Sample Essays from Students
Paper 1 -- English: Critical Analysis, using MLA (Modern Language Association) in-text citations and works cited list
Songs of the Halfbreed:
Survival and Rebirth in the Poetry of Wendy Rose
Transcending its role as biological function, "birth" has become a societal emblem for life. At the very least birth is proclaimed a miracle of creation; an occasion which necessitates a shower of gifts. More philosophical considerations exalt the birthing process as a step towards immortality in which the offspring are conduits for the perpetuity of ancestral DNA. It is assumed that birth necessarily translates into "life," and that every being has a family, a home, and a world anticipating its arrival.
Yet the gulf between truth and ideal is unbridgeable. In the celebratory frenzy of "life" we forget that labor may be classifiably traumatic, and that babies are sometimes born to unwanting parents and an unwilling world. For reasons as various and interconnected as economy, race, and culture, the birth rite can in negative circumstances become a life sentence of illegitimacy, alienation, and interminable loneliness. Nowhere is this sense of "non-being" more prevalent than in the half-breed, the soul without kinship to either progenitive half, the individual whose dual inheritance adds up to the sum of nothing. In her groundbreaking critical study, The Sacred Hoop, Paula Gunn Allen defines "the experience which creates this sense of alienation" in a Native American context:
The breed (whether by parentage or acculturation to non-Indian society) is an Indian who is not an Indian. That is, breeds are a bit of both worlds and the consciousness makes them seem alien to traditional Indians while making them feel alien among whites. Breeds commonly feel alien to themselves above all. (129)
At times, this disembodiment of the self translates into a disenchantment with creation and human life. Hopi-Miwok poet Wendy Rose echoes Gunn Allen's sentiments of being a "stranger" in her "own life" and speaks of the resulting detachment from humanity:
I have heard Indians joke about those who act as if they had no relations. I wince because I have no relatives. They live, but they threw me away -- so, I do not have them. I have always swung back and forth between alienation and relatedness. As a child I would run away from the beatings, from the obscene words and always knew that if I could run far enough, then any leaf, any insect, any bird, any breeze could bring me to my true home. I knew I did not belong among people. ("Neon," 255)
Stranded atop a high-wire taut with her dual heritage, Wendy Rose balances her destabilized self with the rescue rod of poetry. Taking issue with the social celebration of birth as the commemoration of being, Rose's poems intermingle images of traumatic infancy with adult reconciliation to sing of the struggle not to live, but to survive.
Rose's estrangement from her respective European and Hopi lineages infuses her work with a powerful, liminal charge: "Poetry is both ultimate fact and ultimate fiction; nothing is more brutally honest and at the same time more thickly coded" ("Neon," 253). In her autobiographical essay "Neon Scars," Rose confesses her innermost horrors as she parallels her attempts at healing with the poetic project. "As readers and listeners have noted the angry or somber tone of my poems, I have struggled to lessen these things and at least, keep them in proportion. I work toward a balance and attempt to celebrate as often as I moan and rage" (253). This macrocosmic movement towards reconciling isolated halves of the individual plays itself out in the microcosmic world of The Halfbreed Chronicles.
The halfbreed experience Rose offers in these poems is not limited by racial distinctions. As she clarified in her interview with Laura Coltelli, "Halfbreed is not just a biological thing . . . . Rather it's a condition of history, a condition of context, a condition of circumstance" (123). Thus her personae run the gamut of humanity as well as the animal kingdom, with characters as diverse as Truganinny (last of the Tasmanians), Koko the gorilla, and Robert Oppenheimer. Aside from placing liminality in a universal context, Rose appropriates the interplay between fact and fiction and employs it as a trope to arrive at essential truths about the variousness of alienation. Often this juxtaposition works in tandem with Rose's examination of birthing issues, including mothering and the loss of offspring.
In "Truganinny," as she does in her other chronicles, Rose begins the piece with an expository gloss based on reportage:
"Truganinny, the last of the Tasmanians, had seen the stuffed and mounted body of her husband and it was her dying wish that she be buried in the outback or at sea for she did not wish her body to be subjected to the same indignities. Upon her death, she was, nevertheless, stuffed and mounted and put on display for over eighty years."
