Irreverent, Ribald, Irrepressible and Grief Struck and Stuck – The Wild Heart of Sherman Alexie

Celebrated native American poet, novelist and non-fiction writer, Sherman Alexie. Photo credit: Ian C. Bates, New York Times

Hunger Games
I crave grief for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Sweet grief, salted grief, I want so much
To swallow you whole. I'm a damn sinner

Who can only be saved by your fingers.
Hurry, place the sacred grief on my tongue
And consecrate breakfast, lunch and dinner—
Or maybe not. I wish I were slimmer
And more disciplined—a secular monk.
But I lust, lust and lust. I'm a sinner

Who seeds, threshes, harvests, feasts, and shivers.
Forgive me. Condemn me. I need flesh and blood
And grief at each breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I want to want too much. I know what hinders
and troubles you. But join me in this flood.
Look at me. I’m your beloved sinner.

Sit with me, please. let’s talk. Please. linger.
Let’s touch and eat everything that we touch.
Let us stay through breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Let’s become each other’s favorite sinner.

Sherman Alexie from You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, Little,Brown and Company, 2017

On stage Sherman Alexie owns his space. His is a commanding presence.He’s a natural. He wields his words like a Ninja his weapons. His stories, often off-colour, his scatological jokes, may provoke lots of laughs but often they strike home again later, but in darker and not so funny ways. Sometimes the jibes and edgy quips are self-directed, but at at other times strike hard at both the indigenous (he says Indian) and white American communities. In this he may seem fearless, almost arrogant, but underneath lurks a vulnerability that makes him  surprisingly more sympathetic than I, for one, initially suspected.

Alexie’s vulnerability, which is so evident in his non-fiction , came full focus in a very public way  through an open letter he wrote earlier this summer during his promotional tour for his latest book, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, a striking memoir of his life focused through the lens of his profoundly damaged relationship with his mother who died in 2015. Her death provoked his memoir. It’s a stomach tightening and heart-busting-open read. Grief soaks through the words. Grief not just over his direct family losses but the underlying grief for the losses in his shattered native community, one rife with  psychological and physical violence he experienced and witnessed including rape.

His open letter on July 13th told of a series of haunting events, all evoking memories of his mother, all compounding his grief and confusion. These happenings, with a tinge of the supernatural or magic about them, convinced him he needed to take a break from his tour and look after himself. The clarity and courage in that letter was telling and compelling. After describing these happenings in his letter he admitted this:

I have been sobbing many times a day during this book tour. I have sobbed in private and I have sobbed onstage.I have been rebreaking my heart night after night. I have, to use recovery vocabulary, been retraumatizing myself.

Last week, I fell ill with a terrible headcold and had to cancel events in Tulsa and Missoula. But I also fell ill with depression. I medicated my headcold. I quickly healed from that simple malady. But I couldn’t medicate my sadness—my complicated grief.
I sobbed and sobbed, and then I got on another airplane and continued my book tour. But then, in the fifteenth or twentieth hotel room of this summer, I dreamed. To read the complete letter click here .

According to Alexie, that dream, through the ghost of his mother ordered him to stop his tour. His letter concluded with this:

When I told Diane, my wife, about my mother’s ghost and about my plans to cancel so many events, she said, “Maybe it’s your mother taking care of you from Heaven.” “Maybe,” I said. “But I think it’s probably your subconscious taking care of the rest of you. I think it’s probably you being a good mother to yourself. You are mothering you.”

So here I am—the son and the mother combined—who needs to take a big step back and do most of my grieving in private. My memoir is still out there for you to read. And, when I am strong enough, I will return to the road. I will return to the memoir. And I know I will have new stories to tell about my mother and her ghost. I will have more stories to tell about grief. And about forgiveness.
But for now, I can only apologize again for my unexpected retreat. And I thank you, over and over again, for your time, energy, and understanding.

Grief. It saturates his letter, it saturates the poem above that introduced this blog post. It’s there in his previous writing, his previous  poems. In this poem, a stand alone chapter in his quilt of small chapters in his memoir, it may be specific to one of his latest griefs, the death of his mother, but it could as easily be a proxy for all the griefs piled up inside this man and eating him up from the inside out. And this devouring seems to have reached its crisis point back in July when he published his open letter. It seems his grief and confusion over his mother’s death – he loved her, he despised her – couldn’t be dealt with anymore. The haunting he felt from his mother can be seen in the book quite literally. The book itself, as his wife pointed out, is made up of short one to three page patches of poems and prose, like a quilt, like the quilts his mother was famous for making. And the front and back inside cover pages of the book show the image of one of his mother’s quilts.

After a seven week hiatus, Alexie announced last week he was coming out of his self-imposed exile to make a public appearance to honour the 10th anniversary of the release of his National Book Award winner – The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. ( To read an interview on his public reappearance and his plans for public appearances for the rest of the year click here .)

I, for one, feel blessed by Alexie’s vulnerability and openness.  His courage to share a grief, many griefs, so vividly and clearly. It gives me permission to touch my griefs, many unspoken and hardly visible, even to me. I feel enriched by this man, his writing. And it is not just what he writes about but the quality of his writing. Look closely at his poem Hunger Games. Look how its rhyme and near-rhyme boxes the poem in, creates a suffocating repetition that embodies the grief he is writing about. How it takes his breath away, boxes him in.

To conclude this post, here’s another Alexie poem on grief, its title a variation on a the title of a celebrated poem by American poet and nonagenarian, Richard Wilbur, Love Calls Us to the Things of this World:

Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World

 The morning air is all awash with angels 
 -Richard Wilbur

The eyes open to a blue telephone
In the bathroom of this five-star hotel.
I wonder whom I should call? A plumber, 
Proctologist, urologist, or priest?

Who is most among us and most deserves
The first call? I choose my father because

He’s astounded by bathroom telephones.
I dial home. My mother answers. “Hey, Ma, 

I say, “Can I talk to Poppa?” She gasps,  
And then I remember that my father 

Has been dead for nearly a year. “Shit, Mom," 
I say. “I forgot he’s dead. I’m sorry—

How did I forget?” “It’s okay," she says.
“I made him a cup of instant coffee 

This morning and left it on the table—
Like I have for, what, twenty-seven years—

And I didn’t realize my mistake 
Until this afternoon.” My mother laughs

At the angels who wait for us to pause
During the most ordinary of days

And sing our praise to forgetfulness
Before they slap our souls with their cold wings.

Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.

Those angels, forever falling, snare us
And haul us, prey and praying, into dust.
Sherman Alexie from Face, Hanging Loose Press, 2009




Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *