Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Flash of Up: Reading Eric Elshtain

Here’s a poem called “Shawl Dance.” It’s by Eric Elshtain, from his 2015 book This Thin Memory A-Ha.

The sky of it causes
harmony in the bending
as a bird maneuver
creates a flash of up—

she starts to sing—the young
Lakota in a high school gym—
to reverse the history
of the crowd’s shout—.

And since, no sky is like
the kind that caused us
under the act
of a single dance
to be all too created


The referent is a very particular thing—the shawl dance, something performed by tribal groups of the Great Plains and the Canadian prairies.  In its way, it is an adaptation to humiliation and defeat.

Starting in the 1920s, it became illegal for Native Americans to perform traditional religious and ceremonial dancing. In response, they developed new dances and costumes, a collection of movements and sartorial signifiers that went under the name of “the fancy dance.” It was a way to get around the laws that were meant to stamp out Native American cultural identity, to mutate old forms and let them survive, shorn of much of their old significance.  The dances, while not religious, became rituals of identity, and so gained a different kind of dignity—even when they were commodified, and performed for tourists during the Depression, when plains tribes were harder pressed even than the homesteaders of the dustbowl.

The shawl dance was a particularly female element of the fancy dance, and represented a butterfly coming out of a cocoon.  Rebirth, a perennial theme in all human cultures, takes on a particular resonance in the context of the fancy dance, born from the murder of old religious forms, and born as art, and beauty.

I like that in Elshtain’s representation of it, the shawl dance forms a harmony that is also a sky: it is the rebirth of a universe, of a cultural world that might have disappeared.

I like, too, that it takes place in a high school gym—that it is a moment within a larger, encompassing culture that speaks back against the history that brought that encompassing culture to dominance on the plains (Elshtain adds a note, “South Dakota, 1998” indicating the location of the depicted events).

And speaking of larger cultures, there’s an elegant, if oblique, reference to Christianity at the end of the poem: there is no sky, we read, like the kind under which we were all created—or, more specifically, under which we were “all too created.”  That’s the fall we’re talking about—how we came into being with the potential to sin, to be expelled from the Edenic harmony prepared for us into a world of suffering and (oh Cain, oh Abel) violence.  Eden only exists for us now in dreams and artifice, in the harmony to which we can feel we  ascend, just momentarily, in the “flash of up” flights of art.


The referent is compelling, but it is presented somewhat obscurely, a little sideways, a little odd of angle.  When we hit the first line, it takes just a moment to be sure the “it” is the shawl dance of the title.  And we don’t read “The Lakota girl, in the traditional dance, casts her shawl up in a birdlike motion to create a kind of artificial shawl-sky above her.” We read something that asks us to make a bit of a leap.  And I’m still not quite sure how to take the part of the second stanza about the crowd’s shout.  I mean, I understand, or think I understand, about the dance reversing history, given what I know about the history and meaning of the fancy dance tradition of which the shawl dance is a part.  But in this scene, is what we see a call-and-response from a crowd that is on the girl’s side? Or are they somehow hostile? I can guess, but that’s really all I can do, given the way things are depicted here, with such economy and obliquity.

Even the notion of human falleness is handled with utmost economy—take the words “all too” out of the last line and it vanishes.  That’s compression. Or maybe it’s better to say “that’s a light touch.”

It’s not an abstract poetry at all—no more than certain types of Cubism are abstractt art.  Think of “Shawl Dance” as a verbal equivalent of something like Braque’s “Violin and Candlesticks.” It depicts something, but what it depicts comes to us less immediately than it would in a traditionally perspectival painting. It takes a moment to emerge from all those chiseled planes. And it isn’t really more important than the planes from which it emerges: the planes are as much the point, or more so, than the referents. That’s true of Braque’s painting, and of Elshtain’s poem, too.

Elsthtain pushes form forward in front of his referents, just as Braque does. But why? On the one hand, I don’t think this requires an explanation any more than does any other convention, including the poetic convention of anecdotal realism. On the other hand, I love explanations, especially when they forego any claim to exhausting their subjects, and I have neither the intention of exhausting, nor the ability to exhaust, Elshtain’s poem. And I think one explanation for the way he presents his referents obliquely comes in the title of the book in which the poem is to be found.  This Thin Memory A-Ha is, after all, not just a title but a poetics. It declares something about what a poem can be: a thin little thing, surrounded by white space on the page; a memory of an experience (perhaps of a shawl dance in South Dakota back in 1998); and a quick, delighted moment when delayed understanding becomes realized understanding.

That is: the oblique presentation allows for a moment of delay before the perception snaps into focus.  It allows for an a-ha.

The shawl dance, like the Cubist poem, allows for the sudden creation of its own world, where there might have been none.  The sky of it suddenly becomes real in a flash of up.

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