The poetry of 34-year-old Sherwin Bitsui can be called imagistic, surreal, perhaps even eerie and haunting. He grew up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, living what he describes as “that Southwestern vast desert life” in the rural Four Corners area. As a child, he spoke both English and Diné, and found himself drawn to the arts at an early age. By the time he was at college at the Institute of American Indian Arts, he was studying both painting and poetry.
“I was definitely drawn to writing, and it didn’t require too much in terms of medium, just a pen and a paper,” he says. “I think I originally wanted to write a story—I wanted to seek out a story. Living on the reservation for so long, I sat in on many, many, many stories. And at the point I came to poetry, I had this huge world to write from.”
That world comes out similarly in his painting and his poetry. “When I paint, I lose all language,” Bitsui says. “I enter the painting, and I forget language.” Similarly, when he composes a poem, he creates only images: “When I write, I lose basic structure, and I start creating this sort of poetic world.”
His poetry is a mash of images and feelings that serves to create a mood more than relay a specific narrative. For example, in “Blankets of Bark”: “At 5 A.M., crickets gather in the doorway,/each of them a handful of smoke,/crawling to the house of a weeping woman,/breaking rocks on the thigh of a man stretching…”
Bitsui’s first book, Shapeshift, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2003, and he was also anthologized in the formidable Legitimate Dangers anthology of young poets in 2006. He will release a book-length poem, Flood Song, in October and, in it, he further works to convey language as image. Much of this exploration centers around tó, the Navajo word for water. He says the word aloud again and again in conversation, and the word becomes an object: It is the sound of a water drop. He reflects on his relationship to a simple word like tó and attributes his fascination to an indigenous mind-set that has a closer relationship with the ineffable than most. But he is not satisfied to let the explanation rest solely on the shoulders of his heritage; he wants to “make the dictionary of his own existence” by crafting image-rich poetry that expresses the ineffable experiences of life.
“I think in the Americas, with Native people, there is a connection, an umbilical cord reaching out to a different time, a different place,” Bitsui says of Native poetry. “And there is such incredible beauty…that I think it is equalized by the amount of terror.”
But again, he neither likens his experience to that of anyone else, nor does he wish to claim that his poetry speaks to the greater Native experience. “I think [Native peoples] don’t want to be divided, but everybody is. Everybody is. No matter where we’re at, we’re all moving in multiple directions all at the same time.”