[This essay originally appeared in Studies in American Indian Literatures 7.3 (Fall 1995): 29-38.]
Spider Waits: Charlotte DeClue's "Voices"
Elizabeth H. McDade and Robert M. Nelson
The text of Charlotte DeClue's poem "Voices" was first published in 1990 as the lead work in a SAIL special edition on New Native American Writing. Prior to the publication of "Voices," DeClue, who is Washashe Osage on her mother's side, had already published about 20 poems in a 1985 chapbook entitled Without Warning. Most of those poems had been subsequently republished in anthologies, including Joe Bruchac's Songs From this Earth on Turtle's Back, Rayna Green's That's What She Said, and Beth Brant's A Gathering of Spirit. Since the publication of "Voices," a couple of new poems by Charlotte have appeared in SAIL's Winter 1992 anthology of new Native writing. In 1992 more than 20 new poems also appeared in an avant-garde arts journal entitled Stiletto II: The Disinherited. Charlotte has also been a frequent contributor to Concepts, a magazine published by the inmates of the Joe Harp Correctional Center in Lexington, Oklahoma. More new works of hers appeared in the Returning the Gift anthology co-published by University of Arizona Press and SAIL last Fall. Despite this published exposure, Charlotte DeClue is a relatively unknown name in the field of contemporary Native American writers. Given the range and power of her poetic voice and vision, we think her work certainly deserves wider recognition, especially among teachers looking for strong texts that present contemporary American Indian experience on distinctly Native American terms.
The Voicing in "Voices": Who Speaks, and for Whom?
As critics who were trained in the formalist school, we can't help seeing a certain initial paradox in a text like "Voices"the same paradox that also makes it hard to talk coherently about the authorship of other Native American poems like Ortiz's "My Father's Song," Silko's "Toe'osh: A Laguna Coyote Story," and Tapahonso's "In 1864." On the one hand, there is a singular persona in such works: "the Poet" or (to confuse oracy with literacy for a moment) the Speaker, even if that Speaker is presumably speaking the words of others not herself. On the other hand, it is clear that this poem is designed to evoke a sense of voices--designed, that is, to privilege a polyvocal authorial identity. This paradox obtains (at least in the case of "Voices") whether the text is framed as a read text or as a heard performance. To hear DeClue read the poem is to hear a singular voice, DeClue's, claiming (through the use of the first person pronoun "I") at one point to be a post-menopausal grandmother, at another to be a man who has "many titles," and at another to be a shrewd ambidextrous adolescent. One wonders what exactly is the relationship between such a writer and the voices that the writer articulates.
Our sense is that, in the printed text of "Voices," as in the texts of many Native American works derived from oral tradition, a special relationship emerges between the "singular" voice of the Poet and the multiple voices which constitute the voice of the People for whom the Poet comes to speak.
In DeClue's poem "Voices," the polyvocalized identity is from the very beginning that of the Osage people. Taken together, the nine voices of the nine stanzas comprising the text serially record a transformation of Osage identity. Aligned within a specifically historical context, these voices polyvocalize an Osage version of post-Contact history emphasizing some of the major transformative events of the past 150 years. The nine "voices" come to represent the generations, connected by the thread of unfolding time and event, who have experienced the story of the People to which the poem's persona is heir. For someone who identifies as Osage, the story of the People is the backbone story of the individual.
The role of the individual Poet in all this is to provide coherence and order to this polyvocalized version of the life of the People since the time of Contact. She does this by providing at least four threads of recurring imagery that run through these nine articulated moments of the collective experience.
One of these threads has to do with the bracketing image of Spider. In stanza I, Spider appears as tse-xo-be, an Osage word for spider. We are told that the "doorkeepers," including the presumed grandmother whose voice this first story realizes and preserves, have the figure of tse-xo-be "emblazoned on [their] hands." In his 1961 book The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters, John Joseph Mathews says that this spider is the symbol of the "original Isolated Earth People," one of the four grand divisions of the Osage people, who call themselves "The Little Ones." According to Mathews,
Only the eldest daughter of the first-class families might have the stylized spider tattooed on the back of each hand, . . . since such tattooing was highly ceremonial and took many horses and perhaps robes or blankets to the specialist tattoo artist. . . . But some of the first-class families who had many horses or many trade gadgets could afford to have the hands of the other daughters tattooed as well, if there were not too many. (325)
He goes on to say that "the women with the spider on the backs of their hands were holy guardians of the lodges and symbols of protective motherhood.
