Neurobiologists have dramatically revised their estimates of when the human brain fully matures, pushing the threshold from the mid-teens to 25. According to this timeline, poet Michael Wasson’s prefrontal cortex has only very recently knit together. This American Ghost is a record of the poet’s fresh maturity; with great precision and tenderness, Wasson marks his developmental stages from boyhood to manhood. “So get naked & turn off / the light you’ve left on for twenty-five years,” he writes in a poem composed of directions to his adult self. “Feel / how the rain might slow into snow & your breath / brightens from the dark held in your mouth” (27-28). But even when Wasson’s poems recall childhood or adolescence, they reference something beyond the scope of a single lifespan. “The silence of the reservation / could fill me / to the point of breaking & I’d be / the boy in the front yard,” he writes, locating the reader at a particular place and time in his recent past, and then swooping her off into a much more diffuse atmosphere composed of light and shadow and bodies that refract and glow: “can you see the fleshed / curving of my shoulders turned / black as near midnight?” (29) In each poem, Wasson brings his reader to the cusp of new knowledges and new ways of knowing, and holds her there, with him, expectant: “I’m waiting / in the yard for an answer to / the world” (30).
Wasson is Nimíipuu, from the Nez Perce Reservation in north-central Idaho, a piece of land that represents a fraction of the 17,000,000 acres the tribe claimed as their own before the brutal encroachment of white settlers at the start of the 19th century. When the public purchase of reservation lands was authorized by the Allotment Act at the century’s end, settlers rushed in again to further dispossess the Nez Perce; today, only 12% of the reservation is owned by tribal members. According to the 2010 U.S. census, the current Nez Perce population is 3,500. Indigenous languages are the further casualties of colonialism; one of Wasson’s poems begins with the recollection of Nez Perce elder Titus Paul, who was forbidden to speak his Native language at the Chilocco Indian School in 1922. The Endangered Language Project labels nimipuutímt (the language of the Nez Perce) as “critically” at risk, estimating that there are less than 50 speakers worldwide. In the past few decades, however, tribal members have worked toward language revitalization, developing language apps and online courses. As with digital repatriation (including the Nez Perce Historical Photograph Collection at University of Idaho), the Internet has opened up potentially dynamic ways to redress what Native American Studies scholar Tyler Rogers calls the “lethal archival logic” of settler colonialism. Through this resonant silence, Wasson listens for the questions of “another century”: “how to change all these years of loss” (25) and “how are we remembered / in our choreography / of bones?” (145).
In response to such questions, Wasson offers world-mending poems through which he threads phrases of nimipuutímt, sometimes accompanied by English equivalents and at other times left untranslated. “kée píi’nekeyneks: Let us (swallow) take each other in” (7) reads the epigraph to one poem. In another, based on a traditional Nez Perce story, the poet makes as literal as possible the heat of the songs he sings: “I confess I’m young // & you take a flame / to my tongue // c’ic’ál is lit in the mouth c’ic’ál again” (23). Readers may recognize in this bilingual dance a kinship with the work of Diné (Navajo) poet Sherwin Bitsui, and of Mojave poet and language activist Natalie Diaz, who enters what Diaz calls the “mausoleum” of her tribal language, writing her way into words she is only now learning as an adult. (To learn more about the challenges and rewards of bilingual creative writing, see this account of the MFA program at the University of Texas, El Paso.) Bitsui, Diaz, and Wasson follow Gloria Anzaldúa, whose work darts between multiple dialects of Spanish, English, Spanglish, and Nahuatl, calling out white supremacy by exploiting her readers’ varying degrees of familiarity with and ignorance of the languages of oppressor and oppressed. But where Anzaldúa addressed a potential readership of millions of native Spanish and bilingual speakers in the U.S., Wasson draws upon a second language that most readers not only don’t speak, but didn’t even know existed. In this daring move, Wasson shares a sense of intimacy that defies translation, claiming likeness with those few readers who hold his endangered genealogy in common, and difference from the majority who do not. From the latter, Wasson invites a listening and a learning.
Wasson thus expresses an expansive sense of service to his people, and of witness to those who stand beyond the circle. From the American ghost of the book’s title and the Homeric dead of its epigraph, through the hauntings of immediate family members, friends, elders, and ancestors, the poet takes seriously his task, “to grieve history.” This potent phrase names history as both the object of mourning and the ambivalent process by which the survivor may recollect, recover, and restore what is lost. Wasson knows that there are holes that cannot be filled by even the most fervent words of any language: “because when is the best question / I can muster” (23).
Intimations of suicide and lynching recur through the poems. The poet steps
into a field & here is where
held dragged by the cock (7)
Before bringing the reader into the crime’s horrific conclusion (“how that body burned / from the inside out”), he assures us that “we are still so blessed to be // a wreckage of the most terrible monster” (8). In his compact and explosive chapbook, Wasson conveys viscerally and eloquently—and with seemingly infinite compassion—the intimate legacies of this genocidal empire:
sometimes to remember this living
we let a word
fire from the opened hole in the head
& tell me how to swallow what light does
to the tongue at rest (23)