strictly anthropological
investigations. Instead, The Shoshoneans was a then-contemporary
documentary, wherein the subject turns critically back on the researcher.
In this case, Dorn submits his observations to critical self-inquiry,
treating himself too as an active participant in his study. And so the
close assumptions of a white life come quickly into question in the Far
West of another cultural order.
Words, Dorn relates, of a "literate Indian
in Pocatello" on the subject of Peyoteism, could be applied to the writing
of this book: "His point, I thought, was that a man has as much potential
as a plant and should grow by virtue of his own roots" (23). This "Indian
friend" of Dorn's would be "unpopular in local academic circles," he writes.
"He is not the sort of Indian an anthropologist (and by implication some
archaeologists) likes to work with. He is too insistently sophisticated
about his 'Indianness,' which they most likely consider an infringement
on their domain. The Indian the professional non-Indian likes to deal
with is the 'natural' one. Those Indians who are old enough to be informants
of the Old Way, or those who quite willingly demonstrate, with as little
fuss as possible, culture change. An articulate Indian is somehow unuseful
if he has informed himself about white culture devices" (23).
We can forget about this book in a traditionally
anthropological sense. This is a poet's work, and one that addresses,
beneath the close cultural study it is, actually, the outside, a serious
condition throughout Dorn's important work. After all, "the inside real
/ and the outsidereal" (Gunslinger III, 1) are two very significant
facts to consider when reading him. If Slinger proposes an inner
condition--a culture's psyche personified--then The Shoshoneans burrows
deep into another that occupies his attention. Speaking with a "Paiute
boy" in Reno who saw the drifter poet as "a white man who wanted to talk
to Indians," Dorn says this: "I am no more acculturated than he is, although
we are of course quite differently deculturized" (24-5). The pursuit of
native disposition, and the different forms of its condition, present
the book's tensions, and force its critical clarity. But only from shared
conditions of "the inside real / and the outsidereal" do clear insights
form. So the "Paiute boy" moves in estimation.
"He had the few articles technology, without
much involvement, would provide him," Dorn writes. "He seemed to me possessed
of a very uncluttered and unembittered futility--nothing found and no
complicated sociological conclusions. He sat there, being an Indian behind
his dark glasses, neat and fairly well groomed without making a point.
The point he didn't have to make was clear: he was the particular Indian
he was in Reno. No allegiances beyond what that might be" (25).
Where human relationships are concerned,
Dorn seems to value mostly those people who are themselves most of all,
without the weight of that sociological clutter western civilizations
have produced, weakening a man or woman by a tremendous burden of personal
awareness. This is not the same as self-awareness, or an active imagination
for the environment around us. Those activities men learn, like pissing
next to each other in public, that become part of the fabric of their
lives, weave into consciousness without too much reflection or the burden
of analysis. Those men I've seen, capable of pulling out a comb in public,
at a restaurant say, and running it through their hair to arrange a perfection
suitable to them, is to me a marvelous thing. Everything that is hip,
smart and ironic in white culture removes us from the fabric of the world,
leaving us instead with the abrupt economy of our easily provoked self-consciousness.
"I wouldn't recognize Uto-Aztecan for sure
if I heard it again," he writes. "What do I know? Simply that men
are lovely when they sing. I suppose. True enough, and whatever it can
mean to me I'll have to settle on as my limitation. Each utterance is
particular, that's what saves us all" (33).
But the value placed on appearance is apparent.
Social orders have evolved to provide structure for power. In the basest
sense, to be outside is to be conspicuous in the eyes of authority, "the
estimation of the delinquency of image" (34) as Dorn notes with Johnsonian
authority. And while "it is dangerous to look like an observer" (36) he
reminds us that the "first rule of magic is style" (42). The outsider
puts on appearances to bypass those legal watchdogs paid to enforce the
insider's rule. In towns such as Reno, appearances send signals. No one
is just passing through, as with Freud, there are no accidents. Not much
separates Dorn and Lucas, students of the West, from the outsiders their
presence makes known. What arrogance would conceive it? A white man and
an African American traveling together in Nevada in the 1960s to talk
"Aren't we just kidding ourselves when
we speak of Indians, or Civil Rights," Dorn asks. "Justice via the courts,
like due process: What do we think we mean? And when culture is brought
forward, like a pizza on the tray, whatever combination you want, that's
really loading it! You know what--I'll bet you money there are
people in Reno who are 'interested' in Indians, dig their folklore and
so on" (43).