Through them the Little Ones would attain old age and create warriors who would keep the medicine strong" (326).
Eight episodes later, in the final stanza of the poem, Spider reappears. This time Spider, referred to specifically as "SHE," appears as the first in a series of five images of life in motion (in company with wind, oak, armadillo,1 and moon). As a figure of that-which-puts-life-in-motion, Spider works in this poem (as she does in Osage traditional stories) in much the same way that the traditional Keresan creatrix and helper figure, Ts'its'tsi'nako/Spider Grandmother, does at the opening of Leslie Silko's Ceremony and near the center of Simon Ortiz's "To Insure Survival"; further, as in Silko and Ortiz, her existence is cast in the present tense, suggesting a kind of abiding presence. That her presence seems to get submerged after stanza I but then re-emerges in the final stanza implies that she has been in existence all along, though maybe outside or "beneath" ordinary time and the events given voice to by the human beings in the previous seven stanzas. All that has been lacking in these stanzas is a human being who had the vision to see her, there. The effect of this bracketing Spider imagery is to remind us that perhaps the now-day "doorkeepers" of the Osage include in their number the Poet, who "emblazons" (by means of a visible word in her poem rather than a visible tattoo on her hand) the image of this special helper/ally of those women responsible for sustaining the earth-surface existence of the People. If this is so, then one of the functions of the several "voices" in the poem is to provide a thread of story that connects the spirit of the pre-Contact Osage grandmother of stanza I to the figure and voice of the post-Contact Poet in stanza IX.
A second thread that provides a formal element of order and coherence to the text is composed of recurring hand imagery, in particular images of hands functioning, or failing, to communicate.2 Especially when the event structure of the text is read as a record of post-Contact Osage history, hand imagery functions as a sort of poetic "sign language" that helps to accentuate the steady course of transformation encoded in the voices, from a state of empowered, articulate self-definition to a state of powerlessness, silence, and indefinite identity.
In stanza I, we are given a voice who speaks for those whose unquestioned authority is "emblazoned on [their] hands." Their medicine is strong, apparently so strong that neither "Hawk nor standard bearer," the two symbols of Osage male leadership and authority facing west and east respectively, dares interfere with the work of these Spider women.
Beginning with stanza II, however, the strong medicine of the People, and the role of hands in sustaining that medicine, begins to diminish. The voice in stanza II still has the Touch, the traditional ability of the Osage healing person to communicate through her hand with the we-lu-schka, the Little Mystery People who are the invisible agents of infectious diseases. But the we-lu-schka who are killing the horses do not respond to the prayers of the healer, any more than the sweet poisons dispensed by the Agency will go away in Stanza III. Here we hear about some of the first negative consequences of Contact, in particular the introduction into the lives of the People of the anthrax that kills their horses, thereby beginning to immobilize the People and anticipating the epidemics of smallpox and influenza that will be equally resistant to the old medicines. We also hear that the generation who are heirs to the strong medicine of the Spider women are powerless to halt or neutralize "the way things are changing."
By stanza IV, the agents of disease become the "whites [them selves, who] grew in number / and could no longer be ignored." These whites first use their hands to "beat their women," but by stanza VI they are using their hands to translate their capacity for violence into Osage family circles: "They came at us / pounding their fists, / breaking us apart / like they broke open the land." Embedded in these three central stanzas of the poem, IV through VI, are allusions to many of the main policies of the U.S. during what Edward Spicer has called the historical period of "coercive assimilation" (183-90), between approximately 1860 and 1930. In stanza IV, the coming of "the Book" represents the methodical attempt to impose the state religion upon the People, including the legal principles derived from that religious tradition. In stanza V, the talk of "titles" with respect to land ownership alludes to the disruptive effects of the Allotment Acts, which in concert with unilateral state and federal definitions of "legitimacy," "solvency," and "parental competency" made it possible for outsiders to separate the People not only from the land but also from one another in most Osage communities. The breaking open of the land in stanza VI alludes to the incredible turn-of-the-century violence, both ecological and cultural, wrought by the oil industry and its players.
