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Genre: poetry, Publisher: Grove Press

National Poetry Month: Sherman Alexie

Congratulations to Sherman Alexie for winning the 2010 Pen/Faulkner Fiction prize for his latest book War Dances (9780802119193, $23, Grove Press) (out in paperback in August). Always multi-faceted and multi-talented, Alexie’s latest book brings his penchant for unique book design and content, began in his National Book Award-winning YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Absolutely True was written in various formats, like diary entries and comic sketches. War Dances alternates between poetry and prose, and as with all of Alexie’s writing War Dances is lyrical, to-the-point, and thought-provoking.

This poem is not from War Dances, but is one of my favorites for its commentary on people who tend to think of themselves as in the majority, assuming everyone is just like them.

On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City

The white woman across the aisle from me says ‘Look,
look at all the history, that house
on the hill there is over two hundred years old, ‘
as she points out the window past me

into what she has been taught. I have learned
little more about American history during my few days
back East than what I expected and far less
of what we should all know of the tribal stories

whose architecture is 15,000 years older
than the corners of the house that sits
museumed on the hill. ‘Walden Pond, ‘
the woman on the train asks, ‘Did you see Walden Pond? ‘

and I don’t have a cruel enough heart to break
her own by telling her there are five Walden Ponds
on my little reservation out West
and at least a hundred more surrounding Spokane,

the city I pretended to call my home. ‘Listen, ‘
I could have told her. ‘I don’t give a shit
about Walden. I know the Indians were living stories
around that pond before Walden’s grandparents were born

and before his grandparents’ grandparents were born.
I’m tired of hearing about Don-fucking-Henley saving it, too,
because that’s redundant. If Don Henley’s brothers and sisters
and mothers and father hadn’t come here in the first place

then nothing would need to be saved.’
But I didn’t say a word to the woman about Walden
Pond because she smiled so much and seemed delighted
that I thought to bring her an orange juice

back from the food car. I respect elders
of every color. All I really did was eat
my tasteless sandwich, drink my Diet Pepsi
and nod my head whenever the woman pointed out

another little piece of her country’s history
while I, as all Indians have done
since this war began, made plans
for what I would do and say the next time

somebody from the enemy thought I was one of their own.

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