# # #
Outside conditions form in response to those internal pressures from which
there may really never be an escape. Dorn made himself available to an
experience of the West. In the process he perceived a difference between
who he was and what he thought himself to be. But what any of us are capable
of is more important, and that we make ourselves so. In The Shoshoneans
he presents a subject people who are as far out as it gets from our modernisms.
In writing this book and by speaking with these native outsiders, an irony
if there ever was one, he lives up to a role he has chosen as poet. In
the long poem "Idaho Out" he writes:
My desire is to be
a classical poet
my gods have been men ¾
I renew my demand
that presidents and chairmen everywhere
be moved to a quarantine outside the earth
as we travel northward¾
(Collected Poems 113).
A poet can by virtue of his or her own abilities
submit to those reserves of clarity that await useful eyes and ears. The
romance of the outsider, the outlaw or other is a burden to anyone possessed
of a feeling intelligence, but that sensitivity to the abandoned culture
can serve as a source of self preservation, if nothing else. The primacy
of the individual, recalling that deeply-ingrained American myth of romantic
origin, finds substance internally, rather than allowing the community,
or public lynch mob, to rob that authority from the deeper sources of
one's own roots. The dispossessed can be possessed too.
"And there is hardly any question that
it is actually better to have the Korean veteran enact his hostility to
the surrounding culture in his own back yard," Dorn writes. "He can think
harmlessly and bitterly of Vietnam along the straight gravel roads of
the reservation and he can be a warrior, which I'll grant he has to be,
against a cow. It makes more sense than the psycho-peripheral sickness
of Reno, or Elko" (71).
This is a cultural Jeremiad in a sense,
voiced against that industrial complex that would burn and bathe Southeast
Asia in steel and chemical toxins. The parallels drawn between Vietnam
and Native American culture come through here, but the close read of these
invasions as spiritual acts occupy Dorn's attention too. "Not time as
a residue," he says, "but as a dynamic fact" (78). The patterns, as they
accumulate in us, as we are, act against what we would be. While I want
to read Dorn as he presents himself, an outsider, with these men and women
on their isolate reservations, the spiritual or psychic penetrations inward
distinguish his position as poet and student of the West. It is significant
to me that while he invested much of himself into finding out what he
could of these varied bands of Basin-Plateau peoples, he is curiously
absent during the peak inter-tribal festival, the Sun Dance.
# # #
In the final chapter dedicated to the rituals
of the Sun Dance, Dorn probes the relations between the cultures he has
visited. The problem he defines for himself is total.
"If one thing is clear today it is that
the prevailing structure of supply is dead and has been dead from the
beginning of the Industrial Revolution. All that gain was an unavoidable
but nonetheless wholly mistaken activity. The grain grown on the appropriated
hills of Idaho is used to buy off the Indian still--now it is shipped
to India to secure the subcontinent against the ambitions of a China.
Any stranger passing along the ghostly sidewalks of our towns and cities,
instinctively knows that he lives in 'a permissive asylum'" (83).
Because of this invasion and distribution
of resources, he is sensitive to his role on these reservations. His distaste
for "conniving familiarity" is clear, as also is his love for the unknowable
figure of Willie Dorsey, who is a kind of ideal of the spirit. "In him
we are honored to witness the total exclusion of the private," he writes.
"If we happen to find ourselves in the frame of a human integrity of that
order, we can go openly toward it. Heaven, or nothing less." This awareness
grounds his hostility toward the shit lump of culture. So his witness
of it remains quite different from an experience in it. "What the European
found here was a collection of cosmologies he thought was a continent"
(85). So what happens, he suggests, when you discover the numinous facts
of the land itself?
"The man who doesn't belong in a community
is probably the man to pay attention to," said Dorn to his Berkeley audience.
"The old idea of the stranger is still very strong. That's definitely
a Greek idea. We may not honor him any more. We don't. because we don't
have--we didn't inherit that part of the culture unfortunately. But we
certainly know who he is and the stranger's fearsome. He's the man to
talk to. He's the man who knows where he's come from" (Views, 117).
