Lasting words 

Balancing poetry and history with M.L. Smoker

In an essay on translation, Schopenhauer wrote that “the word is the most enduring substance of the human race.” Perhaps what Schopenhauer never realized was that with the extinction of cultures comes the extinction of languages and, therefore, the erasure of his enduring words. In her first collection of poetry, Another Attempt at Rescue, M.L. Smoker, an American Indian from Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation, offers questions of language and endurance. In a way, the poems collectively ask: If not words, what then endures? In one poem she writes:

“…I have a sister I haven’t spoken to in years. And the language my relatives spoke while getting ready for the dam’s inaugural ceremonies is close to extinction, but I have always made up something more important to do, rather than take the risk of saving it…”

Smoker, a 2003 graduate of the University of Montana’s MFA program, currently works as an administrator and teacher on her reservation and is an enrolled member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. Yet, to place Smoker’s poetry under the heading of “Native Studies” is not just to undermine it, but to confuse it as well.

“I didn’t ever really want to publish [the poems],” Smoker admits in a recent telephone interview. “I wanted to avoid the possible displacement. I didn’t want people to think I was trying to take ownership of a place, or images, or that I was robbing cultures. Sometimes you become that person anyway, without even knowing it.”

Hers is a voice quietly, mysteriously, even casually speculative. Rather than presenting a poetic take on the cultural impasse between American Indians and European settlers, the poems in Another Attempt at Rescue ask more questions than they answer. And, most tangibly, there exists an inextricable link between Smoker’s personal questions and her cultural ones.

“I didn’t take poems seriously and didn’t take writing seriously until my mother died. And once she passed away, there was a sense of isolation,” she says. “Writing was a window for me. It’s paradoxical in a way. It took her leaving for me to write about her leaving and me trying to sort through that web.”

“From the River’s Edge,” one of the first poems in the collection, begins with that web: “Is it poetry to say that each time I cross over a certain bridge on the Yellowstone, I remember the way green vinyl felt on the back of my legs instead of how my own mother’s feet, stiff from death, felt in my hands?”

Perhaps most surprising to readers expecting something less nuanced and more politically driven is that Smoker begins and ends the collection with two poems addressed to Richard Hugo. Though it might seem odd that Hugo, a white man, serves as a sort of guide to this debut collection by an American Indian, he encompasses Smoker’s collection into a quest for what landscape and Montana mean to her. In “Letter to Richard Hugo (1),” she writes:

“Dick: The reservoir on my end of the state is great for fishing. Some of the banks are tall and jagged, others are more patient, taking their time as they slope into rocky beaches. If you were the kind of fisherman I imagine, then you might have considered it a great place to cast from. My family has gone up there ever since the water on the Mni Shoshe was dammed off. My grandparents put on their moccasins and beadwork and danced for FDR when he rode the train out to see the finishing touches of this great industrial project. I haven’t yet decided if this is something I wish to be proud of…I almost thought of not returning to finish the writing program you began with your own severe desire for language. But I did. And now I’m at the end. Already though, I’ll admit to you I’m thinking of home. I have been this whole time.”

Smoker says, “Landscape is so important to me, and I don’t think I ever came across another poet like Hugo who revered the Montana landscape more than any other. There is a deep familiarity all at the same time. I always thought my ancestors would see the place that way. They built a language around this place.”

The way the two prose poems developed as written letters to Hugo surprised even Smoker.

“The letters were originally one poem,” she says. “And it surprised me because the first half so clearly illuminated some of my questions and the second half some of my answers. In the beginning I feel this need to be home and I need to be with my mother. And in the conclusion, that poem locates those things in myself and in my relationship with my family, especially with my mother and my culture and my language.”

Assiniboine, the native language of Smoker’s grandparents, is something she began to learn in earnest soon after her mother’s death.

But the loss of the Assiniboine language to native cultures is the third most predominant theme in Another Attempt at Rescue, following the death of her mother (to whom the collection is dedicated) and the Montana landscape. One poem entitled “Grandfather Poem” begins, “His words are the ones no longer spoken, rising instead from the steam in a kettle on the blackened wood stove.”

“My grandparents spoke it fluently, my mother understood it,” Smoker says. “You know, I took Spanish in high school and it was difficult for me, but when I took up Assiniboine it was something so familiar, and it was easier for me. I love it now when I see some image or want to ask a question and the Assiniboine word comes first.”

But despite everything that appears so intensely personal in this collection, and despite the cultural labels that readers and critics will inevitably place upon it, it is the title poem, “Another Attempt at Rescue” that reminds us that Smoker will choose, if she can, to duck those labels and simply let the poetry speak for itself:

A friend from Boston wrote something to
me last week
about not having the intelligence
to take as subject for his poems
anything other than his own life.
For a while now I have sensed this is my own mood:
This poem was never supposed to mention
itself, other writers, or me.

M.L. Smoker, aka Mandy Broadus, will appear at Fact & Fiction for a reading and signing of Another Attempt at Rescue Tuesday, Aug. 2, at 7 PM.

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