-- Paul Coe, Australian Aborigine activist, 1972 (Halfbreed, 56)
Having established the "factual" context, Rose proceeds with the "fiction," the poetic rendering of the truth. Truganinny invites us to her liminal edge not casually, but imperatively:
You will need
to come closer
for little is left
of this tongue
and what I am saying
We are drawn from the cold block of fact into an intimate proximity with mortality. Truganinny's dying breath calls with urgency through her diction ("need" and "important"). The abrupt line breaks suggest her words may only be uttered in short bursts of primarily monosyllabic words. These are the final exhalations of thought, and Truganinny is not speaking exclusively from either realm of life and death, but from both her spiritual and corporeal essences. This is punctuated by an isolated couplet announcing her extinction:
the last one.
Treading the fine line between dual worlds of life and death and fact and fiction is necessary for maintaining the poetic "balance" Rose speaks of in "Neon Scars."
With this in mind, it is natural that the stanza immediately following Truganinny's impending annihilation introduces an opposite force, a counterweight to balance with death. A glimmer of life appears as Truganinny speaks of lactating with the milk which feeds newborns: "I whose nipples / wept white mist." Yet the excitement of birth and nursing is appropriately short lived. The life-giving mist is spoken of in the past tense, alienating it from the present and future tenses of continuance. "Wept" from her breasts like tears, this mist is Truganinny's liquid concoction of sorrow for the "many dead daughters / their mouths empty and rounded / their breathing stopped / their eyes gone gray." Overtones of infanticide conclude this stanza, this circle of events encompassing birth and death.1
Yet Truganinny's compelling saga continues despite the absence of progeny to perpetuate her race. After the painful recitation of her story of loss, Truganinny leaves the physical world and "melts" into the abstract imagery of dreams:
Take my hand
black into black
as yellow clay
is a slow melt
to grass gold
and I am melting
back to the Dream. (Halfbreed, 57)
Though she is reiterating images associated with death (the entry into blackness, the melting of clay into soil), she imbues these observations with a sense of cyclical regeneration, with a return to the fecundity of earth. It is as if her milk spilled from the mouths of dead children rediscovers its lifegiving qualities in the "grass" nurtured by the "gold of earth."
Having momentarily slipped away from the immediate dialogue with her listener, Truganinny returns from her dreamscape and implores us to stay and listen:
Do not leave
for I would speak,
I would sing
We are reminded of her function as a persona, as a reflective entity whose tribulations speak for a common rather than specific experience. Much as Wendy Rose constructs a fictive world to stimulate the reader's self-reflection, Truganinny successfully entrances the audience with her inward vision in order to pass the perspicacity on to others, in order to assist a collective "us" in the quest for our spirits, our songs. After this transition, which enjoins the dual entities of listener and persona, the poem may proceed from Truganinny's point of view, with the understanding that her situation is applicable to a conglomeration of liminal beings:
They will take me.
Already they come;
Even as I breathe
they are waiting for me
to finish my dying.
We old ones
a long time.
Again we see the movement towards balance operating conjunctively with the interplay of dual forces. From the individual speaker, Truganinny, who speaks of her plight as a dying curio (They will take me . . . / breathe. . . my dying" [my italics]), to the collective "We," extinction and survival are pervasive concerns.
This alliance between the reader and Truganinny plays itself out in the final stanza of the poem. For Truganinny to find peace in death, the involvement of another is necessary. Alienated and displaced, she cannot escape the torments of the world on her own and hopes the kinship tentatively established with the listener in the previous stanza will yield some assistance:
take my body
to the source of night,
to the great black desert
where Dreaming was born.
Put me under
the bulk of a mountain
or in the distant sea,
put me where
they will not
Left without any of her racial familiars to lay her to rest, Truganinny seeks integration into the world of the imagination, the only place her extinct race still peacefully exists, The other ghastly alternative would subject her to the curious ogling of outsiders, an indignity in death comparable only to her tragic life.
Despite the utter hopelessness and desperation in Truganinny's last words, Rose offers the reader a morsel of promise. The connection established between Truganinny and her audience grants her a poetic integration into a group that she was denied in her historical, alien life.2 Rose also rescues Truganinny from the enclosure of her glass tomb and offers her a means of transcendence through the imagination. As a poet, she resuscitates Truganinny and grants her access to the spiritual plane of dreaming. Yet this reconciliation is not entirely without its tragic consequences. The looming presence of the opening prose paragraph is a reminder of Truganinny's catastrophic fate. This mixture of power and loss of self appears frequently in modern Native American poetry. As Paula Gunn Allen observes: "The ancient thrust towards the integration of the individual within the common whole is not lost in modern American Indian literature, but it is a movement fraught with pain, rage and angst" (Sacred Hoop, 128).