And of the Sun Dance itself, well maybe
Dorn is such a man "who knows where he's come from," because he quietly
excuses himself from participation in those rituals. The photographer,
Lucas, remains for the entire trial of the dance and its laborious preparations.
When the two men reunite in Pocatello, Dorn notices the change in his
"He seemed at first the same as ever,"
he writes, "--large clear brown eyes, disarmingly easy manner--straight
out in front of me, who had returned with the Troubles of the Great World
in a bag. But he had, I gradually saw, changed. There was a subtle clarity
and calm permeated his being" (79).
One need only see the photographs Lucas
made for this book to appreciate the visual access participation in the
Sun Dance ritual granted him. The intimacy of people in their lives comes
through. The creased faces of old men, the dignified presentation of younger
ones and the sweetness of laughter and play in children arrest the eye.
One does not regard these images casually. A woman sits at a booth with
a coffee mug. She wears a checkered dress. On the table are bottles of
catsup and mustard. She is looking down at something. In another image,
an older man, dressed in western shirt and cowboy hat, sits beside a truck
holding a hotdog. His eyes look up and his face conveys the hard fact
of an accumulating age. One older man's eyes look straight into the camera.
His handsome features are obscured only at his chin by fingers that hold
the cigarette he will smoke. The land reveals an accumulation of bartered
modernism: long highway stretches with phone poles and billboards; low-lying
"ranch-style" houses; old cars and station wagons; junk yards and cracked
sidewalks, with parking meters lining the commercial downtown of another
western township. A rodeo sign advertises the "Indian Stampede." "Roy's
Auto Sales" pushes its ware with the image of a smiling, pipe-smoking
Indian. The "Indian Revival Center" stands out for its dull, square sturdiness,
an obdurate fact shaded by branches of cottonwood trees. Photographs of
the Sun Dance locate an intimacy of a shared, unspoken recognition as
delicate, decorative headgear of feathers shoots out in bursts of light
Dorn has this to say about Lucas' participation:
"Leroy Lucas entered the foot races at Gibson
Lodge. Anyone might run a race, but the question is, will he have that
sense of it? He danced. Three days' dancing in the burning sun without
food. Only small sips of water mixed with clay. There are reasonably enough
few Indians who will themselves take on that ardor. One can voluntarily
or involuntarily take on another man's politics, his economic or social
terms, and fairly well understand the risks or rewards. But you don't
fool around with his ritual. There is nothing to demonstrate, nothing
to prove, because you have moved into the matrix then, not into what he
merely seems via your impressions. Both the Shoshoni world and the Afro-American
world of Leroy Lucas were honored. And the honor did not derive from some
stupefacient gimmick like race. He was there prepared to do more than
look, was very much an emissary of himself. It is not so much that the
tourist is incapable of the necessary singularity, even if he and the
Indians were disposed toward an exchange. Rather his presence is compromised,
he is not free to enter. He is a subject of a state wholly secular whose
ceremony is now vestigial. The ill-fitting chasuble he wears has been
stitched not in Sodom as he could be made to believe, but in the far less
interesting personal sweatshop of his own systematic carelessness: he
is cheated by his very eagerness to believe that to look, tongue lolling,
and then stumble on is to be alive."
This book is Dorn's fulfillment of Olson's
charge to him in the Bibliography of America for Edward Dorn. He
not only follows Olson's lead west, but also makes its geographic expanse
his own, internalizing it. He observes through his own eyes the dispossessed
particulars of a cosmology assumed in the geography of a continental divide.
Few writers of American letters have gone so far or risked so much of
themselves for a clarity that brings with it very few consolations. The
Shoshoneans is a gift for those stranded in themselves alone. It acknowledges
and pursues the dispossessed states peculiar to Americans of cross-cultural
origins. This in a sense was his "apprenticeship of the spirit" (85),
and stands against "a social clutter in the minds of the strong" (87).
The wilderness is a vivid experience and from its unknowable form a possession
of one's own self can be achieved.
All quotes have been taken from The
Shoshoneans: The People of the Basin-Plateau, except those indicated.