The title of New Mexico State University poet Richard Greenfield’s most recent book, Tracer, is complicated. A tracer can be “a bullet or shell whose course is made visible in flight by a trail of flames or smoke, used to assist in aiming.” It can be someone who looks for clues, evidence, or unravels a mystery. But it’s also a word employed by French theorist Jacques Derrida to explain how words carry multiple meanings, aspects, traces, of their neighboring words, all the words they are not. So when we say “black,” we are simultaneously saying “not white” and “not gray” and not a hundred other things. Everything is tainted by everything else; the language well is poisoned by its very nature.
Similarly, Karl Marx believed the “ideology” that supports the economically privileged infiltrates everything—the arts, human relationships, the structure of the built human landscape and language. Marx’s theory lies at the root of efforts to rewire the language, most successfully undertaken by feminists, as a way to change cultural values. In some ways, Greenfield is using a similar method, demonstrating how a language that evolves in a society based on capitalism and perpetual war must, by its nature, carry traces of commerce and war in its belly. For example: A tracer is also an aircraft: the Grumman E-1 Tracer, an early-warning aircraft deployed in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
In Tracer, Greenfield uses the language of war and commerce (especially real estate) to make the distant wars present in the lives of suburban Americans. The result is an unsettling portrait of an America that has lost its bearings, besieged by its own violent propensities.
In the poem we’re looking at this month, “Rapier/Ravine,” Greenfield, in a book written during the Iraq war, thrusts us back to another time, December 29, 1890, when the US Cavalry slaughtered 84 (mostly) unarmed Lakota men, 44 women, and 18 children by firing Hotchkiss guns into their encampment, then ruthlessly hunting down the women and children. (Those are official U.S. military numbers—others have estimated the dead at closer to 300).
The “ravine” in the title is the ravine the Lakota women and children tried to hide in; the “rapier” is a sword, but it’s also a British missile. Greenfield uses the names of military aircraft throughout Tracer, though it takes some work to unveil those words, so easily do they inhabit the language—which, I suspect, is one of Greenfield’s points.
Even the name of the event at Wounded Knee has been an ideological battle. The US military once called it “The Battle of Wounded Knee.” Lakota activists have insisted, correctly, that it be called what it was—a “massacre.” Now, officially, the military calls it “Wounded Knee,” neatly sidestepping the issue, while avoiding responsibility.
Some of Greenfield’s moves in this poem might strike the reader as odd. The use of “I, we” should spark some thoughts about identity, the relationship between the individual and the collective, and the construction of the self, that “fiction.” “The collective singing” is a mosaic of brutality and suffering quoted from eyewitness accounts that, the poet says, sounds “like patriot noise or ‘gutshot of the horse.’” The “collective” song breaks down the I/we distinction and implicates all of us (European Americans) in the massacre. (Side note: “Patriot” noise, as we know, can also be produced by a patriot missile.)
The final image in which “I, we, the bluestem, grows thick at massacre park” makes us acknowledge that we live in a country that could actually have something called a “massacre park,” then suggests both a wild beauty in the bluestem’s growth and something else: In their 2010 report, the National Historic Landmark Program noted: “The monument suffers from neglect.”
Jon Davis is poet laureate for the city of Santa Fe and a teacher at the Institute for American Indian Arts.