Channeling this rage and violence into metaphor is essential to Wendy Rose's creative process. "When I speak of bruises that rise on my flesh like blue marbles, do you understand that these are real bruises that have appeared on my flesh? Or has the metaphor succeeded in hiding the pain while producing the fact" ("Neon," 253). Brute force and inner turmoil fuse to create a potent compound in Rose's imagery. Nowhere is this more skillfully developed than in her 1980 masterpiece, "I expected my skin and my blood to ripen."
An intricate composition of dualities, "I expected my skin and my blood to ripen" interweaves war and pacificism with the volatile unions of fact and fiction, birth and annihilation into a single song of survival. As with "Truganinny," "I expected my skin and my blood to ripen" begins with a quotation to establish the factual context which informs the creative truth:
"When the blizzard subsided four days later [after the Wounded Knee Massacre], a burial party was sent to Wounded Knee. A long trench was dug. Many of the bodies were stripped by whites who went out in order to get the Ghost Shirts and other accoutrements the Indians wore . . . [and] the frozen bodies were thrown into the trench stiff and naked. . . . Only a handful of items remain in private hands. . . . Exposure to snow has stiffened the leggings and moccasins, and all the objects show the effects of age and long use. [items are pictured for sale that were gathered at the site of the massacre:] Mocassins at $140, hide scraper at $350, buckskin shirt at $1200, woman's leggings at $275, bone breastplate at $1000."
-- Kenneth Canfield, 1977 Plains Indian Art Auction Catalog (Lost, 14)
As Truganinny was confined in a glass case for display, elements of Plains Indian culture have been catalogued as artifacts. These victims at Wounded Knee are dehumanized, and their loss of life and property becomes measurable by pecuniary valuation. "Stripped" of dignity, and "flesh and blood," the Native people murdered at Wounded Knee serve as the particular which illuminates a general sense of hopelessness in the marginal individual.3
Having infused Truganinny with life through the vehicle of imagination, Rose likewise humanizes the victims of Wounded Knee in "I expected my skin and my blood to ripen" with the confessions of a single speaker:
I expected my skin
and my blood to ripen
not to be ripped from my bones;
like fallen fruit
I am peeled, tasted, discarded.
Sibilant hissing and the rattling of "r's" underscore the violent actions described by the persona. "Ripen," the dominating image for maturation, visually transmogrifies into "ripped," and the alliterative, sighing "f's" of "fallen fruit" continue an aural onslaught. Juxtaposed with the price list which concludes the "fact-paragraph," Rose's animate poetic language and natural imagery ("fruit" and "seeds") paradoxically reclaims life as it describes death. Freed from the artificial confines of the catalogue and its numbers, the experience of pain becomes immediate, personalized by the speaker's utterances.
With this enlivened description of death, the image of traumatic, one may even say abortive, birth reappears as one of Rose's tropes, "My seeds open / and have no future." Like Truganinny's dead offspring, these seeds are not the conduits of continuance but rather, successors in a line headed for extinction. Literally stripped of her clothing, and figuratively stripped of her culture, the speaker also concedes that "Now there has been no past." If this past does exist, it is tainted with the persona's guilt at having succumbed to the violence. Though she was merely participating in her pacifist, Ghost Dance tradition (referred to in the final lines of the poem), she assumes the burden of responsibility for her infants' deaths:4
My own body gave up the beads
my own hands gave the babies away
to be strung on bayonets
to be counted one by one
like rosary-stones and then
tossed to the side as if the pain of their birthing
had never been.
The above lines also act as a meta-poetic reference to Rose's own personal bouts with guilt and isolation.