The cumulative effects of this invasion, disruption, and destabilization of Osage culture over three to five generations manifest in stanza VII, which alludes to the role of Christian boarding schools in the overall attempt to extinguish Native American cultural identities, and again in stanza VIII, which brings the post-Contact story of the People into the mid-Twentieth Century and the era of the "Urban Indian." In stanza VII, the hands of the oppressors get used to "cut my hair, [make] me wear funny clothes," and to "tie down" the left arm of the school-aged speaker (for what it's worth: DeClue, who attended a Catholic mission school for some time, is also left-handed). The hand that in Stanza I bore the sign of the Spider, "holy guardian of the lodges and symbol of protective motherhood," is now labelled "the sign of the Devil." And while the speaker here compliments herself on her successful tricksterism, still now she uses her "right" hand, as required by the agents of coercive assimilation, as well as the one associated in this stanza with the "original" way. And like her sister from some prior generation in stanza III, the speaker's voice like her left hand has become "tied down," "mute": "Don't talk about it anymore," she says, "Remembering hurts."
In this text, it seems, the only thing worse than remembering--and, by extension, talking about "it"--is "not remembering / name / nor blood" (emphasis added). That, at least, seems to be the message in stanza VIII, in which the condition of the human spirit has transformed over time and experience to a point of near stasis, of motionlessness. There is in this place "silence," a silence only barely this side of "no light," "no wind," "nor breath / left" in either the "sleeping man" or the (presumably) semiconscious woman, her vision glazed over by a "haze of gin and seconal," now-day versions of those "sweets" that made it possible for her ancestral sister to stand by and watch the horses die without anger or overt resistance. In this stanza, "no hand reaches"except, perhaps, to answer the phone, to receive the anonymous coup-de-grâce from some "she" who offers verbal Last Rites and thereby absolves herself of any responsibility. If the hand of the voices were to continue along this trajectory, it seems, its only remaining gesture would be to finish itself what the external forces have been working towards for the past seven stanzas, and perhaps for as many generations, by putting "razor / to vein." And then there would be no more generations, no one left to tell the story.
Read diachronically, then, the series of invasive diseasers and the consequent sicknesses that DeClue articulates in stanzas II through VIII present a pretty gloomy picture. Gradually and inexorably, the authority, the pride in self and immediate community, even the certainties of age and gender represented in the strong voice of the grandmother of stanza I, diminish over time and event. From this perspective, the text seems to bear out the very project of coercive assimilation, which was always to eliminate the Otherness of Native American identity, even if that meant practicing genocide as a means to the end. Sleep and death make easy metaphors for one another, and by the end of eight stanzas the voice of a wide-awake Spider grand mother (and the strongly signed "language" in the hand gesture) has transformed into something more like anonymous interior monologue, set at night in a bedroom, delivered by one whose "name" and "blood" no longer matter to others and whose capacity to sign her identity has been immobilized by too much gin and seconal.
All this is part of the story of the text; but it is not the whole story. Beyond realized history--that is, reading the events of the texts historically, on this side of time from the voice and condition of the voice of stanza VIII, is the event represented in stanza IX. It is a curious stanza: shorter than any of the others, printed all in capital letters, opening (as the poem as a whole opens) with the image of Spider and closing with three two-word lines each ending in the word "MOON." The typographical stridency suggests that this stanza is operating formally as a sort of "wake-up" call, and indeed there is much moving in the night, in contrast or contradiction to the sense of stillness and stasis presented in the previous stanza: "spider weaves," "wind plays," "oak dances," "armadillo runs," and--clearly suggesting (re-)awakening--"moon opens her eye." It is a "quarter" moon, a "slow-eyed" moon, still perhaps a little groggy, but she is waxing rather than waning now.
Much like the final stanza of Robert Conley's "We Wait," a shorter poem that also methodically presents a Native reading of the story of Contact and its effects on Native American identity over some generations, the final stanza of "Voices," with its combination of Moon and Spider imagery, invites us to recontextualize and re-evaluate the historical trajectory of the prior stanzas. In "We Wait," Conley devotes each of four stanzas to "voicing" Contact and post-Contact history, but then in a final stanza claims that the story of Contact has already been told, "in all the languages." These stories, the "prophec [ies]," cast contact history as part of a longer story that is finally about how the People manage to endure by practicing a strategy of "wait ing"waiting for the dis-easers to "go away" or self-destruct. "We Wait," in Conley's text, for the trajectory of history to run its course.