The interplay between fact and fiction resurfaces as Rose employs metaphors to project her pain: "If I could just come right out and state it like that, as a matter of fact, I would not have needed the poetry. . . . I would not have needed to veil those memories in metaphor ("Neon," 253). Rose's halfbreed status heightens this isolation while infusing "I expected my skin and my blood to ripen" with Roman Catholic and Native American imagery. The "rosary stone" is a reminder of the abuse she experienced in Catholic school: "Rosary beads hard like apricots -- measuring prayers, whipping wrists ("Neon," 254). Rose's hope -- her prayers -- are monitored according to a numerical standard set by the rosary. The act of measuring the immeasurable, or of fixing value and meaning upon something nebulous and undefinable has its roots in violence. Much as the pain from Rose's "whipped wrists" is objectified by the nuns as a punitive consequence, the human dynamic behind the speaker's loss of culture, property, and offspring is denied by her oppressors,
My leggings were taken
like in a rape and shriveled
to the size of stick figures
like they had never felt the push
of my strong woman's body
walking in the hills. (Lost, 15)
In their duet of rage, poet and persona shout choruses filled with the dissonant harmonies of alliteration. Paired "I," "s," "f," and "w" sounds purge the indignity forced upon these twin souls. Despite a sense of imminent danger, and the persona's vulnerability to violence (rape), there is an element of power derived from her womanhood, from her "strong woman's body."
Yet, as often occurs in Rose's poetry, opposite forces fluctuate in their search for balance. This interchangeability explains the dramatic move from strength to powerlessness within several verse lines:
It was my own baby
whose cradleboard I held
would've put her in my mouth like a snake
if I could, would've turned her
into a bush or a rock if there'd been magic
enough to work such changes.
The individual's magic lacks the potency of communal sorcery. Like Truganinny, she cannot conquer the enemy alone and thus, seemingly acquiesces to her feebleness:
Not enough magic
to stop the bullets, not enough magic
to stop the scientists, not enough magic
to stop the money.
Yet the persona is, in fact, not alone" she is accompanied by her creator, Wendy Rose. Through Rose's poetic magic of language, the regretful "if I could," transforms into a pluralized voice of renewal:
Now our ghosts dance
a new dance, pushing from their hearts
a new song [my italics].
The indicator "I" becomes a unified "our" as the persona successfully rejoins a group of Ghost Dancers. Rose is included in this union, and a song of survival is begot by their chorus of voices, not a plaintive, individual warble.
The flesh torn and lacerated by the unrelenting swords of conquest is healing from this "new song." As Rose's life and literature attests, reintegration is the dual being's solace: "Hopi earth does contain my roots and I am, indeed, from the land. . . . Because the roots are there, I will find them. . . . I am not merely a conduit but a participant. I am not a victim but a woman. I am building myself / There are many roots. I plant, I pick, I prune. / I consume ("Neon," 261). Born into a world in which she was a social "discard," Rose uses her poetry as an enabler to amend the injustices inflicted upon her because of her halfbreed status. Rebuilding the lives of Truganinny and the Lakota mother through her imagination, Rose may also be reborn through these creative acts of survival, and through her Native roots. These roots, these scars, this poetry will not only exist as chronicles of the struggle toward enwholement, but as Rose's own resounding commemoration of life.
1This resonates with another of Paula Gunn Allen's observations regarding the power and imminent danger inherent in the dual perception of Native Women's poetry, "Because our tribal present is inextricably bound to our continuing awareness of imminent genocide, our approach to the themes of love and death takes on a pervasive sense of sorrow and anger. . . ." (Sacred Hoop, "Answering the Deer: Genocide and continuance in the Poetry of American Indian Women," 155.)
2Paula Gunn Allen refers to this process of reintegration in "A Stranger in My Own Life: Alienation in American Indian Poetry and Prose" (Sacred Hoop, 128).
3The choice of a Plains Indian woman as the persona in "I expected . . ." is characteristic of Rose's sense of "Pan-Indianness." As she explains to Laura Coltelli, her own experience of dislocation as an Urban Indian results in this liminal perspective: "I was born in Oakland, which is of course a big city. So there was always this sense of not really being connected enough to any one group. . . ." (Winged Words, 123).
4Paula Gunn Allen explicated this poem in the context of "Ghost Dancing" during a lecture in English M107C, "Native American Women Writers" (UCLA, Winter 1995). Dr. Allen also discussed a "burden of responsibility" among Native women writers an provides specific examples in The Sacred Hoop.
Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop., Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986.
Bruchac, Joseph. "The Bones Are Alive: An Interview with Wendy Rose," Survival This Way. Tucson: Sun Tracks and U of Arizona P, 1987.
Coltelli, Laura. Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1990.
Rose, Wendy. The Halfbreed Chronicles. Albuquerque: West End P, 1985.
______. Lost Copper. Morongo Indian Reservation, Banning, CA: Maliki Museum P, 1980.
______. "Neon Scars," I Tell you Now, Ed. A. Krupat and B. Swann. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.
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