In DeClue's text, however, the story is still being told, and therefore the outcome of the story is less certain than in Conley's poem; further, in DeClue's text the trajectory of annihilation is that of the Osage, not the invaders, and so survival for the People depends on recontextualizing the story so as to change, rather than fulfill, the prior historical trajectory of the story. When DeClue constellates the trope of Spider work with Moon imagery in her final stanza, she conjures a sense of cyclical seasonality rather than diachronic historicity. After all, a text that proposes a human female perspective experiencing--and enduring--nine phases is a text that is attuned to the pattern of human conception, gestation, and birth. Herein lies another version of that paradox we mentioned earlier: taken individually and then sequenced diachronically, these "voices" sketch a story of dying out; but taken collectively and read in the context of the webwork that holds them all together, they sing a birthsong. The "crescent moon" attending the low tide of life for the People in stanza VIII has become a "quarter moon" in the last stanza, heading back perhaps towards the fullness and clarity of voice, vision, and identity that in the beginning characterized those with "tse-xo-be / emblazoned on [their] hands." "Spider weaves, she does"; the Poet, in her time and way still doing the work of the Osage Doorkeepers, weaves also, with her words, in a sense working to midwife the birth of a next generation of life and vision for the People. One senses that the voice being born in the poem will go on to "talk about it," even if "remembering hurts," and will probably talk about it in capital letters too. We'll see.
The Source of "Voices": Where Do These Voices Come From?
To summarize the drift of the preceding line of analysis: DeClue's creative vision is embedded in contemporary (which is also to say, ongoing) Osage experience. Her poem "Voices" can serve to provide an oral historical "reading," from a distinctly Washashe perspective, of more familiar accounts of contact and its consequences, a reading that preserves the character of Osage story and tradition at the same time that it engages the dominant culture's values on more contemporary, "pan-Indian" terms.
To say that Charlotte's creative vision is embedded in the Osage experience does not tell the whole story of this poem's origins, though. We have talked about the role that the constructed persona of the Poet serves in the text; we now want to differentiate between Charlotte DeClue and the persona she constructs to do her work in this text, in order to make a point about her sources and her role in preserving the story of the People who call themselves Washashe. We need to return to the issue of the life of this text, the existence of Something that "texts"--the hand motions, the motion of sounded words, the print-text versions of such motions--are about. It is a question of authorization, both in the sense of authorship and in the sense of authority: whose poem is this, "originally"? To whom or what is the Poet, and by extension her spokesperson persona in this polyvocalized poem, responsible: History? Imagination? Phrased this way, the question has only one answer that Charlotte DeClue would agree with: the Poet and her poem are responsible to the somehow still living, moving voices of those People whose lives (and voices) History, Imagination, and poems like "Voices" are "about."
Many students of contemporary Native American literature are familiar with Scott Momaday's story ("The Man Made of Words") about the time his deceased grandmother Ko-sahn visited him while he was writing the end of The Way to Rainy Mountain. What we often miss in this story is the suggestion that Ko-sahn dreams her grandson telling her story as surely as her grandson, telling her story, dreams her. Closer to Charlotte DeClue's own text, we have the word of Joy Harjo (to whom "Voices" is dedicated), who writes in an autobiograph ical essay of the several worlds in which her life moves, one of those worlds being the "past" world in which her ancestors imagined her becoming. "I also know," she says, "it is only an illusion that any of the worlds are separate."
It is around midnight. . . . The world is quiet except for the sound of this typewriter humming, the sometimes dash of metallic keys, and the deep breathing of my dog who is asleep nearby. And then, in the middle of working, the world gives way and I see the old, old Creek one who comes in here and watches over me. He tries to make sense of this world in which his granddaughter has come to live. . . .
I tell him that it is writing these words down, and entering the world through the structure they make, that has allowed me to see him more clearly, and to speak. And he answers that maybe his prayers, songs, and his belief in them has allowed him to create me.
We both laugh, and continue our work through many seasons. ("Ordinary Spirit" 266)
Most non-Natives, we suspect, would regard such a conversation as a product of hallucination. Still, we can easily shrug off such events when they occur in
poetry--a text is, after all, a fabrication by its very nature, and every writer must invent a persona through which to speak. The source of that persona, as well as
the source of the fabricated experience of that fabricated persona, is of course the author, so some say.
The hitch here is that Joy Harjo and Charlotte DeClue, and sometimes Scott Momaday along with a host of other contemporary Native American writers, are not claiming to be the authors of the voices they write about. In effect, each of these writers is claiming that the printed text in question should rightly be read as a transcription of a conversation between herself (not a created persona, but she herself) and those whose voices she heard (not invented, but heard). This premise requires a reader to accept the being, external to the author of the text, of the voices the text is "about." As Harjo puts it in another interview, "sound is spirit, motion" ("The Story" 100); one may or may not be aware of that spirit/motion but it exists nevertheless, waiting to be heard, waiting to be transcribed, waiting to take form in any and every generation. Spider waits.
Read this way, Charlotte DeClue's "Voices" takes on a new and challenging dimension of significance. It becomes a text that invites the reader to become audience to an ongoing dialogue with the very spirit of the People, a dialogue that requires us to subordinate (that is, de-authorize) diachronic and "historical" models of reality to a more inclusive synchronic one. Such a text reminds us that, for some people at least, "it is only an illusion that any of the worlds are separate" (Harjo, "Ordinary Spirit" 266), that "[f]or her there was no distinction between the individual and the racial experience" (Momaday 166). And if we hear the voices in the text, then we become as surely part of that conversation as any of its authors.
1The word "amarillo" in line 4 of stanza IX of the poem as printed in SAIL 2.2, page 5, should, according to DeClue, read "armadillo." [back]
2In 1989, at the MLA conference held that year in Washington DC, half a dozen "younger" Native American poets read from their work at a special evening session; one of them was Charlotte DeClue. We were brand new to this field then, and it was the first time we'd heard her--in fact, it was probably the first time we'd even heard of her. She read several of her works--well, "read" doesn't quite say it: she performed several of her poems that evening. This performance of hers was our introduction to the concept of living poetry, to the idea that the "text" of some poems involves much, much more than the words that can be printed on a page. We're not just talking about the oral dimension of performance; part of DeClue's "text" that evening was the sign language she used to engage her audience's eyes as well as ears. Part of the articulation depended on what she was doing with her hands as well as what she was doing with her vocal chords. (Anyone who has heard, and watched, her perform her poem "Oklahoma" knows what we're talking about.) "Voices" is one of the few printed texts we know of that presents itself, even in part, as a version of hand-signed art as opposed to verbal art, a text in which "voice," the life of the text, takes the form of hands-in-motion as well as sound-in-motion. This hand(i)work--pun intended--constitutes one kind of "voicing" in, one of the languages of, the poem. [back]
DeClue, Charlotte. Poems in Songs From this Earth on Turtle's Back. Ed. Joseph Bruchac. Greenfield Center NY: Greenfield Review, 1983. 58- 63.
---. Poems in That's What She Said: Contemporary Poetry and Fiction by Native American Women. Ed. Rayna Green. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1984. 73-83.
---. "Blanket Poem #2: The Pox" and "Blanket Poem #4: Visiting Day." Returning the Gift: Poetry and Prose from the First North American Native Writer's Festival. Ed. Joseph Bruchac. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1994. 91-94.
---. "To the Spirit of Monahsetah." A Gathering of Spirit. Ed. Beth Brant. 1984. Ithaca NY: Firebrand, 1988. 52-54.
---. "Visions From the True Tongue: `Ten Good Horses.'" Stiletto II: The Disinherited. Ed. Michael Annis. Denver: Howling Dog, 1992. N.pag.
---. "Voices." SAIL 2.2 (Summer 1990): 2-5.
---. "When Anger Came to the No Anger People" and "The Fields." SAIL 4.4 (Winter 1992): 41-44.
---. Without Warning. Bowling Green Station NY: Strawberry P, 1985.
Conley, Robert. "We Wait." Hobson. 72-73.
Harjo, Joy. "Ordinary Spirit." I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers. Ed. Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987. 265-70.
---. "The Story of All Our Survival." Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets. Ed. Joseph Bruchac. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1986. 87-103.
Hobson, Geary, ed. The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1980.
Mathews, John Joseph. The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1961.
Momaday, N. Scott. "The Man Made of Words." Hobson. 162-73.
Ortiz, Simon. "My Father's Song." Hobson. 278.
---. "To Insure Survival." Hobson. 271.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Viking, 1977.
---. "Toe'osh: A Laguna Coyote Story." Storyteller. New York: Seaver, 1981. 236-39.
Spicer, Edward H. The American Indians. Cambridge MA: Belknap, 1982.
Tapahonso, Luci. "In 1864." Sáanii Dahataal: The Women Are Singing. Sun Tracks 23. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1993. 7-10.